Missing the plot in Alberta’s election: What the media party missed

When Jason Kenney and his colleagues smashed up the Alberta NDP government in the recent election with a 55 percent to 33 percent win – a 22-point spread – and 63 of 87 seats, they did so despite much media attention on everything except what Albertans told pollsters they were concerned about: pipelines, jobs, and federal-provincial policy that killed both.

While Albertans were focused on the province’s hemorrhaging economic situation, many in the media ignored the hard numbers, accepted fake numbers as real, and in some cases complained when offered up the most substantive platform in any election in recent history.

I know, because I had a lead role in designing the United Conservative Party platform. It was a role – and a privilege – which allowed me to follow the arc of media reporting and commentary over the year before, during and after it was released. What I saw reinforced my view that some (but not all) media lack understanding of numbers and a grasp on history, which, despite their best efforts, handicaps their ability to report and analyze what matters.

I will return to this, but first let me explain why I (temporarily) left the policy world to plunge into partisan politics.

When in March 2018 Jason Kenney asked me to help design the election policy platform for the United Conservative Party, I paused.

Political parties are necessary creatures and serve the laudable purpose of brokering vastly different public interests to effect peaceful transitions of power – no small virtue given that for much of human history most transfer of power involved blood, either literally with regicide and revolutions, or through monarchical family succession.

Still, that brokerage reality is why I avoided crossing into partisan territory for decades: great policy is usually better incubated outside of political parties. The need to win votes can easily derail sensible policy. No politician is immune from the temptation to claim the sky is blazing blue even while rain drops are falling on their head.

Still, I said “yes” to Kenney, for four reasons.

Avoiding an NDP economic apocalypse

First, I had witnessed the hollowing out of the biggest and most important free enterprise party in the world as Donald Trump’s candidacy and then election undermined the Republican Party’s historic commitment to free trade, among other sensible policy. Republicans have been free enterprisers at their core since at least Barry Goldwater’s run for president in 1964 and it crescendoed in Ronald Reagan’s successful win in 1980. That latter victory allowed free trade to flourish worldwide – Reagan and Prime Minister Brian Mulroney made it a continental priority post-1984 – and with it a dramatic reduction in poverty caused by expanding markets. Trump ran in opposition to that and in so doing damaged the traditional Republican bias for opportunity-based policy.

Second, as the American conservative writer George Will pointed out vis-à-vis Trump’s ascension and the Republican Party’ descent, ideas without a vehicle – a political party – to transport them into government policy are stillborn.

Third, Kenney, whom I’ve known since 1997 (I became Alberta director for the Canadian Taxpayers Federation that year, a year after Kenney left that organization to enter politics), told me he wanted a robust platform, one anchored in sound policy ideas. In addition, the-then opposition leader was clear that he wanted the “straight goods” on policy, what makes sense. I could deliver that, he said, and leave the “politics” of policy – selling it to the public or watering down pure policy “wine” with political “water” – to him. That was fine given my congenital inability to offer anything other than a frank opinion on what constitutes good policy. (And anyone who reads the platform closely will also observe where wine and water were mixed.)

Fourth, after 20 years public policy research and reports and advocacy on everything from Alberta’s flat tax to property rights to why taxing the next generation through new government debt is immoral (including policy favouring job creation and opportunity for the poor), it was alarmingly clear to me that the Rachel Notley’s NDP government was systematically shredding smart, opportunity-based policy. Despite their virtuous protestations to the contrary, the NDP’s grossly interventionist policy ignored economic experience and reality and harmed the poor first and then everyone else through the destruction of opportunity.

In other words, I had both a personal and a public interest incentive to defend my past work and that of others. That included the vastly superior policy enacted by the Ralph Klein government which, despite occasional lapses which I criticized while at the CTF, got it right more often than not. Klein-era decisions are the main reason 660,000 jobs were created in Alberta between late 1992 and 2006 when he retired, far topping any other province relative to population.

As it happened, when Kenney asked me to help design the United Conservative platform, I was already working on a book comparing Ralph Klein and Rachel Notley governments, so my 1990s memory was refreshed by research. From that work, it was clear to me that under the NDP – if they won a second term – Alberta would soon be headed for the economic ash-heap of history, akin to the experience of post-war Saskatchewan: economically stagnant for generations due to an anti-free enterprise ideology.

So, I said “yes” to Kenney’s offer and got to work.

A serious platform for a severe economic situation

I’ll spare readers a long analysis of how the UCP platform came together, except to note that we took in several hundred document submissions by email, met hundreds if not thousands of people (not me personally but others involved in the process including the now-Premier designate, other opposition MLAs and official stakeholder relations staff), and had a hopper full of solid policy directives endorsed by party members at the 2018 founding convention.

Not all the party resolutions made it into the platform; the flat tax, for example. But as I remind people who long for its return, Ralph Klein first cut spending (in 1993), then balanced the books and began to pay down debt (starting in 1995), then began to cut taxes (in 1997), and finally introduced the flat tax in 2001 – eight years after the first election he contested as premier.  Recall that we pledged to axe the carbon tax and reduce taxes on business by one-third (both of which would be partly paid for by cancelling carbon tax spending in the first instance and through a partial feedback effect – higher economic growth and higher revenues – in the second.) Thus, it would have been fiscally irresponsible  to promise to immediately restore the flat tax. Careful observers will note that restoring that flat tax was never taken off the table by Kenney. We simply could not restore all elements of the Alberta advantage overnight.

Other help: last year and into early 2019, roundtables were also set up that allowed Kenney and others to gather ideas from a wide array of Albertans. The feedback ranged from predictable self-interested lobbying to original, insightful, unselfish proposals including many from a former Liberal staffer, Lennie Kaplan, who served in the early to mid-1990s under then-Alberta Liberal Leader Laurence Decore and his excellent Finance Critic, Mike Percy.

For an example of the self-interested variety though, one fellow wanted his carbon tax-funded green energy subsidies to continue. He was oblivious to the plight of Albertans at the other end of the redistributionist chain, like the Slave Lake sawmill that pays $500,000 annually in carbon taxes on its mill alone, never mind additional carbon tax costs for fuel. That’s ten $50,000 jobs that could not be created because of the carbon tax.

This gentleman’s economic myopia was undoubtedly media-influenced. News stories lamenting how ending a taxpayer subsidy will kill jobs are a dime a dozen, but reporters rarely note the substitution effect, where taxes taken from non-subsidized job creators hamper their ability to hire new staff. No wonder readers served a steady diet of scary headlines on stories lacking rudimentary analysis fail to grasp the obvious truth that subsidized jobs are not sustainable.

Many in the media missed that obvious point pre- and even post-election. All that some reporters and columnists could see were the subsidized jobs created by the NDP and not the ones annihilated by higher taxes and costs imposed on Alberta’s job creators in the midst of the province’s longest economic downturn since at least the early to mid-1980s if not the Great Depression.

This is why, when CTV’s Don Martin asked me whether any premier “really” could have done anything differently in the last four years, my answer should have been an emphatic “yes”: if the government had not piled on 20 percent increases in business taxes and other costs Alberta would not have endured so many private sector job losses. (My actual answer was that Notley’s one-month boycott of B.C. wine was useless, and if she really wanted to pressure her NDP friends on the left coast to drop their blockade of Alberta oil, she should have promised to campaign for the opposition Liberals in the next B.C. election.)

“Snake oil” and other media myths

I’ve written at least a thousand columns in my career, a few dozen peer-reviewed studies, and five books. But whether in my capacity as a research director, senior fellow or author, I stick to my areas of expertise. It’s why I never write on the inner life of bats but on taxes, provincial budgets, corporate welfare, transfer payments including equalization, property rights, Alberta’s Heritage Fund, and so on

Not everyone is so careful.

Exhibit A: When Jen Gerson wrote in Maclean’s that the UCP promise to hold a referendum on equalization was “one of the most misleading and idiotic vats of snake oil ever peddled to an angry and vulnerable population on the campaign trail,” Gerson was not only hyper-ventilating but wrong.

Tweet from Jen Gerson on Alberta Election Night

Constitutional law expert Ted Morton has written persuasively that the 1998 Supreme Court of Canada ruling in the Quebec secession reference could apply to an Alberta referendum on equalization – and force the federal government to negotiate. Peter Hogg, the dean of Canadian constitutional scholars, has opined on equalization’s weak constitutional status, meaning Ottawa could, if so inclined, drop equalization payments down to nearly zero or even scrap them and instead offer up other transfer payments as proof that it was still upholding that section of the constitution.

Other specialists have long concluded that equalization’s constitutional status is likely unenforceable. I have produced multiple reports and columns explaining on how equalization could be reformed to take into account provinces who self-sabotage their revenues by blocking resource development, among other options for reform. Is equalization reform, including using a referendum to push it along, possible? Yes.

Judging by the numbers 

Gerson was one of many pundits who peddled uninformed opinions about equalization and much else during the election. Unfortunately, their zeal for critiquing UCP policy was not matched by their scrutiny of the NDP platform, especially its claim that a re-elected NDP government would create 75,000 jobs.

This number appeared in an NDP media release and later in their platform, after the UCP had released its Job Creation Tax Cut in early March. We provided job creation estimates for that cut and also for the effect of the carbon tax elimination, 55,000 and 6,000 jobs respectively, or 61,000 in total.

The 6,000-job creation estimate from the elimination of the carbon tax came from Stokes Economics, a respected economic consulting firm. The 55,000-job creation estimate was derived from analysis of what cutting the corporate income tax rate from 12 percent to 8 percent over four years would do and came courtesy of Dr. Jack Mintz.

Mintz is one of the world’s leading tax experts and has advised governments from Australia to Alberta as well as organizations such the OECD and IMF. He has published more research on tax policy than the entire Alberta NDP caucus had likely read in their collective lifetime, but that didn’t stop the NDP from attacking Mintz in a news release during the 2015 election, and through surrogates in this year’s campaign, accusing him of bias because he serves on the board of Imperial Oil. It was a slur against a man whose reputation rests on his commitment to providing expert, impartial advice. That’s why he’s sought.

So far as I am aware, no media outlet called out the NDP for their scurrilous attack on Mintz in 2015 or their allies’ attack in this election.

However, the same journalist, Gerson, who downplayed the power of an equalization referendum, also confidently wrote of how “The UCP’s plan to cut the corporate income tax to eight per cent is, in my opinion, a gamble on a larger deficit that may or may not lead to the kind of economic growth the party is implicitly promising to an angry and economically afflicted electorate.”

Gerson’s opinion was just that. And it was exactly the opposite of informed opinion from Mintz, Dahlby and post-release economists including Trevor Tombe, Andrew Leach and Michel Kelly-Gagnon. Also, post-election, I’ve heard that Alberta Finance’s internal estimates predict even higher economic growth than we anticipated from our business tax cut.

With due respect, the Alberta government spends $50 billion annually and can do a lot of good, or harm, with it. If a journalist dislikes complex policy or numbers analysis, they should ask their editor for a transfer to the Hollywood gossip section of their publication.

We chose that solid policy plank precisely because the literature shows business tax reductions goose the economy and jobs better than any other tax break, plus it got the validation from experts it deserved, and still we took media pot shots for it. Meanwhile, I am aware of no journalist who seriously examined the NDP’s 75,000 job-creation estimate. The NDP did not say where it came from and did not even try to get it validated by a credible expert. My guess is a party staffer or an ally at the NDP-friendly Alberta Federation of Labour invented the number simply to one-up the UCP after its (rigorously authenticated) 61,000 combined job estimate was announced.

Nor did the media scrutinize this whopper: the NDP claim that “more than 100,000 new full-time jobs have been created” during its tenure. In fact, by the start of the campaign in late March, full-time employment in Alberta was down by 14,000 jobs since May 2015. So NDP math was off by 114,000 jobs. The data was readily available from Statistics Canada.

There were other media errors:

  • The Globe and Mail’s Gary Mason argued that the parties should “talking about” post-secondary education. I don’t know about the NDP, but the UCP promised two new collegiate trades schools worth $28 million each for just the provincial portion of the cost; to double the number of schools working with trade apprenticeship programs from 500 to 1,000; and 10 other substantive promises as part of a post-secondary revamp.
  • When former Wildrose leader Brian Jean jumped into the campaign with an op-ed claiming the UCP platform numbers – the ones calculated by economist Dr. Bev Dahlby who has spent 30 years examining the effect of taxes on the economy – were a “fiscal fairy tale”, many journalists repeated the claim. Jean claimed that Kenney predicted the UCP’s corporate tax cuts would “grow our economy by over $113 billion or 25.7 per cent” and thus were wildly optimistic.

Indeed, that would have been a crazy, sunshine-pumped forecast except neither Kenney nor Dahlby made such an assertion. Dahlby’s actual estimate was $12.7 billion. Brian Jean’s mistake was to compare existing GDP to Dahlby’s estimate for 2024 and assume all of that was due to the proposed tax cut. Nope. It was merely in addition to already-expected economic growth. But no journalist, including veterans such as Don Braid, who at least quoted the UCP response, figured out or publicized how Jean erred by a factor of nine.

Albertans celebrate at the United Conservative Party Election Night Event in Calgary

Old news made news, but selectively

Politics is about a lot more than facts, figures and policies. In fact, during campaigns it’s often about everything except those three items. The national elections in 2015 and 2016 which propelled Justin Trudeau to the prime minister’s office and Donald Trump to the presidency demonstrated that reality. Both men rose to high office mainly by milking their personal celebrity and stoking antagonism against their incumbent opponents, while complex policy issues mostly took a back seat.

Heading into the 2019 Alberta election it seemed abundantly clear from polling that voters were chiefly concerned with economic policies including pipelines and jobs. Despite that, much of the media focus in campaign zeroed in on exactly where the NDP wanted journalists to go: a “rabbit trail” into Jason Kenney’s views on gay marriage 30 years ago; allegations of backroom skullduggery in the UCP leadership contest—proper to cover, but which became weird when journalists breathlessly quoted past Jeff Callaway leadership campaign staff already fined by the Elections Commissioner  as if such sources were impartial; the reliable wedge issue of gay-straight alliances, and social media posts or emails from candidates including Caylan Ford, Eva Karyakos and Mark Smith.

Vetting politicians’ views expressed six years ago, yesterday, or 30 years ago is fair game and to be expected. But if we are to disqualify every politician based on weird or objectionable views – a risky demand given how fast public opinion can shift in a social media age and context matters here as well – let’s at least apply the standard equally.

That would mean Rachel Notley, who used to wear a Che Guevara wristwatch in opposition, should have been held to account for her public affection for a murderous Marxist revolutionary. It was Guevara who once ordered a child shot because he stole food and summarily executed co-belligerents after the Cuban Revolution because they lacked sufficient enthusiasm for Fidel Castro’s communist dictatorship.

Likewise, in 2019, no one called out the six-year-old views of fellow traveller Rod Loyola, a Notley cabinet minister who was positively weepy at the death of Venezuelan autocrat Hugo Chavez in 2013. Loyola was listed by the Marxist-Leninist Daily as the media contact for an Edmonton “tribute to Chavez.” There, event organizers called on “the Edmonton community to attend this Mass/Tribute/Homage to President Hugo Chávez.” Loyola himself wrote of how the memorial service was an “opportunity to express solidarity” and “share with the media and local community, the hard work, dedication and achievements of President Hugo Chávez and his government.”

Chavez’ economic policies and political thuggery turned Venezuela into a third-world banana republic, and his successor has stayed the course, resulting in economic collapse, widespread privation, and millions of refugees pouring into neighbouring countries.

My point: A political infatuation for tyrants who crush people is no more preferable than errant and unsupportable views on gays and lesbians. In the future, journalists may wish to treat both such views as disagreeable.

Happy are they who get it

There were and are exceptions to the media coverage and pack behaviour. Some journalists grasp why first principles matter – among them that parents are the primary guardians of their children not an afterthought to the state (Licia Corbella on GSAs). And some have a solid grasp on why an understanding of why numbers and history matter – recognizing that without it politicians get away with mathematical murder and recycle policy that has repeatedly failed (Chris Varcoe on more corporate welfare).

In addition, some saw the omissions by other journalists. Radio host and Global News columnist Danielle Smith made the case for fair treatment of all those with decades-old weird ideas when she wrote about how one Calgary NDP candidate, Anne McGrath, ran as a communist in 1984.

Others, such as talk-show host Charles Adler, held Kenney’s feet to the fire in a now-famous interview about Mark Smith. In this case, and contrary to some partisans who thought Adler was chasing ratings, my view is that Adler was correct to press any politician who comes on his show, Kenney included, and in general, no one should expect journalists to be sycophants.

“Where’s the beef?!” Oh, wait….

The “fun” part of being on the inside working on the UCP platform was reading journalists who for months complained that the opposition leader and his colleagues were releasing nothing substantive on policy. I remember thinking, “Yes, working on it.” My bet was that the media would have the opposite complaint once we started burying them in four-page news releases and 20-page backgrounders. And sure enough, some did.

From my ringside seat it was startling to see how many journalists missed or ignored much of what was top of mind for Albertans, and thus missed the fundamental story of an epic contest between modern progressives – “reflexive interventionists” is a better description – and modern conservatives, at least the ones I worked with, over substantial differences about serious policy questions that were contained in the UCP platform. These include:

  • Promised education and health care reform in Alberta under a UCP government that will so expand parental and patient choice and rights that a return to the top-down, status quo, failed health and education models will be impossible.
  • Or how Albertans will, courtesy of a property rights plank, likely get an Alberta-specific constitutional amendment sometime in the next decade that will protect their private property rights forever.
  • And my favourite – new spending proposed by those of us writing the platform, including from Kenney, that was mostly focused on vulnerable Albertans – from women in danger to exploited children to those trafficked on our streets.

The underlying message of the UCP platform was that unfocused governments who think they can and should do everything will spend our money and time doing too much and failing at much of it. That was the NDP record on everything from pipelines to jobs to crime to busting class sizes and increased waiting lists – even though education and health care are, we are constantly told by journalists and pollsters, “NDP” issues.

In contrast, the UCP platform promised money mostly for areas where no market or non-profit can operate and make a difference, exemplified by hiring police and prosecutors to pull predators off the streets.

Too many in the media mostly missed these and many other core differences between the two parties. As with pollsters who kept predicting a tightening race only to see a whopping 22-point spread come election night, it appears many journalists were blinded by their Twitter feeds and drunk on each other’s bathwater.

Mark Milke was the principal policy advisor to Jason Kenney between May 2018 and April 2019 and a lead “architect” of the United Conservative Party platform.  He is also the author Ralph vs. Rachel: A tale of two Alberta premiers.

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