Sunday, October 31, 2010

PC Alberta AGM weekend: free speech? free commerce?

Of the various policy resolutions that came up for a vote in this weekend's annual general meeting of the Progressive Conservative Association of Alberta, four were of particular interest:
1) a motion to strike those elements of the Alberta Human Rights Act that grant government broad discretion to limit freedom of the press
2) a motion calling for official adoption of an industrial policy re bitumen upgrading
3) a motion calling for a fiscal policy shift towards savings from consumption
4) a motion that would bar unions from spending forced union dues on political lobbying

I'll comment on (1) and (2) in this post and address (3) and (4) in two separate follow-up posts.

With respect to (1), readers may recall that Maclean's story about corruption in Quebec that the head of the sovereigntist organization Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Montréal called "hateful and defamatory." The House of Commons in Ottawa passed a motion expressing "profound sadness at the prejudice displayed" by the magazine. Whatever the truth of the Maclean's allegations, the Harper Conservatives supported the motion (take that, Andrew Coyne!), which meant that it could be passed unanimously (after being reintroduced once the objecting André Arthur, an independent Quebec MP, had walked out of the House). The powers that be in Alberta are not limited to such symbolic condemnations, since it is currently the case that a person who "issues" a "statement" or "publication" in Alberta that is "likely to expose a person or a group of persons" to "contempt" is breaking the law. Although truth is a recognized defence to charges of defamation under the common law, the legislation at issue here does not recognize any such defence.

The PC caucus dutifully spoke out in favour of the restrictions on expression. Freedom of speech must be "balanced", contended MLA Fred Horne, against the sensitivities of the "vulnerable." As someone who was elected to the same PC caucus, MLA Heather Forsyth performed a similar role defending the government legislation earlier this year at the Wildrose Alliance AGM. With no apparent sense of irony, last year Jennifer Lynch, Chief Commissioner of the Canadian Human Rights Commission, lumped together opponents of the legislation as hailing from the (presumably contemptible) "far right." The Sheldon Chumir Foundation, which takes its name from an Alberta civil liberties lawyer and former Liberal MLA, would presumably object to this characterization since it also opposed the legislation, and the Foundation's President has indeed objected. In any case, the resolution was defeated and it does not appear that anyone currently sitting in the Leg will take up the dropped gauntlet in favour of free speech.

The Edmonton Whitemud constituency association proposed two resolutions which are at such polar opposites ideologically the submissions constitute good evidence that the constituency association is both large and diverse. One motion called for conservative fiscal policy and the other called on the government to step into the province's production decisions by requiring more bitumen upgrading in Alberta. The economic interference motion passed by a large margin, never mind the fact that industrial policy, which has been defined as a "declared, official, total strategic effort to influence sectoral development and, thus, [a jurisdiction's] industry portfolio" has been largely discredited. It would be one thing if the proposed dirigisme had the potential of developing a positive externality, like government support for R&D. But in this case more upgrading in province would magnify negative externalities. One analysis, for example, of the environmental impact of the bitumen upgraders that were planned for the Edmonton area concluded that they would consume about 10 times as much water as the City of Edmonton and use more electricity than is produced by the entire EPCOR Genesee operation. Never mind the additional carbon emissions. Josh Lerner, a Harvard B-School prof and entrepreneurship policy expert, has noted that industrial policy frequently ends up "boosting cronies of the nation's rulers or legislators" and "[t]he annals of industrial policy abound with examples of efforts that have been hijacked in such a manner."
Alberta Treasury Branches has been a popular vehicle for government cronyism in the Foothills province. In 1994 Tory ministers had ATB extend $353 million in guarantees and loans to West Edmonton Mall which eventually provoked a furious legal battle with WEM's developers, the Ghermezians; another battle with Peter Pocklington in the wake of Gainers' bankruptcy ended with ATB writing off more than $70 million. A March 1988 Speech from the Throne announced that "[a]n important step in Alberta's diversification plan is the construction of a new magnesium plant near High River, expected to begin this spring. This plant will provide 600 person-years or more in construction jobs and a permanent work force rising to at least 250 by 1994." By 1991 the plant had already been already closed and Alberta taxpayers left on the hook for a loan guarantee of more than $100 million. As Calgary Herald columnist Deborah Yedlin said when Edmonton Whitemud MLA Dave Hancock came out in support of bitumen upgrading last year, "the musings of the Alberta government smack more of populist politics than they do of robust, long-term economic policy."

1 comment:

Alex&Emily said...

How did the Edmonton McClung "A" resoltuion go? (the one on union campaigning)