Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Alberta politics in downward spiral

Although I could continue to blog from China if I bought a monthly subscription to a VPN service, use of Twitter, Blogger, Youtube, Facebook etc is not so essential for me that I can't just wait until I return to Alberta (probably after Christmas) or am visiting somewhere else. Given that I'm in South Korea this particular week, I will seize my chance to note how the Alberta political news that has emerged over the summer has been increasingly depressing.

To begin with the Wildrose, I've noted before that when the party leadership has rolled out what it says is the party platform, it has deviated from both conservative principles and what the party membership has historically supported, an example being the leadership's announcement that provincial achievement tests (PATs), something that the teachers' union has long opposed, should be killed off. As I noted at the time, the move put the party to the left of Red Tory Dave Hancock. As an aside, one has to feel a bit for the current Education Minister, because not only have Hancock's defences of testing now been rendered for naught by Premier-designate Alison Redford's promise to axe the tests (amongst other accommodations of the Alberta Teachers' Association agenda), but he took political fire for deficit easing cuts to his ministry while his new boss Redford scooped the easy political payoff that came with promising to promptly reverse those cuts. When I called attention to the fact that the Wildrose leadership's assertion that the PATs are "outdated" or "inadequate" clearly was not coming from either the grassroots or conservative pundits, I pointed the finger at floor-crossing MLAs Rob Anderson and Heather Forsyth, who showed their hand when they lobbied for union-friendly changes to party policy at the 2010 Wildrose AGM. Given that "caucus" had also elected to attack the party's free speech plank which called for the repeal of Bill 44's section 3 at that time, I am hardly surprised to learn that the recently rolled out party leadership position on human rights essentially caves on this issue as well.

Couple this with reports that party HQ is trying to suck up dollars from the constituency associations to support high spending (and salaries for staff who are hired and fired based on the leader's own counsel as opposed to constituency association recommendations) and I'm also not surprised to learn that several of the most gung-ho party organizers in Edmonton that I knew have finally thrown up their hands in frustration this summer.

Wildrose Finance critic Rob Anderson doesn't seem to be willing to go after health spending, education spending, or spending on unionized civil servants at a meaningful level of specificity. Hence Anderson has directed most of his fire at infrastructure spending, which happens to be the one form of government spending that actually creates economic growth. According to StatsCan, "Between 1962 and 2006, roughly one-half of the total growth in multifactor productivity in the private sector was the result of growth in public infrastructure." If this is how it is going to be, I'd sooner support a Liberal like Kevin Taft. Unfortunately, the Alberta Liberals have taken themselves quite completely out of the running as the thinking man's choice given that new Liberal leader Raj Sherman's idea of opposition seems to be leveling implausible allegations of conspiracy and coverup. Meanwhile Liberal MLA Hugh MacDonald, who earlier this year I identified as "easily the most effective MLA on the Heritage Fund committee," has left the party.

As for the governing party, the leadership vote has proven a grave disappointment. Instead of bringing some vitality to the Liberals or the Alberta Party, many people affiliated with the centre-left apparently decided to instead try to advance their agenda within the PC party, thereby making that particular tent even more suffocatingly huge. Former Liberal MLA Maurice Tougas has described the elevation of Alison Redford to the Premier's office as "a potential neutron bomb" that could destroy the Alberta Liberals.

Supposedly Alison Redford has influenced South Africa's legal system via her work with Nelson Mandela as a human rights lawyer. Although South Africa's 1996 constitution is "widely regarded as one of the most progressive in the world," the level of racial hatred and violence in South Africa is disturbingly high, notwithstanding the fact many liberals are relatively unconcerned because, unlike in the apartheid area, the violence has been privatized. While acknowledging that Redford has been generally effective on the crime file as Justice Minister, one of the classical differences between liberals and conservatives is that liberals are considerably more agitated about state coercion than private coercion and Redford's resume gives little confidence that she would be immune to the classic liberal syndrome of overestimating the extent to which government legislation can improve reality on the ground for private citizens. In 1997 Mandela, Redford's supposed mentor, bestowed one of South Africa’s highest honours on no less a humanitarian than Col. Qaddafi, saying “those who feel irritated by our friendship… can go jump in the pool.”

Redford promised that she will "ensure that caucus understands that their role in the future of government decision-making is critical," yet immediately upon becoming premier-designate she waved off any role, even superficial, for the elected opposition by declaring that the Legislature will not sit this autumn.

Most disturbing, however, is how exceedingly facile Redford's policy positions are. Given that any focus group or poll will tell you that health and education, especially health, are the public's top priorities, it is entirely unoriginal for a politician to say that these are her top priorities. Does she at least have some imaginative ideas for new revenue sources? Apparently not, since we're told she's been eyeing the Sustainability Fund to support her spending promises. This in contrast to leadership contender Doug Griffiths, who has took it upon himself to try to actually lead by challenging the public to think about fiscal sustainability challenges and in particular a retooling and modernization of the tax code. We know what Griffiths would have done with the briefing memos that reached his desk; he'd have been open to their arguments and, if convinced, would've tried to build popular support for moving in an unpopular but necessary direction. Yet the imaginative and intellectually curious Griffiths only managed to get first round support in the single digits. Redford is said to be a quick study, but it ultimately doesn't matter how smart a committed populist is since the policies will still be assessed on their popularity, not the strength of their supporting research or sophistication. How is Redford going to pay for her proposed $1500 Family Recreation Tax Credit, which is essentially another spending program despite its "tax credit" name and further narrows the tax base, a trend that is being widely lamented by contemporary tax economists, including those in Canada.

To those who dispute my line of argument here, I would call attention to Redford's lack of significant support from other elected representatives of her party. Representative democracy is marginally more likely to be fiscally disciplined that direct democracy, simply because representatives as a group are responsible for a coherent budget while general referendum voters can consider spending proposals in isolation. The art of serving as an elected representative is to a large degree the art of getting credit for spending and/or tax cuts while avoiding blame for spending cuts and/or tax increases. Pulling this off as a political party requires a disciplined team strategy, lest individual representatives break ranks to demand more spending or more tax cuts from their party while leaving responsibility for funding these demands on the party instead of themselves. It is this idea that left me distinctly unimpressed with the antics of Guy Boutilier, Raj Sherman, and now Alison Redford. As Sherman and Redford became popular with the public, they were in turn unpopular with their long-time party colleagues.

If it weren't for energy royalties that essentially knock 30% off the price of public services, there would be no way that Alberta could afford Premier Alison Redford.