As the provincial elections near, expert Lori Williams weighs in. Photo: Jack Carter/Unsplash

On Feb. 28, the Alberta government announced the 2023 provincial budget, which increased spending on healthcare, education and included cost of living measures. 

Reporter Samreen Ahmed spoke to Lori Williams, a political scientist at Mount Royal University, to break down the budget and learn how these numbers may impact voters’ choices in the upcoming provincial election.

Samreen Ahmed: The cost of living has seen its highest spike in 40 years. How will the 2023 budget resonate with Calgarians concerned about affordability? 

Political Analyst Lori Williams
MRU political science professor Lori WIlliams

Lori Williams: We do have provisions that have been in place by the government to address some of the challenges of affordability that Albertans are facing but not all Albertans benefit from those programs. For people and families with children within those income thresholds, they’re getting a hundred dollars per child or per senior every month, which may or may not be enough to offset the increased costs that they’ve been incurring. There’s been some relief on gas prices and those all predated the budget; this budget is actually looking much more in investing in things like healthcare, which is really another very important issue for Albertans, all of which may be reassuring. 

But the wealth of the government is not necessarily lining up with the economic challenges that are being faced by ordinary Albertans, so I’m not sure it’s going to have that kind of impact even though these are nice promises. That said, because the government is making all these promises, it makes it more difficult, of course, for the NDP to criticize them. These are investments that would be desirable from an NDP perspective and so it gives a bit of a strategic advantage to the United Conservative government going into the election that they are making a bunch of proposals, many of which, that the NDP would agree with. 

Oil has fallen a lot over the past few weeks and if it stays under $70 the government would potentially be in a deficit position again next year. How could Alberta get off the revenue rollercoaster? 

That’s the big question that Alberta’s been wrestling with for decades, frankly. This is a challenge for Alberta and I think in the short term, this may or may not be a problem. But I think the fact that the oil prices are dipping right now reminds Albertans that the promises that are being made could be clawed back if oil continues to decline or drops again at some point in the future. The promises that are being made in this budget may be seen as less reliable because after all, they are just promises.  

We know there are a number of things that might change after the election; these affordability payments might change after the election. There are a number of panels that are considering what should be done with a number of different programs. There’s a pilot project that’s in place.  There are a lot of questions about what the government is going to do after the election and this could add another question to whether what this government is promising will be delivered after the election and that puts them in a position where a lot of questions could be directed at them. 

The budget increases health operating expenses by $965 million from the 2022-23 forecast. Will this be enough to address concerns about the underfunded healthcare system? 

Well, it’s not just about the funding of the healthcare system, there are a lot of problems in the  healthcare system that have accumulated even before COVID but have been made much worse since COVID and money is not going to solve all of those problems. One of the biggest problems is shortage of staff and some who are overworking, some that are burning out and are leaving and increasing the burdens on those that are in place — we’re not going to see money solve that problem. 

In the short term, it’ll help. In the long term, there are a lot of things that have to happen systemically on a longer term basis and unfortunately, the relationship between the UCP government and healthcare workers was really soured under the UCP government with Jason Kenney as premier, Tyler Shandro as health minister and there are open questions about whether these changes are going  to be enough to reassure healthcare workers and Albertans about whether the UCP government is the right party to entrust the healthcare system with going forward. 

“The relationship between the UCP government and healthcare workers was really soured under the UCP government with Jason Kenney,” says Williams. Photo: Павел Сорокин/Pexels

Public schools just beyond the city limits are frustrated they didn’t receive any schools in the budget. What are the implications of this?

Again, I think that much will depend on what are the determinants of people’s vote going into the next election and right now, the top two are affordability and health care. In fact, healthcare is a bit ahead and has consistently been ahead of affordability for a while. 

Depending on the voter, it may well be that inadequate funding or concerns about the K-6  curriculum, or other education matters, might be vote changing issues for them. But I think in many cases, other issues will be priorities and certainly, they’ll be pressure put on the government to make changes in that direction. We may see more promises between now and the election, but they’re probably going to focus mostly on the issues that matter most to Albertans and so I’m not sure that education concerns or whether a school has been promised or not is going to make or break the decisions people are making on their votes for the  upcoming election. 

Downtown advocates also expressed disappointment that the provincial budget didn’t include continued funding for revitalization work in Calgary’s downtown core. How might this affect the city? 

That’s a bigger issue for the UCP because Calgary is a battleground there. They need to win seats in Calgary and because this budget doesn’t really have very much at all to address the concerns of Calgarians, that could be a real liability for the UCP.  Put that together with some of the other questions around healthcare, maybe economic diversification, and that could actually have an impact on votes in Calgary and it could have an impact on the election. 

The lack of funding for the downtown core “could be a real liability for the UCP,” Williams says. Photo: Patrick Dunn/Pexels

The budget includes extending the grace period of Alberta student loan repayments to 12 months from 6 months. Do you think this will be enough to ease the affordability concerns of post-secondary students and graduates? 

It’ll help but I don’t think it will be enough. I think we’ve got bigger concerns and for post-secondary institutions and post-secondary students, there are a lot of challenges there. We remember that the changes that were made by the Kenney government made post-secondary education less affordable, less money available to them, higher interest rates, problems with the grace period and of course, tuition was going up for them. Although it indicates a recognition that there are problems for post-secondary students, I’m not sure the minor tweaks that they’ve made in this budget will really make enough of a difference for post-secondary students to have any impact on their own. 

What are some issues that remain unanswered by the provincial government ahead of the spring election?

I just think there are a lot of questions around, certainly healthcare is a big one. What’s going to happen to some of these supports that are being provided by the government, what’s going to happen, for example, in Calgary around the concerns that they have about the downtown core. We bought a bunch of panels, we’ve got pilots, they know that if they address these issues during the election campaign, it makes it harder for them to win. It’ll be a very interesting thing to  watch voters to see if those unanswered questions have affected their willingness to vote for the United Conservative Party, because of all the questions around what might happen after the election. 

I think the focus may increasingly be on the leaders and whether they are trusted both to deliver on their promises and seen as competent and reliable and stable. And if those are the questions that become the focus for voters, particularly the voters in Calgary, it’s going to mean a steeper climb for the UCP than for the NDP. 

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

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