Danielle Smith's Neocon Budget
The Alberta premier's newfound free-spending ways reflects a broader tension in modern right-wing political thought.
Flush with a record $27.5 billion in oil and gas revenue resulting from sky high energy prices, Premier Danielle Smith unveiled her free-spending inaugural budget on Feb. 28, lavishing funds on some of Smith’s favourite initiatives, and then some.
While it would be easy to dismiss the 2023 budget as one “designed to buy votes” three months from a scheduled election, and there’s no doubt truth to this, Smith’s newfound generosity highlights an important tension within modern conservative political thought.
In the course of researching my upcoming book, I’ve grappled with two concepts, which are as widely used as they are misunderstood — neoliberalism and neoconservatism.
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These distinct ideologies, owing to their frequent cross-pollination, are often conflated, causing some confusion.
Neoliberals, put simply, want to reduce the power of the state over the economy. They’re free market fundamentalists, who seek to offload the state’s responsibilities onto the private sector.
This ideology is probably best summarized by former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher: “There's no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbours."
In this libertarian view, everything is an individual transaction; the best thing the state can do is back off and let the market take charge.
Neoconservatives, by contrast, seek to use the power of the state to enforce a particular moral order. It’s a more collectivist perspective, which emphasizes community security and tradition.
While one is individualist and the other is statist, they’re by no means static. In practice, there’s immense overlap between neoliberal and neocon ideology, and a shrewd politician can move between the two when it suits their interests.
Free markets, for example, are a moral value many neocons might use the state to uphold, while policing, with its role in enforcing private property rights, is one of the few things a hardcore neoliberal would resist handing over to the market.
Nobody embodies these contradictions more than my book’s subject, former premier Jason Kenney. Kenney was neoliberal when it came to cutting taxes and public services, but neoconservative when it came to using the strong arm of the state to subsidize the oil and gas industry, harass environmentalists, make it harder for students to join gay-straight alliances, and crack down on harm reduction services while funding private abstinence-only recovery clinics.
Now Smith is wielding the power of the state.
CBC pundit Jason Markusoff is quite right when he observes that the 2023 budget, with its 10% increase from last year’s planned spending, is “a budget that past Danielle Smiths would have roundly criticized.”
That’s because the old Danielle Smith was a devout neoliberal.
As a Calgary Herald columnist, she infamously argued that anti-smoking legislation took too much power from private businesses to make their own decisions, and that smoking might, in fact, be good for you.
As Wildrose leader, Smith repeatedly lambasted the “spending addicts” in Edmonton.
While campaigning for UCP leader, she detailed her plans to “Uber-fy” the economy by giving individuals funding to spend on whatever type of health care or education they want.
A pure neoliberal ideologue would have used the opportunity to do just that, taking billions in new oil and gas revenue and returning it to individuals as tax cuts, which they could then spend as they see fit.
But now that she’s in power and there’s money in the bank, Smith is singing a neocon tune, using government funds to promote her particular vision of the collective good, one which conveniently includes a 23% increase to her office’s budget.
To emphasize her commitment to public safety, Smith has increased the budgets of the ministries of justice and public safety, and emergency services, by a cumulative 12 per cent, including additional funds for the sheriffs she’s unleashing on downtown Calgary and Edmonton to maintain order.
These funds will also go towards hiring more Crown prosecutors and judges, operating jails and combatting organized crime, in addition to creating “therapeutic living spaces” — a euphemism for forcing prisoners to enter abstinence-only recovery while incarcerated.
Edmonton and Calgary were each given $25 million to open up treatment beds in a “recovery community,” a continuation of Kenney’s moralistic focus on recovery as the sole means of addressing the drug poisoning crisis outside the confines of the criminal justice system.
In a longstanding Alberta tradition, the budget puts the foot on the gas for the energy industry, including $387 million for funding unproven carbon capture and storage technology over the next four years, as well as $246 million for carbon capture projects already underway and a $12-million top up for the energy war room.
The budget excludes the $100-million R-Star subsidy for economically viable energy companies to clean up their environmental liabilities, which Smith has opted to make an election issue.
Sure, there’s also a 4% increase in health-care spending, totalling $1 billion, and K-12 education is getting a 5% boost, totalling $685 million.
But we don’t yet have specific details of where those funds are going. Knowing Smith’s instincts, expect a significant sum of those new health-care and education dollars to go increasingly towards unaccountable private entities.
A post-secondary tuition increase cap at 2%, while itself a positive development, cannot be regarded outside Smith imposing convoluted and punitive “free speech” reporting requirements on Alberta’s post-secondary institutions.
Alongside the budget, Finance Minister Travis Toews revealed impending balanced-budget legislation, which will mandate half of future surpluses going towards paying down provincial debt.
The other half of surplus funds will go towards the new “Alberta Fund,” which the government will essentially be able to spend any way it sees fit, insofar as it doesn’t require sustained future spending increases.
Smith is using the weight of the state to shovel money towards her priorities before energy prices decline and the neoliberal austerity axe inevitably comes down.