Wednesday, February 24, 2016
For the past month I have been intending to write a column about Alberta politics and the comparisons that can be made with B.C., but it seems that our premier, Christy Clark, has beaten me to the punch! Which, of course, was the whole point. For her entire term as our premier she has been something of a one-trick pony, hoping that revenues from LNG would wash away her worries, obscure her bad decisions and help her to avoid difficult ones. Now, she realizes that her dream of easy money won’t happen before the next provincial election, so she has used the most recent B.C. Throne Speech to re-invent herself as the Queen of Economic Diversification. The Speech made it sound like Alberta could learn a thing or two from our glorious leader. Nothing could be further from the truth. While Clark manouevres to take credit for B.C.’s luck and geography, Rachel Notley has shown intelligent, visionary leadership as reflected in the 2016 Royalty review; the institution of a progressive tax system; a comprehensive infrastructure strategy; a new, greener, responsible image in relation to energy development; and an economic diversification plan that features $500-million royalty credit program for new petrochemical plants; a credible program for replacing lost apprenticeships in the trades sector; and a re-booted expert economic panel to advise the premier on diversification initiatives that spur economic innovation and job creation opportunities outside the oilpatch.
That is a huge improvement over Ralph Klein’s flat-tax, flat-Earth talk of “dinosaur farts” and steadily-accumulating reality of multibillion-dollar infrastructure deficits. From the time Peter Lougheed left office in 1985 until Rachel Notley took office in 2015, successive Alberta governments oversaw the production of many hundreds of billions of dollars of revenue from oil and gas (in 2014 alone, gross revenues from all hydrocarbons amounted to $111.7 billion and energy exports totaled $90.8 billion), including almost $200 billion in revenue for government, and used this “Alberta advantage” to subsidize both the highest per capita operating budgets and the lowest taxes in Canada. (It would be interesting to know how many millions in subsidized low taxes ultimately flowed into the B.C. real estate market.) That after three decades Alberta would have a paltry $17.4 billion in its Heritage Savings Trust Fund, major hospitals badly in need of repair, a lack of a mental health strategy, long waiting lists, and major unfulfilled needs in infrastructure, was an indictment of post-Lougheed conservatism, and of the short-sightedness of the Ralph Klein era in particular.
So Christy Clark wasn’t entirely wrong to criticize Alberta’s historical over-reliance on energy revenue. But to blame the Alberta NDP for any of those mistakes, or to heap undeserved credit upon her own party’s wisdom for avoiding them, is just plain political hogwash.