By Lethbridge Herald Opinion on February 19, 2021.
The Alberta government’s Feb. 10 announcement that it was – finally -â€ˆmaking use of federal money to top up wages of front-line workers will be welcomed by many. Unfortunately, the nine-month delay in accessing the fund, and the hurried manner in which the announcement was made, raises concerns and questions.
The government’s abrupt announcement may have been in response to a just-released report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Written by David Macdonald, “Picking Up the Tab” is based on an exhaustive examination of 849 federal and provincial measures announced up to Dec. 31, 2020.
These measures include announced fiscal updates, budgets, economic statements, COVID-19 plans, press releases and other official government communications. The programs examined include direct measures, such as increases in spending or planned decreases in revenue, and infrastructure programs to stimulate growth, health-care expenditures due to COVID-19, business grants, and cash transfers to needing individuals. The report’s conclusion: Alberta has been the big “winner” provincially in terms of federal assistance during this crisis.
Between the fiscal years 2019-20 and 2021-22, federal government spending is $343 billion, with $24 billion transferred to the provinces. By contrast, the provinces committed to spending $31 billion. In short, 92 per cent of all spending during the pandemic has been federal.
How much have provinces spent to support their people and businesses? This amount varies, but in the lead is B.C., which has spent almost three per cent of its GDP. By contrast, Alberta’s spending priorities place it near the bottom, tied with Ontario, at only one per cent of GDP, just a third of what is being spent by BC to support their people and businesses.
More starkly, the report – amended to reflect the government’s recent announcement – shows Albertans are receiving the highest level of per capita spending in Canada, $11,300, of which the federal government pays 93 per cent. Alberta receives $1,300 more support, per person, from the federal government than any other province.
The report shows Alberta businesses – often among the most vocal critics of the federal Liberal government – have received the highest level of support: $5,500 for every Albertan, $5,200 of this from federal government programs. But the province’s businesses have also benefitted disproportionately from the federal oil and gas well clean-up fund, meant to create jobs during the pandemic, as well as the emissions reduction fund for the oil and gas sector. Individuals in Alberta have benefitted from federal supports through such programs as CERB and changes to unemployment to the tune of $3,900 per person.
Until the announcement of Feb. 10, however, the report’s most startling revelation was the Alberta government’s singular failure to access almost any federal money, available since last May, to top up essential workers’ wages.
The top-up was provided to all provinces early on in the pandemic to raise wages for essential workers, though provinces were later allowed to use it to raise wages for low-paid health-care workers. But to access the fund, provincial governments must agree to a 25/75, provincial/federal split of the total contribution.
Alberta was eligible for $348 million in federal government money for its low-paid essential workers, but only accessed $12 million (which was actually sent to Alberta than they’ve been sitting on since the summer); a shortfall of $335.8 million that could have been used to assist workers and their families, and to stimulate the province’s struggling economy. This is far and away the highest amount of money left on the table by any provincial government. The government also hasn’t accessed $52 million for long-term care and $55 million for buying hotels to rapidly house people without affordable housing – no fund matching is required for these funds.
Like so many things the UCP government has done – from botched or non-existent consultations on coal developments to taking over emergency medical services from municipalities – its recent announcement begs more questions than it answers. (Indeed, one speculation is the announcement was rushed out the door to try to change the channel on its accumulating missteps.)
While other provinces have had difficulty fully accessing the funds – they had to sign up plenty of recipients – the fact remains the Alberta government delayed its efforts for nine months. Why the delay? Was it due to not wanting to pony-up its portion of the money or mere incompetence?
The provision of money appears skewed toward private sector workers, but all front-line workers are in the pandemic fight together. Why the difference? Is it part of a calculated strategy going into a year of bargaining with its public sector workers?
And why the requirement that employees must have worked 25 hours per week? Precarious workers already face enormous financial pressures. Why are part-time workers singled out for less support? Workers whose limited hours may result from factors beyond their control, including being sick?
While Macdonald’s report suggests the federal system has worked pretty well in the current crisis, the same cannot be said of the Alberta government, whose approach too often has appeared misguided, ideological, and petty.
Trevor W. Harrison is a political sociologist at the University of Lethbridge and director of Parkland Institute.