Saturday, December 12, 2009

acting like a government

Yesterday's provincial poll results were not just a wake-up call to the governing party but to the Wildrose Alliance as well.

Wildrosers need to be able to adopt the stance of a government as opposed to a factional opposition. What do governments do? I think the HST is a good example of what governments propose and protest parties oppose. The only party in the House of Commons to oppose the federal HST enabling legislation is the NDP, a party that Canadians in general do not see as a government in waiting. John Manley, a former deputy prime minister of Canada, president-designate of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, and my favorite of the 4 ministers I wrote memos to during the years I worked at Finance Canada, penned an op-ed in the Globe and Mail saying Liberal leader Michael "Ignatieff made the right call on the HST." What if Wildrosers called for a 7 point cut in Alberta's corporate tax rate and a 3 point cut in the income tax rate, funded by the introduction of a provincial 8 point harmonized VAT (i.e. a 13% HST)? The cries would sound about what elitist chamber-of-commerce types the Wildrosers are. But to make that charge is to imply that the Wildrose Alliance is not amateur, and right now the PC Party's biggest problem is the perception that they are amateurs. The contrast alone would be enough to preclude this line of criticism.

For an alternative, consider a call for a national securities regulator. The John Manleys of the country would waste no time indicating their support for a measure that both the executives of corporate issuers and professional asset managers have been calling for for years. It would be putting sound policy ahead of the vacuous spectacle of playing the anti-Ottawa card.

If Wildrosers are serious about going down the populist road, then why not just call for the elimination of all the civil service positions that provide policy support to the government? I mean, who needs them when we can make policy just fine without professional input? In reality the analysts in various government departments can explain how a lot of simple, easy to understand policy ideas may not produce simple, straightforward results because of a whole legion of factors that are difficult if not impossible to appreciate absent a large staff of researchers and analysts like those available to the ministers of various departments.

The Wildrose Alliance cannot just sit and wait indefinitely as a populist protest party for government proposals to appear that can be denounced. I would also note that Wildrosers need to give the media something to digest. Telling the media that the party will do something simple and popular that requires no explanation or expert defence is not giving the media something to chew on, which they see as their job. Telling them that Wildrose will do something that requires an expert verdict, on the other hand, does give the media something to do and will give the pundits something to defend. If these pundits are not defending you, they will be attacking you.

Before Wildrosers adopt the stance that global warming is a hoax or that base MLA salaries are the province's biggest problem, the question should be asked are these the sort of things a protest party would come up with or an actual government? Governments do things on the basis of industry or consultant advice that ordinary people have a hard time appreciating all the time. But that's what ordinary people elected them to do: make unspecified-in-advance detail decisions within a specified-in-advance philosophical framework. Wildrosers and Liberals could both propose identical tax reforms in detail but the electorate would receive them entirely differently because of primary interest to voters is the philosophical stance of the party, the context in which the detailed proposals are arising.

Having established a philosophical framework around fiscal conservatism, the Wildrose Alliance needs to a plank or two that is superficially unpopular but sound upon explanation, argument, and evidence. This is the ticket to being taken seriously.


CS said...

Over and over the term fiscal conservative is mentioned thoughout different discussions about the role of government.What exactly does that mean? No taxes and therefore no social programs? User pay all the way? My point is this. How would I know that a governmet is fiscally conservative? There are things that tax funds are spent on that I disagree with and then there are activities that I do agree with. Someone else might have a different perception as to what a government should be using tax payer's funds for. Where is that point defined? In a corporation at least you can measure shareholder's return. etc.

Brian Dell said...

Generally the return on government investment is lower than on private investment, but exceptions should be made for externalities, eg the private sector underinvesting in education or overinvesting in projects that generate pollution, etc.

But, yes, the devil will be the details. Many analysts think the "return" on taxpayers funds being spent on carbon capture, for example, will be low or even negative.