Sunday, November 7, 2010

further to the last

One regrettable consequence of my last blogpost is that a P"C" party activist or two seems inclined to think my dissatisfaction with the Wildrose Alliance somehow makes the government party a more attractive option. Let's be clear here: if there is a problem with Wildrose people making getting elected an end-in-itself instead of a means to an end, it remains a bigger problem yet with most P"C" party people. As longtime Leg watcher Marc Lisac observed in 2004:
[W]hy would anyone with a solid position in the community want to run for the opposition? The prize for election is putting up with casual insults in question period, being largely ignored by the media, watching government backbenchers earn much more money by virtue of being appointed to this agency or that board, and knowing that one's future employability outside politics is likely being impaired. The most attractive choice is to fight for a nomination in the governing party.

You have to be a saint to run for the ragged, perpetually debt-ridden shells that pass for opposition parties in Alberta. A saint, or someone with the character of a stubborn, defiant buffalo facing directly into a stiff wind coming off the mountains. Most people in public life here are neither. Contrary to the stereotype of the defiant individual, the province is full of people who take the easier path and join the party (literally and figuratively).

There is accordingly a context to my issues with Wildrose. That context includes that fact that the governing party has to take a lot more responsibility for the spending spree of the last decade than the opposition. Also, even if the Wildrose caucus successfully led an effort to kill off the restriction on teachers' right to strike, for some other planks like the right to not associate with a union and the secret ballot, it was "close but no cigar" in terms of getting them eliminated from the policy book. With the P"C" party, in contrast, you have a party that, as a government, introduced legislation that had clauses like section 29 of the Labour Code: "[e]mployees to be union members."

I have regularly returned to the issue of unions because I think how a politician is inclined to deal with this interest group is a far more revealing indicator of fiscal conservatism than nebulous talk about cutting back on spending. Remember how the unions howled at the Klein cutbacks in the mid-90s? What has changed such that spending restraint today wouldn't involve a confrontation with the unions? Premier Stelmach called the limiting of teachers' right to strike which Wildrose used to stand for "draconian," but in New York State ALL public employees are banned from striking ALL the time by section 210 of the Public Employees Fair Employment Act, more commonly known as the Taylor Law. Yet New York unions are still in the saddle. An expert panel hosted by the New York Times titled "Can California and New York be saved?" returns repeatedly to the idea that New York's new governor "has to steel himself for the long run and be prepared for the wave of ads from unions claiming the sky is falling." In Illinois where union muggings of the taxpayer are, if anything, even more egregious than in Albany or Sacramento, the Republican candidate for governor collected more than 1.7 million votes last week, losing by a thread, yet challenged the unions directly. The point being here that "draconian" is relative. As I noted in my last post, although Alberta supposedly has much in common with Rocky Mountain states like Idaho, the province allows closed shops when even the chair of the Swedish Building Workers' Union has said "closed-shop clauses [are] old-fashioned and [are] being removed" in Sweden. (As an aside, I have lived in Sweden more than a year and am a fan of much of the Scandinavian system, which in many respects is not as "left wing" as North Americans presume, e.g. a lower corporate tax rate than the UK and the USA, and perhaps the world's most radically free market in schools, schools that, by the way, privilege Christianity in the curriculum).

As I said before, the key problem is "not how much will be going to the unionized public sector per se" but how Alberta (and North America in general) decides how much is too much. Imagine an audience with some politicians on a stage in front of them. Now randomly pluck one "ordinary person" from the audience and sit them on a stool on the stage. Now invite the politicians to talk about how much that person should be paid and then vote, as an audience, for the politician who has said the most convincing thing and, by this mechanism, determine the pay. That the politicians will engage in a bidding war to pay the most should be as obvious as the fact that studio audiences invariably root for a game show contestant to win spectacular amounts of money. As much of a circus as this hypothetical scenario would be, reality is considerably worse because it isn't nearly as transparent: collective bargaining agreements are not conducted on public television.

Now having said this, if anyone should ask why I quit the Wildrose Alliance, it is not over a policy difference. Nobody gets all the policy they want out of a political party that represents a significant proportion of society. It is rather the way the party made a move that wasn't anti-any particular policy I favoured, but anti-policy period.

For whatever reason, an elected provincial politician, Doug Griffiths, wanted to talk policy, not politics, and Wildrose Executive Director Vitor Marciano (with the possible agreement of others) decided to try and make money for his party off of the uninformed grassroots using that very fact. Talking policy instead of politics is what my whole motivation has been since I left Ottawa's policy shops. Politics is a means to an end. If the end is to try scare politicians like Griffiths out of saying what he has been saying, I'm working for the wrong team. It's as simple as that, really.

Former minister Allan Warrack's comments about bringing an HST to Alberta on Alberta Primetime last Monday hit almost all the bases in terms of a concise defence of the idea. The segment quite likely would have never occurred, and Professor Warrack thus not have been given a soapbox, had Griffiths not made the effort to push the debate into the general culture. Wildrose not only failed to play enabler with respect to bringing a conversation to Albertans that I've made it something of my personal mission to bring, Wildrose actively contributed to trying to marginalize the conversation as unacceptable.

British Columbia doesn't have anything like Alberta's royalty revenues yet, as of this coming January, the corporate tax rate is no higher (10%) than in Alberta and a person earning $45 000 would pay almost $1000 less in income tax in BC than in Alberta. BC's tax on carbon does not bother me at all since I haven't owned a car for more than 8 years and the policy makes it that much less likely that BC would be targeted by a hostile foreign public relations campaign. This while BC, population 4.5 million, spends $40.6 billion and Alberta, population 3.7 million, spends $39.3 billion. The BC deficit is furthermore far more manageable. Calgary-based George Koch, writing in Alberta Venture in October, noted that "we Albertans seem a complacent lot, addicted to our government entitlements," and lamented the lack of leadership, observing that "[f]or the wilful leader, public support is a bank to draw on rather than just a wave to ride." With the exception of people like Doug Griffiths, Alberta's politicians all seem to be out surfing.


Apparently I'm not alone in terms of general frustration. Mike Moffat from Western, Stephen Gordon from Laval ,and Andrew Coyne have been referring to each other's work for a while now and they are all unimpressed with the direction of Canadian politics.


Anonymous said...

Now, if only you and Doug would start talking policy on royalty roll-backs and Alberta's ridiculous flat tax instead of targeting public sector employees. Sigh...

Tim Smyth said...

One of weird things I have been thinking about is that metrification, the GST, and the embracing of free trade in the late 1980s all of which I would argue were policies that helped Canada greatly in terms of competitiveness vis a vis the United States could not have happened without the support of not just of many federalists in Quebec but also much of the separatist/sovergnity movement i.e. people like Lucien Bouchard and Bernard Landry. If one remembers all of the policies I mentioned were opposed by many in the rest of Canada on a completely visceral emotional level just as the HST is being opposed today in BC, AB, and SK. In fact the GST would probably not have passed in 1990 without the agreement of the Bourassa government to become the first province to harmonize its provincial sales tax and the support of Mulroney's relative large Quebec caucus. I have not actually been able to confirm this but I have been told that the early Bloc members in parliament like Bouchard and Jean Lapierre all voted for the GST in 1990 when the rest of opposition i.e. NDP and Liberals were against it. At the provincial level in Quebec both the Liberals and the PQ have both been strong supporters of harmonization from day one just as with NAFTA and metrification.
In the present day I wonder if Quebec is actually a province people should look at more in terms of pushing for economic reforms. If you actually look at data by people such as Jack Mintz at worst Quebec is in the middle of the pack in terms of encouraging new business investment and as such is a better place to invest than Brad Wall's Saskatchewan and until the recent changes in Ontario and BC tax policy was better than both of them additionally.

Brian Dell said...

I wouldn't call Quebec much of a model but I do think that the Europeans are more of a model than many North American "conservatives" would take them to be. I'm thinking here of the fact that corporate tax rates, for example, are generally lower over there, taxation having been shifted some over to a VAT. In my view this is because Europeans are more responsive to the latest research which in turn reflects a greater willingness to defer to authority. In North America, a lot of people are suspicious of IMF types, reckoning that these finance and economics experts represent a foreign, big city elite.

Tim Smyth said...

After your twitter posting regarding Bruce Ralston I remembered an interesting thing vis a vis the NDP, Quebec, and the HST. About two weeks ago I noticed Flaherty was asked during question period by the Bloc about HST transition funding for Quebec own version of the HST. Instead of giving a typical cheap shot answer Flaherty said he was personally involved in negotiations and had discussed the HST as recently as the day before with the Quebec Finance Minister.

The problem for the NDP in all this is that their Finance critic and lone Quebec MP Thomas Mulcair has come out in favor of HST transition funding for Quebec despite the apparent contradiction in policy that has not been picked up by the media. If a bill to implement some form of the HST or provide HST transition funding to Quebec comes to the floor Jack Layton could be in really sticky situation. My sense in BC NDP MP's would just assume vote no and burn Mulcair who they don't particularily like in the populist us and them nature of BC politics Mulcair is very much one of "them". In the context of Quebec though the QST/HST has almost universal support and I don't see how voting down HST transition funding would be seen as anything other than a slap in the face to province by the NDP.

I also have noted that Ted Morton seems to have inserted himself into the HST debate. I am not sure why or what for.