As Premier Jason Kenney’s UCP government was tabling its 2020 budget at the Alberta legislature on Thursday afternoon, protesters rallied outside the building in support of the province’s public sector workforce after marching down Edmonton’s Jasper Avenue.
A large crowd of demonstrators converged in front of the front steps of the legislature and filled the space.
“We have a government currently in place right now that has said they fully intend to have some cost-cutting measures in place,” said Sandra Haltiner, an Edmonton-area teacher who has helped organize the YEG March for What Matters.
The March for What Matters organizers started their rally at the Edmonton Convention Centre before marching to the legislature. They encouraged those attending the rally to wear red because they say the colour has been “worn to represent the passion people have for public education.”
Haltiner said the campaign is a grassroots movement not endorsed by any official entity.
“It’s basically a combination of representatives from the arts, from education, from concerned parents as well as from a seniors group as well as post-secondary individuals,” Haltiner said. “The biggest concern is just austerity measures right across the board.
“For example, the education system, the Alberta Teachers’ Association FOIPed some documents that confirmed there will be $135 million less in Alberta schools — and that is very similar for health care, very similar for a variety of industries within the public sector.”
In response to the documents made public by the ATA earlier this month, the education minister’s press secretary said the government has “honoured our commitments to Albertans and maintained education funding at $8.223 billion, equal to last year’s budget, and the base instruction rate for each student remains the same.”
In terms of health-care funding, the government has said it is working to act on two reports — the MacKinnon Panel Report and a review of Alberta Health Services — that call for spending restraint, although Health Minister Tyler Shandro has also said his government “is spending more than ever before on our public health-care system and we will maintain current spending.”
As it was tabling its budget on Thursday, the government said it plans to hold the line on salary hikes for public sector workers, while continuing to reduce jobs, mainly through attrition. The government is also pursuing benefit and salary cuts from thousands of public-sector workers.
Thursday’s budget maintains operational funding at current levels for some core services: $8.2 billion for kindergarten to Grade 12 education and $20.6 billion for health.
The 2020 budget projects a deficit of $6.8 billion on revenues of $50 billion. Debt is expected to rise to almost $77 billion by spring 2021 and to almost $88 billion by 2023.
The NDP has said the UCP’s fiscal plan results in de facto cuts when population growth and inflation are factored in.
“While families scramble to make ends meet, Jason Kenney’s plan is to pile public sector job losses on top of private sector job losses,” NDP Leader Rachel Notley said after the budget was tabled Thursday.
The Kenney government is projecting it will spend $26.7 billion on public-sector compensation while full-time equivalent jobs are expected to drop by 1,436 this year, primarily through attrition.
Haltiner said she empathizes with the government’s fiscal problems but is concerned by what she feels is a consistent message of austerity that unfairly targets the public sector.
“We absolutely respect and appreciate that this government is in a difficult financial situation and they feel that they need to cut to pay down debt,” she said. “We just don’t want to see that on the back of the public sector — the people that unify and care for Albertans in some very important industries throughout this province.
“What does tighten our belts mean? Does tighten our belts mean cut taxes for wealthy Albertans and to take away funding from people who are accessing a public service? Does it mean, you know, to be punitive to people that have been hardworking throughout this whole message?”
Haltiner added she is increasingly concerned by anti-public sector sentiments she is hearing from people who work in Alberta’s private sector.
“We often hear this… ‘We’ve lost our jobs. We’ve had it difficult for the last four or five years. The previous government hurt us. The previous government caused debt,'” she said. “I think the message that most people in the public sector want to say is, we never went around at that time saying, ‘Good. It needed to happen. Maybe you guys needed to tighten your belts and maybe you guys didn’t need to have the salaries that you had.’ In fact, it was quite the opposite.”
Haltiner indicated that she believes the government is also being selective in how and where it imposes austerity measures, such as some faith-based post-secondary institutions being spared in the last UCP budget while some of the province’s largest universities faced significant cuts.
“Why would that be the case with a government that’s trying to save money?” Haltiner asked. “We can’t help but think that some of these cuts are ideological and that is where the concern comes in, in part, and the other concern is the consequences of these austerity measures and what that looks like for generations to come.”
Earlier this month, Finance Minister Travis Toews said he has “listened to the comments that thousands of Albertans have shared with me and I hear your concerns about the need to continue to create jobs and grow the economy.”
–With files from Global News’ Caley Ramsay and The Canadian Press
Watch below: Some Global News videos about Alberta’s public sector workforce.
View photos of Thursday’s rally below: