Friday, March 29, 2013

Was Ralph Klein a Great Premier?

 I have three questions for Ralph Klein's admirers in both of our major provincial parties.

First, wasn't it a good investment for federal and provincial governments
to lavish money upon the City of Calgary for the 1988 Olympics, even though
they were both up to their eyeballs in debt at the time? Should they really have waited until they had paid down their debts first, as Klein would later say about public infrastructure spending (though not when he was the Mayor of Calgary and gratefully accepting this money)?

Second, why is it wrong to mortgage our children's future through fiscal
means, but perfectly okay to mortgage our childrens' future by using up the
revenue from their non-renewable resources to subsidize current consumption
through lower taxes and paying off debts incurred in the past?

Third, do Martha and Henry wait until their mortgage is completely paid off
before buying things that will advantage their kids' health, education,
welfare and happiness? Do they even sell many of their most precious assets in order to do so?  If not, then why should our government?


Ralph Klein was one of those larger-than-life figures who emerges in politics from time to time, a populist politician with the common touch who respected everyone who was willing to do an honest day's work.  His strong personal conviction, his determination to do what he set out to accomplish and to brave  the political risks of doing so--and his deep personal humility, as when he confessed to his drinking problem after the unfortunate incident in an Edmonton homeless shelter--all point to the verdict that he was a great person.

But was he truly a great premier?  Preston Manning  and Danielle Smith certainly think so.  They point to his fiscal record and his willingness to cut services and experiment with health care in order to eliminate the debt without raising tax rates as a great achievement which "left  Alberta  stronger than when he found it".  (Did it?)They see him as second only to Ernest Manning as the greatest premier in Alberta history.  Premier Alison Redford also greatly admires Klein, both as a politician and as a human being, but has also implicitly criticized his  one-dimensional prioritizing  of deficit elimination in her references to the neglect of infrastructure spending during the past decade--a neglect that she is trying to remedy now, even at the cost of  once more going billions of dollars into debt.

Clearly then, the debate over Ralph's policies, and whether he was as good or better than Peter Lougheed as a model to follow, is more than just a parlour game for political junkies. For Alberta's choice of heroes lies at the very heart of what is currently at issue in Alberta public policy and politics.

My own view is that Klein's stress upon the single overarching goal of debt elimination, while impressive as an accomplishment and obviously beneficial in certain respects, was not the wisest strategy for the government, then or now. Debt reduction should be a predominant goal when debt-to-GDP is either comparatively or historically high. But once it is under control, other goals--such as building new infrastructure for Canada's richest and still fast-growing province, replenishing Alberta's Heritage Trust Fund for future generations, reducing dependence on energy revenue and investing in other potential sources of comparative advantage for the province--become relatively more important. Low taxes, low royalties, and low debt are important aspects of Ralph Klein's legacy. But so too are the depleted Heritage Fund,  half a billion dollars' worth of unrepaired and unrenovated schools in Edmonton; an un-twinned and potholed highway to Fort McMurray; and the current attack upon Alberta's universities.

Premier  Redford got off to a rocky start when she tried to combine a Klein-like dependence  upon energy revenues with a very un-Klein-like optimism about the price of oil.  Now she combines Klein-like flat income taxes along with no PST or medical premium, all the while insisting, pace Peter Lougheed, that billions must be spent on infrastructure  ("paying for schools without paying for teachers to work in them," as one friend of mine put it.) She cannot have it both ways, as Ralph Klein did when he was mayor and debt-ridden federal and provincial governments lavished infrastructure money upon his city for the 1988 Olympics; for the most part, she has to raise her own taxes.

She should realize that she cannot win the race with Danielle Smith to be a Ralph Klein -clone. Nor should she want to. Her task is to remind Albertans that it is Peter Lougheed, not Klein or Manning, who deserves to be remembered as its greatest premier.


Anonymous said...

Klein DID NOT eliminate Alberta's debt without raising taxes. He introduced numerous user fees, which are still in place, and a provincial income tax surcharge for incomes over $50K specifically to pay down the debt. You should do your homework instead of repeating the misinformation of the corporate media.

Mark Crawford said...

Fair comment. In fact almost all governments that strive not to raise basic income tax rates actually do end up raising fees and imposing surcharges. I have only been living in Alberta since 2007 , so I tend to trust what I hear in the media.

But that actually supports my more general argument , which is that he needed to do more about revenue in order to attend to Alberta's growing infrastructural needs.

Anonymous said...

Klein also sold valuable Alberta public assets to "balance" the budget. Klein also allowed the most profitable oil and gas sectors of the economy to extract the people's resources at bargain basement prices.

The results of these short-sighted measures are evident with Alberta having successive deficit budgets.

We are witnessing the same poor economic policies in BC.

Anonymous said...

Having worked in the Fort McMurray area I was amazed after decades of increasing industrial activity and population growth that little was done to improve transportation infrastructure. The government finally put in highway interchanges to allow residents of Timberlea and Thickwood access that didn't take 30-45 minutes to get down the hill to the highway.

Mark Crawford said...

Exactly. Both of the last two comments are spot on. I couldn't agree more.

Anonymous said...

"I have only been living in Alberta since 2007,"

Research can be done from any location.

"so I tend to trust what I hear in the media."

Seriously? Corporate media is the last source you should trust.

For starters, I highly recommend you look into the propaganda model developed by Noam Chomsky & Edward Herman. There is also a great deal of literature available from many others about how corporate media serves it customers (i.e. other corporation).

In fact, serving his corporate masters is the ONLY thing Ralph Klein did well, other than being an accurate representation of the average Albertan.