There is some call for applause that Alberta’s Progressive Conservative party has chosen Alison Redford as their new leader and Alberta’s new premier.
Apart from making history by becoming the province’s first woman premier, Redford is the province’s most educated premier since Peter Lougheed and by far the most experienced individual with international affairs to ever grace the premier’s chair in Alberta. She also appears to be more liberal than almost any of her caucus colleagues.
But how much more liberal? And does it matter in terms of what she can actually accomplish?
Five bucks to vote
One of the ironies of how the Alberta PCs choose their leader is that anyone who wants to participate in choosing the new leader, who then automatically becomes premier, only has to lay down $5 to vote. And they can do it pretty much to the last minute. About 28,000 more people — many canvassed by diehard Liberals and NDPers as well as non-partisans who never vote for the Tories — voted on the second ballot for Tory leader than on the first and most of the new voters cast their ballots for Redford.
In other words, Redford owes her victory to non-PCs. Those individuals are, as Troy Media editor in chief Doug Firby so succinctly put it, “Drive-By Tories” who are not going to stay with that party and try to prevent the “real Conservatives” from choosing the usual right-wing candidates in time for the next election.
Even if Redford could clone herself in enough Tory-leaning constituencies to persuade her caucus to follow her on all issues, how much would change in Alberta? Not much. In the short term, there will be a restoration of monies recently cut from the province’s underfunded education system. And talk of a full-blown two-tier health care system, which has been present from the beginnings of the Ralph Klein era, will be off the Tory agenda, at least for a few years. Egregious legislation placing the interests of utility companies over landowners will be scrapped or at least modified.
While these are welcome changes, they leave unaddressed the basic conservative mythology in Alberta politics: that we can catch up to and then exceed the social and environmental programs other Canadians enjoy without taxing wealth in the province. Alberta has a flat tax on income that favours the wealthy, the country’s lowest corporate taxes, and ridiculously low royalties on energy. It has chosen the opposite route to oil-rich Norway, which has managed to become even wealthier than Alberta and to provide far better social services while keeping its oil under public ownership and taxing its citizens, especially the better off, to provide services. While Alberta has a paltry $12 billion in its Heritage Trust Savings Fund, Norway’s equivalent has $515 billion to provide services to its people when the oil runs out.
Corporate profits rose 414 per cent
From 1989 to 2008, corporate profits in Alberta rose 414 per cent but none of this increase resulted in increased revenues for the provincial government. During that period government spending as a percentage of GDP shrank 40 per cent.
Redford defends Alberta’s existing tax structure. She claims the money for improved social programs will come from economic growth, a claim that seems delusional at a time when the global economy is flat and when environmental disasters have demonstrated that it is no longer possible to avoid questions of the distribution of wealth by simply constantly ‘growing the economic pie.’
Redford also is an ardent supporter of public-private partnerships and contracting out to the private sector to fulfill government obligations. But all the research suggests this conservative approach costs the public more in the long run and results in a decline in public services. So once Albertans get over the idea that they have done something radical in electing a sophisticated, worldly politician, they may find that in fact the “changes” that she proposes are same old, same old, and the service deficits in education, health, social services, and the environment of the Klein and Stelmach eras remain in place.
Alvin Finkel is professor of history at Athabasca University and co-chair of the Alberta Democratic Renewal Project.