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Alberta Blue Ribbon Panel presents choices: Which promises to keep, and which to break

The plan laid out by MacKinnon isn’t a libertarian dream of a vastly reduced state with people keeping most of their money and government leaving them alone. It is a course adjustment within the current fiscal confines and the moderate conservative tradition.

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It’s hard to say it’s “finally” here, because they had relatively little time to prepare it, but former Saskatchewan NDP Finance Minister Janice MacKinnon has delivered her much expected “Blue Ribbon Panel” report on Alberta’s finances.  It only feels like it is “finally” here because the government’s ministers have responded to most opposition and media questions on topics hither and yon by telling them all to wait for the panel’s report.  The waiting is over.

The report is sober in its assessment, and ambitious – if not entirely bold – in its recommendations.  In its assessment, it makes clear what many have been screaming at government for a decade or more: Alberta has a structural deficit, spends more per-capita on most line items that other provinces, and spends more money doing these things poorly.

The report’s recommendations are gutsy, and go well beyond what the Tories campaigned on doing last spring in many cases.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney

The Tories campaigned on no cuts to the government healthcare or education budgets.  This was a mistake that the MacKinnon panel tries to remedy.  Both the health and education ministries are sacred cows and politicians are rightfully fearful of touching them in any way that isn’t up.  Even voters suspicious of government waste or overspending rarely know what happens under the hood in any given ministry, but health and education waste just as much as any other.

These two departments alone make up more than 54 per cent of the province’s operating budget.  The Tories may have committed to not touching them, but if they want to come anywhere close to balancing the budget on time without relying on a miraculous recovery in resource revenues, they need to be on the table.

The question is, will they?

When the NDP won in 2015, they didn’t mention so much as a word about a carbon tax; but under the guise of their own blue-ribbon panel, they had ideologically sympathetic experts recommend one on their behalf.  It provided media cover and a way for them to add it to their mandate, post-facto.

In one of his trademark billboard signature photo-ops, Jason Kenney committed that if elected he would “maintain or increase health spending”.  With Alberta Health Services one of the most grossly wasteful departments in the government, it was bad policy, but perhaps good politics.

Then Opposition Leader Jason Kenney signs his Public Health Guarantee during the 2019 campaign

MacKinnon’s panel now gives him cover to point to if he wishes to renege.  In contrast to the NDP however, the Tories did campaign on balancing the budget within four years and stated that there would be some modest spending reductions to achieve it.  They just didn’t really say, how.

In essence, the Tories were elected on conflicted promises: maintain or increase health spending, and balance the budget by reducing costs.  With the health department alone at more than 39 per cent of the operating budget, and education at 15 per cent, it would require the near obliteration of every other department in the government to achieve balance without touching the two largest.

Republican deficit hawks in the US face a similar problem in grappling with their budget when the military and entitlement benefits are strictly off the table.  The math just doesn’t add up.

The MacKinnon panel isn’t in the business of trying to buy votes.  It was given a simple mandate and told to deliver a diagnosis, and treatment plan.

The plan laid out by MacKinnon isn’t a libertarian dream of a vastly reduced state with people keeping most of their money and government leaving them alone.  It is a course adjustment within the current fiscal confines and the moderate conservative tradition.

In the conflict between conflicting election platform promises, it picks the smarter course: balancing the budget.

No matter how modest any changes are, the NDP are sure to declare it a draconian ideological assault on all that is good in the world (all things good being government).

If the panel’s recommendations are implemented, the NDP will have a legitimate point that it is breaking election promises.  To this, the Tories would be justified in reminding the NDP of their own expert panel churning out a carbon tax with no mandate whatsoever.  The Tories at least have a conflicted mandate.

Either promises to not reduce health and spending budgets will be broken, or the promise to balance the budget in four years will be broken.  With the facts on the table, it’s now up to the politicians to decide.

Opinion

STRANKMAN: Do our politicians represent their constituents, or their parties?

Rick Strankman writes from his experience being whipped to vote as party bosses told him to.

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Last winter, at an agricultural estate planning course, a speaker commented, “Many large problems occur after the death of a significant farm family leader. This results from ‘unspoken expectations’ from other family members”. 

Similarly, many elected officials have little to no understanding that their constituents have similar, ‘unspoken expectations’ that might not be voiced out loud. 

In 2012, as the Wildrose Party charged towards the spring election, one of the key platform promises was electoral recall. For some reason, many of the same people that professed at that time to believe in this form of accountability from elected representatives, have been distracted by the lure of political power. A score of once loud democratic crusaders now “look the other way” as they see unaccountability, patronage, and nepotism in their own ranks. Power – and the lure of power – can do this. 

After more than a year in power, this has set in with many in the UCP government, as they develop a blind-spot to the issues that got them there in the first place. It’s unclear if it’s the obstructed view one gets from sitting on the government side of the house in the legislature, or whether it comes from a lack of proper perspective. MLAs serving in opposition will understand the frustration to getting non-answers to often very real questions. This, more than most things, can quickly cure those self-serving blind-spots.

The legislature is an eye-opening experience, particularly for anyone that has never watched question period. The open disdain for democracy that many former and current MLAs have witnessed in the house, is appalling. In my own time, I personally witnessed government ministers loudly heckling when an opposition member requested that they answer a question. 

“That’s why they call it ‘question’ period and not ‘answer’ period!’

Many of those same self-congratulating ministers now sit in the NDP opposition benches, wondering why the UCP ministers across from them do much the same.

On more than one occasion, I was warned by acquaintances that “the closer people get to the power, the more they lose their minds.” This is a phenomenon not exclusive to the UCP, NDP, or even Alberta, or Canada. It is a natural process that plagues governments everywhere.

The lack of any meaningful representation and direct accountability is the single largest contributing factor in what seems to be an aura of discontent brewing in the minds of many Albertans right now. 

The fear to step out and speak up in opposition to one’s own party is something that I experienced and witnessed over my elected years in the legislature. As an elected representative, it is your moral – and I would argue fiduciary – responsibility to advocate on behalf of the taxpayers that entrust you with their democratic rights, regardless of a political party’s position. 

The examples are few and far between, but former federal Liberal MPs, Jody Wilson-Rabould and Jane Philpott, along with Alberta’s own MLA Drew Barnes, showed the gut-wrenching courage it takes to actually represent their constituents first, in the face of party discipline. 

A common statement I’ve heard more and more every day is, “it doesn’t matter who you elect, they’re all the same,” which is becoming harder to argue against. Their actions often reflect the conformity that, at times, is in direct conflict with the best interests of the constituents they represent.

One of the leading contributing factors to this is the Sword of Damocles that party leaders hold over their MLAs and MPs local nominations. In the American primary system, rogues like libertarian Ron Paul and socialist Bernie Sanders can still win their local nominations without the blessing of their party’s leaders. In Canada’s party systems, the leaders have the ability to rig nominations – or disqualify candidates outright – that they consider uncompliant. 

After the Wildrose was merged into the UCP before the last election, we were routinely whipped by the new party’s leadership in voting against our own consciences, and our constituents’ interests. When the NDP proposed legislation to attack the right of pro-lifers to protest, we were told we were not allowed to speak to, or even vote on the bill. When the NDP introduced regulations to impose effective supply-management over oil production, we were told that we had to support it. 

So, what have I learned in the last two decades from my time as an activist, politician and now recovering politician? That peoples’ expectations are simple; they want you to show up with your work boots on, and ready to do battle directly on their behalf.

Now I understand why I was warned about what happens when people get closer to that power.

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Opinion

WAGNER: Alberta isn’t a part of Trudeau’s “post-national state”

Michael Wagner writes that while the Liberal conception of a non-national state might apply in the East, Alberta has a very different idea of what it is.

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Shortly after his election as prime minister in 2015, Justin Trudeau told the New York Times, “There is no core identity, no mainstream in Canada,” and that Canada is “the first post-national state.” The Times rightly explained that Justin’s view makes him “an avatar of his father’s vision.” The social engineering of Justin’s father – Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau – has been so successful that the historical notion of what it means to be Canadian has been increasingly eviscerated since the 1970s. Together, the Trudeaus have brought the idea of Canadian identity to its knees.

Large numbers of Eastern Canadians vote for that “no core identity” and “post-national state” nonsense. That’s why Trudeau II is prime minister. However, Albertans have a very different perspective than their Eastern countrymen, and this is reflected in a different political identity.

As mentioned in a previous column, Professor Barry Cooper has argued that a community’s stories form an important part of its identity, and history constitutes a key element of those stories. He wrote, “History, too, is a source of identity; historical literature also shows who we are and where is here because it recounts what was done and said.” The West has its own stories and history, distinct from those of Eastern Canada, and this contributes to the West’s unique regional identity.

Besides Cooper, Alberta has another prominent conservative thinker who reflected on Western identity – Ted Byfield. Byfield, best known as the founder of Alberta Report and its sister publications, also initiated the creation of a 12-volume history set called “Alberta in the 20th Century.” This project was surprisingly successful and the proceeds helped to keep the Report magazines afloat for a time.

However, the success of this popular history series was counterintuitive. Alberta is a small market, and the volumes were rather expensive. Why did they sell so well?

Byfield attributed the success, in part, to the emergence of an Alberta identity. In a January 11, 1999, Alberta Reportcolumn he wrote, “There is gradually developing in Alberta a very powerful provincial identity. Perhaps it’s because we have so often been called ‘redneck’ by the rest of Canada, perhaps because we have so often resisted trends in the rest of Canada, perhaps because we live closer to our frontier origins, perhaps because from our very beginning almost everything we produce must be sold on a world market, not a protected local one. And, finally, perhaps because our national identity has become so confused of late that it’s hard to define what being a Canadian is supposed to mean. There’s little doubt what being an Albertan means, and this has a deepening significance. That, we believe, is one of the chief reasons for the success of the history series.” 

Here, years before Justin Trudeau declared that the country had “no core identity,” Byfield had already recognized that “it’s hard to define what being a Canadian is supposed to mean.” At the same time, however, there’s “little doubt what being an Albertan means” – and his Alberta history series was deliberately intended to strengthen that identity as well.

In his foreword to the first volume of the series, The Great West Before 1900, Byfield explained his purpose for producing these books. He began by recounting a discussion he had with a young man from Texas. Byfield asked him why Texas was known as the Lone Star State. The fellow replied that Texas had been an independent republic for about ten years and then had a war with Mexico, which is when the famous Battle of the Alamo occurred. Most interestingly, the Texan had said that’s when “we” had a war with Mexico and then “we” joined the United States. As Byfield explained, “Utterly unconscious of what he was doing, this young man identified himself with events that occurred nearly a century and a half before he was born. It wasn’t what ‘they’ did, it was what ‘we’ did. Whatever happened to Texas then, he was somehow involved in it.”

Albertans and other Canadians don’t often talk that way and Byfield believes that’s because we “do not identify with our own past.” For us, what happened in the past is what “they” did, not what “we” did. Some people see this as a positive because, in their view, we should have a cool and dispassionate approach to the past rather than an enthusiastic commitment to our province (or country) and its accomplishments. Those people are concerned about “the dangers of jingoism and blind tribal loyalty.” As Byfield explained, however, that perspective has led to a form of rootlessness and lack of belonging which is opposite of the mentality of the young Texan noted above.

Byfield wanted his history books to correct the erroneous perspective that effectively divorces us from our own history. As he wrote, “Candidly, we want the Albertans who read them to come away from them saying ‘we’ not ‘they.’”

Byfield believes Alberta’s history is worth learning. And as we study it, “we may find we come away with a certain assurance, a strange sense of common purpose, a feeling of continuity with our past. No longer are we homeless. We know now where we live. We belong.” This is precisely what Cooper meant when he wrote of the importance of history to a community’s identity – it shows us who “we” are. 

Justin Trudeau says that Canada no longer has a “core identity.” Well, as Ted Byfield so clearly pointed out, Alberta still has an identity – one that needn’t be lost to progressive dreamers in Ottawa. For those who would like to learn more about it, there’s no better place to start than his “Alberta in the 20th Century” history books.

Michael Wagner is columnist for the Western Standard. He has a PhD in political science from the University of Alberta. His books include ‘Alberta: Separatism Then and Now’ and ‘True Right: Genuine Conservative Leaders of Western Canada.’

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Opinion

WAGNER: How Pierre Trudeau created the Alberta independence movement, and his son made it mainstream

Michael Wagner writes that before 1980, independence was a tiny fringe movement. In 2020, it is approaching a majority of Albertans.

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A fundamental change occurred in Alberta in 1980. On February 18 of that year, Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals defeated Joe Clark’s Progressive Conservatives, restoring Trudeau to the office of prime minister. Consequently, on October 28 – a day that will live in infamy – the National Energy Program (NEP) was unleashed as a blatant attack on Alberta and its oil industry. These historical events generated a credibility for Alberta’s independence movement that had never before existed. After 1980, support for independence was no longer a tiny fringe phenomenon.

Until the fateful events of 1980, polling data measuring support for Alberta independence were generally in the low single digits. This can be seen in the early polls on sovereigntist sentiment that were reported in a 1979 article by political scientists David Elton and Roger Gibbins entitled, “Western Alienation and Political Culture,” in the book The Canadian Political Process. As Elton and Gibbins noted, a 1969 provincial poll found that only 5 per cent of “respondents expressed interest in even discussing the merits of separation.” Five years later, a 1974 survey conducted in Calgary found less than 4 per cent “expressed even the most cautious support for separatism.” And in a 1977 survey commissioned by the Calgary Herald, only 2.7 per cent said yes to the question, “Would you like Alberta to separate?” 

Clearly – at least as far as polling data suggests – support for independence was disappointingly low before 1980. 

But then Canada experienced the second-coming of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau – who can rightly be called the father of the Alberta independence movement because his policies gave the movement its original credibility and momentum. 

The effect of Trudeau’s aggressive anti-Alberta posture was immediate. Data from a number of post-NEP polls are presented in an article entitled, “Separatism and Quasi-Separatism in Alberta” by sociologist Edward Bell in the Fall 2007 issue of Prairie Forum. On November 1, 1980 (shortly after the NEP was announced), the Calgary Herald reported on a poll indicating that 23 per cent of Albertans were in favour of Western Canadian independence. A subsequent study – undertaken in Edmonton from February to April 1981 – found that “about one in four respondents either supported Alberta independence or were willing to give their provincial government a mandate to negotiate it.” 

Surprisingly, in a March 1981 poll conducted by the Canada West Foundation, 49 per cent of Albertans agreed with the statement: “Western Canadians get so few benefits from being part of Canada that they might as well go it on their own.” That question did not measure outright commitment to independence as such, but it does seem rather high. Nevertheless, it is not inconsistent with some later polling. 

Sociologist Trevor Harrison, in his 1995 book, Of Passionate Intensity: Right-Wing Populism and the Reform Party of Canada, reports on a 1992 poll with a question very similar to the one from the Canada West Foundation. Harrison writes, a “poll of 710 Westerners conducted by Environics Research in March 1992 found that 42 per cent of respondents agreed with the question: ‘Western Canada gets so few benefits from Confederation the region might as well be on its own.’” At that time, of course, Brian Mulroney was prime minister, and like Pierre Trudeau, he catered to Central Canada at the expense of the West. In fact, Mulroney’s policies led to the rise of the Reform Party.

Edward Bell adds one more poll result to fill things out. In 2005, a poll found 35.6 per cent of Westerners agreed with the statement: “Western Canadians should begin to explore the idea of forming their own country.” 

More recently, on August 1, 2014, Insights West released a poll of Albertans that found, “Only 23 per cent of residents believe the province would be better off as its own country.” “Only” 23 per cent? Actually, 23 percent is rather high, especially considering that Stephen Harper – an Albertan – was prime minister at the time.

Two years later, on July 28, 2016, Insights West released another poll noting that “23 per cent of Albertans say the province would be better off as its own country.” The percentage remained the same as before, but the harmful effects of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s anti-Alberta policies were not yet fully realized. Things have since changed.

On May 25 of this year, in a poll conducted for the Western Standard, “45 per cent of decided Albertans surveyed said that they would defiantly vote yes or were leaning yes if there was a referendum on Alberta’s independence.” That is to say, support for independence is likely higher in 2020 than at any previous time. The more moderate position of supporting independence if proposals for constitutional reform were first rejected by Ottawa, was just shy of a majority at 48 per cent. 

The point is this: before 1980, polls showed support for Alberta independence to be in the low single digits. After 1980, polls show support in the double digits, usually a quarter of the population or more. This suggests that a fundamental change occurred in 1980 as a result of Pierre Trudeau. Before Trudeau, Albertans really weren’t interested in thinking about independence – but he made it respectable and credible. Support for independence never seems to have returned to the low single digit range. 

Support for Alberta independence is not going away. It is not a passing fad. Under the current Liberal government – with its agenda of phasing out Alberta’s key industry – the independence movement will likely continue to grow. The question is whether a leader will emerge to articulate the Alberta cause and gather Alberta patriots into a coherent and effective political body.

Michael Wagner is columnist for the Western Standard. He has a PhD in political science from the University of Alberta. His books include ‘Alberta: Separatism Then and Now’ and ‘True Right: Genuine Conservative Leaders of Western Canada.’

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