Sunday, 29 March 2015



Alberta Bet It All on Black


A picture really is worth a thousand words. No offense intended to Donato, Aislin, the Edmonton Journal’s Malcolm Mayes and that witty fellow at the National Post who may or may not be able to draw, but the Globe and Mail’s editorial cartoonist Brian Gable is the country’s best. Ever. Wednesday’s panel, published one day before the Government of Alberta’s ‘We’re busted but it’s not our fault’ budget was further proof.


Gable’s scene was an oater cliché. The perspective situates the viewer in a saloon called Alberta at the moment a stranger enters. To the right side of the swing doors a pink menu lists the day’s specials: caviar, champagne, Italian truffles and lobster bisque. Outside there is a vague suggestion of the Rockies. The sky is purple and filled with silver rain and yellow lightening bolts. The wayfaring stranger, clad in black from hat to duster to gloves to pants and boots, stands in a puddle on the plank floor poised and ready to draw. He is labeled AUSTERITY. It’s impossible not to be reminded of a drunk, savage and avenging Unforgiven Clint Eastwood striding into Big Whiskey’s lone boozer with murder on his mind.


Alberta is peculiar; a parliamentary democracy that habitually gravitates to sustained one party rule, and always has since its entry into Confederation: Alberta Liberal Party, 1905-1921; United Farmers of Alberta, 1921-1935; Social Credit Party of Alberta, 1935-1971; Alberta Progressive Conservatives, 1971-present. The message to those who thirst for power in these parts is seductive: if you win a majority in the legislature there will be many, many days of wine and wild roses ahead.


Let’s pause and consider human nature and the dilemma of success. The goal of any advocacy group or political lobby with a single ounce of integrity is to cease to exist. Job’s done, goodbye and thanks for your time. We know that never happens. The job of a political party is a little different. The goal is to achieve power and maintain it. So what happens when the best interests of a party conflict with the best interests of the people who elected it into power?


Alberta is a funny place. Forty years of Tory rule has locked the province into the boom and bust fortunes of Big Oil. When the petro-economy’s humming like a dynamo Alberta feels the strain on her entire infrastructure. More people require more services, more schools, better transit, widened roads. When the price of oil tanks like Edmonton’s hockey team and government revenues crater the good times initiatives are either cut or scaled back. The cyclical lurching means that ultimately nothing is ever accomplished with any high degree of efficiency. Albertans are funny; we’ve tolerated four decades of Progressive Conservative fiscal hijinks since the exploitation of the tar sands. One premier shredded the public sector and then mailed every voter a cheque for $400.


The ‘transformative’ budget tabled Thursday in the legislature came complete with a staggering $5-billion deficit; blame OPEC and US President Obama’s hedging on the Keystone XL pipeline. The sitting premier of the province allowed that his ‘transformative’ austerity budget was the first step in weaning citizens off the teat of the energy industry, the driver of Alberta’s undiversified economy. The time had come for Albertans to look in the mirror and reflect upon a litany of poor decisions. And so citizens will be subjected to some 60 new or enhanced nickel and dime taxes including increased premiums on the usual suspects: gasoline, tobacco and alcohol. Healthcare premiums cancelled by a previous administration have been reintroduced. Ageing boomers will have to negotiate deeper cuts to an already overburdened healthcare system. Under-funded universities will grant degrees to paying morons. The future looks bright.


When you’ve put all of your eggs in one basket, bet everything on black gold, what do you do when your main avenue of revenue generation becomes a blind alley? Well, jeez, the energy industry puppet masters who manipulate the Tories have already laid off thousands of contractors, things are tough all over, so why raise the lowest corporate tax rate in Canada by a point or two? What about aligning Alberta with every other province and territory in the country by imposing a modest provincial sales tax on goods and services? Well, jeez, there might be an election this spring or next year and voters would recoil at the taste of strong medicine despite its long term benefit.

Just four political parties have governed Alberta during her 110 years as a Canadian province. History here shows us that once the incumbent gang loses an election, its members and banner vanish like cigarette smoke in night and fog. The brain trust of the ruling Tories is wise to be wary of potential doom. So the future and fate being tinkered with in the capital is that of the party’s and not the people. Alas, Alberta is the only place in Canada where the two are one and it must follow that what is good for the party…

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