Premier Danielle Smith uncorked a flood of anti-inflation benefits during a TV address Tuesday evening, including a $600 payment over six months for all seniors and most families with children under 18.
The total cost to the treasury is expected to be $2.4 billion for all the measures, which also include tax relief for fuel and personal income.
This is the biggest pre-election package an Alberta government has ever offered. The voting is next May 29 and the UCP is still behind in the polls. The opening volley is called the Inflation Relief Act.
The $600 will be paid for each senior and child in families with household incomes under $180,000 a year. Smith said this is intended to include all “middle-income” families.
The same $600 amount will go to all recipients of AISH and PDD benefits, as well as those on income support.
Smith also promised that the entire provincial fuel tax will be effectively abolished.
The current 4.5 cents per liter in tax, restored by ex-premier Jason Kenney, will be removed.
Smith said the full 13-cent tax holiday will be extended for at least six months, from January to June.
All provincial income tax brackets will be re-indexed to inflation for the 2022 tax year, meaning people will pay less tax or get rebates.
The de-indexing of the Kenney era, in fact, will be effectively abolished in every area, including social payments.
Re-indexing will apply to AISH, PDD, income support, the seniors benefit and the Alberta child and family benefit. Recipients will start getting higher payments in January.
An increased rebate on electricity bills will provide each household with an additional $200 through the winter, Smith said.
Winter price spikes will be “limited” by the government. The current natural gas rebate program will continue.
Wrapping up this relief package, the premier also promised to “invest in food banks and expand low-income transit passes to ensure every Albertan has access to food and mobility for their families.”
“I will ensure that every decision our government makes from now until this crisis is over balances affordability for Albertans with the need for continued balanced budgets and fiscal responsibility,” Smith said.
In response, NDP Leader Rachel Notley said “what we just heard was Danielle Smith claiming she is going to und the affordability crisis the UCP government has contributed to, by reversing their own bad decisions.
“Six months prior to the last election, the UCP voted to increase benefits for vulnerable Albertans, only to then break that promise within weeks of taking office.
“Here we go again. We couldn’t trust the UCP the and we definitely can’t trust them now.”
The cost of Smith’s program is unprecedented.
Former Ralph Klein’s first “Ralph bucks” — a $400 check to each Albertan in 2005 — cost the treasury $1.4 billion in the most valuable dollars of that era.
The UCP considered a similar general program but estimated that it would cost $5 billion today, rather than the $2.4 billion on offer. (That could rise with other measures.)
Referring to surpluses resulting from high oil prices, Smith said, “because our province’s financial house is in order, we have the ability to assist Albertans through times of crisis, just like this one.”
Dealing with two other subjects, health care and relations with Ottawa, Smith stuck to her hard-line positions.
She repeated her belief that “we have far too many managers and consultants, and not enough health professionals on the front lines caring for patients.”
Without announcing specific measures, she promised more professionals in emergency wards, shorter times to get patients transferred from ambulances to hospital care, and more surgeries performed with shorter wait times.
And she promised one of the most difficult feats of all — transferring more health decision-making to local communities and health-care workers on the ground.
But Smith also tried to dampen the high expectations she raised with her leadership rhetoric. “This will take time and patience, but I am confident that it will result in better health care for Albertans,” she said.
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She repeated her pledge to bring in her Sovereignty Act, now bulked up to: “The Alberta Sovereignty Within A United Canada Act.”
She said “these continual federal attacks on our economy and provincial rights cannot be allowed to continue . . . the federal government’s treatment of all provinces, most especially Alberta, is unacceptable.”
Finally, the first urged people not to judge her by her many controversial statements when she was in media and advocacy roles.
The current controversy is over her earlier statements that Health Savings Accounts will clear the way for private payment for health care — a position her staff says she no longer holds.
“I know that I am far from perfect and I make mistakes,” she said, without detailing any specific missteps.
“Having spent decades in media and hosting talk shows, I discussed hundreds of different topics and sometimes took controversial positions, many of which have evolved or changed as I’ve grown and listened to you.”
Don Braid’s column appears regularly in the Herald