Albertans have elected a pig-in-a-poke for a second time in a row

For business, an ideology-driven agenda – whether from the right or the left – doesn’t create favourable conditions for investment

Doug Firby

Common sense is not so common, observed the 18th century French writer Voltaire. Sadly, he could be talking about politics in Alberta today.

Albertans have been whipsawed by two back-to-back political parties that govern more by ideology than common sense. The NDP governed from the ideological perspective that the state should tax more and use that money to create the conditions for prosperity – a kind of soft-socialism. Albertans got sick of the resulting soaring deficits and tossed that party out in the hopes that a more fiscally conservative party could get the province’s economy moving again.

The simmering anger directed toward the NDP made for an easy election campaign for UCP leader Jason Kenney. He played on populist frustration with a government that seemed powerless to effect real change. (It is, coincidentally, unfair that the NDP ended up being blamed for a series of errors that preceding governments had made, and that quite literally could not be fixed overnight.)

Now, Albertans see that they elected a pig-in-a-poke a second time in a row. The UCP, promising fiscal common sense, instead in its early days is pursuing a slash-and-burn budget-cutting path that appears to be rooted in the widely discredited belief that low taxes alone will turn the province around. And, to make matters even more irritating, it is also pursuing its own values-driven agenda: cancelling the NDP carbon tax (knowing full well that a federal tax would replace it and wasting untold tax dollars on a court battle it will almost certainly lose), and such socially backward moves as weakening legal protections for gay-straight alliances in schools.

This supposedly fiscally conservative government is also spending $30 million a year in taxpayers’ money on the controversial energy “war room” information effort (officially the Canadian Energy Centre), that is supposed to be challenging misinformation from anti-oil lobby groups. It is – to put it mildly – a curious use of the public purse when there is already a privately funded organization, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, that does this very job, and does it well.

The lobby groups that are against the energy industry are prviately funded; why isn’t Alberta’s war room? To use public money to fund its efforts puts a lie to the UCP’s vow to create smaller government whenever possible.

Here’s the rub for business. Ideology – either on the right or the left – is not good for business. It doesn’t create more favourable conditions for investment and, in Alberta’s case, the UCP’s cost-cutting ideology does nothing to encourage genuine economic diversification.

Perhaps that is why the comments of Opposition leader Rachel Notley in a year-end interview with the Globe and Mail struck me as novel. She said she will run in the next provincial election “to take back our province and get it back on track” – including bring back a suite of tax incentives to encourage diversification and lure high-tech industries.

Conservatives typically talk about getting governments back on track, so there is some irony in that Notley has apropriated the language. But she has a point. A government that promises to get the province’s finances in order and then pursues other agendas is off-track, whether they realize it or not.

I also believe the UCP is taking the province off-track by cutting tax incentives aimed to encourage diversification. For evidence, think of the recent news that Calgary’s had lost a shot at attracting a high-tech firm because incentives had been cancelled.

Or, look to the quiet devastation of our film industry as a result of the UCP’s decision to end incentives. HDTV Productions, for example, announced it would be moving to B.C. after 37 years of operation in Alberta because “the recent Alberta budget does not, in our opinion, reflect the commitment to diversification of the Alberta economy.”

Where the common sense in those cuts?

Common sense would give us a government that would be careful with the public purse, and show the wisdom not to drive the province down a black hole of debt. But it would also continue the effort to: on one hand, help oil and gas get back on its feet while, on the other hand, continue the neverending quest to make our economy more recession-proof through diversification.

Really now. Is that too much to ask?

Doug Firby is Editor-in-Chief of Calgary’s Business and Edmonton’s Business.

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