Friday, August 6, 2010

the Ottawa card: will an Alberta political party support the Economic Charter of Rights initiative?

What about the dreaded Ottawa card?

The Macdonald Laurier Institute (hereafter, MLI) has called "on the federal government to use its constitutional authority to strike down internal barriers to free trade and mobility within Canada" through an Economic Charter of Rights and then set up a commission that would deal with non-compliance.

An Ontario poli sci professor writing in the Toronto Star has attacked the proposal as "enshrining free market dogma" and the usual suspects over at "Progressive Economists" have agreed that the left's monopoly on the use of the courts to advance their agenda should be preserved. In light of this hostility from the left one would think that "right wing" or "centrist" parties like Alberta's Wildrose and Progressive Conservative parties would consider coming out in support of such a charter. But in fact an endorsement is unlikely to emerge from either party, even (or especially) from the grassroots. One of the members of the MLI's Advisory Council is Purdy Crawford, who chaired the "Crawford Panel" calling for a single national securities regulator, a notion that Wildrose MLA Rob Anderson has slammed. Purdy Crawford has also been described as "dean emeritus of Canada's corporate bar", something that sounds precariously like "eastern establishment" to prairie ears. MLI founder Brian Lee Crowley co-wrote "The Canadian Century" with Neils Veldhuis and James Clemens and that book speaks well of the federal Liberal regime circa 1993 to 2003, surely a cardinal sin in "Conservative" Alberta. Crowley is also a Maritimer who has worked in Ottawa. Veldhuis, Crowley's co-author, is pro-HST, another taboo for the cowboy set.

Can "Conservative" Albertans truly not get past these nominal associations with the "eastern elite" and get behind the MLI's call for an Economic Charter of Rights? The blurb for Crowley's book "Fearful Symmetry: The Fall and Rise of Canada's Founding Values" is solidly conservative:
In the 1960s, Canada began a seismic shift away from the core policies and values upon which the country had been built. A nation of “makers” transformed itself into a nation of “takers.” Crowley argues that the time has come for the pendulum to swing back—back to a time when Canadians were less willing to rely on the state for support; when people went where the work was rather than waiting for the work to come to them.
Just a few weeks ago Western Standard contributor JJ McCullough had little quibble with the good things "The Canadian Century" had to say about the Chretien/Martin regime. In fact, in a must-read review McCullough provides as an "important fact" the book's contention that "[t]he 1993-2003 Liberal government of Jean Chretien embarked on a remarkable agenda of fiscal conservatism..." and quotes, apparently approvingly, the book authors' opinion that "[t]here is substantial risk that current federal [Conservative] policy will undo the fiscal reforms of the Redemptive Decade [1993 - 2003]". Most relevantly for Alberta firsters, "Canadian Century" co-authors Clemens and Veldhuis are, in addition to working for the Fraser Institute, authors of "Beyond Equalization", which critiqued Canada's system of interprovincial transfers and had a chapter on why the equalization program may be illegal.

On this Western Standard page, however, you can see Clemens speaking with the word "Liberal" featured prominently in the background. The unfortunate reality remains: an anti-establishment sentiment is at work on the prairies such that "Liberal" is equated with eastern elites and all things nefarious. The BC Liberals gets high marks from many in the "public policy establishment" for their stance on unions ("the obvious pro-union-pro-worker bias of the [Obama] government has contributed to a slower recovery, especially in labor markets" - Gary Becker, 1992 Nobel Prize for Economics recipient), trade, a carbon tax, the HST, etc. The BC Conservatives are rightly seen as cranks, and Tim Hudak in Ontario has pulled a variety of populist stunts that have failed to whet the appetite of the pundit class, including denunciations of the HST, broadsides against "elitist special interests”, etc. Thus does the Liberal brand retain as much shine in BC and Ontario as "Conservative", if not more.

The Alberta Liberals ought to have a tremendous opportunity to follow in the steps of the BC Liberals by staking out a position as the party of the sophisticated businessperson. The party's support is already skewed towards more educated voters, so why not run with that and reposition as the party for the Economist reader?
I must have my weekly issue of The Economist, or I risk de-evolving into the sort of mouth-breathing rabble by which I am surrounded daily!
- The Onion, Point/Counterpoint

There are four major political parties in Alberta (five if the Alberta Party is included), yet none of the them can be expected to support this national Economic Charter idea, the Liberals because leader David Swann is too resolutely left, the PCs and Wildrose because they are too provincial. That this vacuum in political options should exist is ultimately a failure of the conservative elite, if one can call them that.

US "conservative elites", are, of course, at least as frustrated with nominally conservative American politicians as they are in Canada (where they are not frustrated enough, IMO). Reihan Salam of the National Review was left scratching his head last month after Senate Minority Mitch McConnell asserted that tax cuts pay for themselves. The 20-something liberal bloggers Ezra Klein and Matthew Yglesias both chimed on in the "failure of conservative elites", with Klein writing that "[t]o a degree that people don't quite appreciate, conservative economic elites have attempted to... make people ashamed of... wacky views [in particular the view that tax cuts don't increase deficits]." The result is the absence of a political option for real fiscal responsibility.

3 comments:

Mark Samborsky said...

Brian,

Your rootless cosmopolitanism is coming out in your recent posts. And regarding airports, I don't see why consolidation would be consistent with the other neoliberal trends that you cited. Privatized airports are a source of profits for their investors.

Anonymous said...

Rootlessness indeed. Too many issues to respond to in a short post other than to mention 1) No self-respecting economist would oppose a Valued Added Tax on the basis of economic efficiency. However, the conservative ideology on taxes is that "less is more" - the problem with any tax - especially one that is efficient - is that once established, we have to fight against their creep. I maintain Obama is going to figure out some way to bring in a VAT into America - and that will be the end of him for ever. The same thing would probably happen to any AB government. It has nothing to do with the merits of HST and everything to do with restraining the growth in government.

Finally, as to the "shame" of picking on civil servants see Joseph Brean's NP article "Canada's 'addiction to rule-making' (link http://www.nationalpost.com/news/Canada+cultural+addiction+rule+making/3371419/story.html) and even better, David Warren's "Fearless advice" today Aug 8 (link http://www.ottawacitizen.com/opinion/Fearless+advice/3370301/story.html) a wonderful reply to Errol Mendes "Harper v. the public service"

Chris said...

Personally I think internal trade barriers are absurd, nor do I see why this country can't have one unified securities regulator. Both would increase efficiency and result in a more business friendly atmosphere.

On the other hand Brian I think you're being a might bit on the naive side if you think for a moment that Liberals have any interest in either of those items. Things like efficiency and business prosperity only come to Liberals as a Damascine conversion when things have well and truly hit the fan.

As for credit due to Martin and Chretien etc for their deficiet reduction in the early 90s, yes they did the right thing. On the other hand they did it after sliding up to the trough with old Pierre E. Trudeau in creating the massive entitlements that created the deficiets, fighting Mulroney tooth and nail when he tried to reduce the deficit and running against balancing the budge which was the PC and Reform position.

So however, much credit you want to give the Liberals for doing the right thing eventually when they had little choice after creating the problem I think is a matter open for live debate.

But as I said if you're looking for an audience open to these sort of ideas I don't think that the among the ardently statist liberals you'll find too many takers.