Danielle Smith, leader of the Wildrose Alliance Party, was holding court with a bunch of reporters in the Rotunda of the Legislature on Tuesday, trying to let the air out of Finance Minister Ted Morton’s budget tires.
She was getting a laugh out of the gathered media stenographers with a good line: Now there are three left-wing parties in the Legislature!
Now, Ms. Smith was trained by the Fraser Institute – a so-called “right wing think tank.” No one will dispute the right wing part of that concept, though some of us may feel it’s a different kind of tank entirely. Regardless of that view, however, the Fraser Institute deserves credit for its genius for reducing complicated arguments to one-liners that get a knowing chuckle and appear to sum up the truth.
Like a lot of slogans, sometimes they sum up just enough truth to be dangerous, and therein lies their genius.
Take “Tax Freedom Day,” a concept much loved by the Fraserites, if not actually invented by them. It’s been well marketed, so by now everyone understands the concept without a journalistic backstory. It’s clever, and cleverly misleading. And notwithstanding the truth of the alternate proposition, Civilization’s Just Been Paid For For Another Year Day just doesn’t have the necessary snappy ring to it.
So, says Ms. Smith, there are three left-wing parties in the Legislature… Good one! Vintage Fraser Institute!
The only trouble is that her one-liner has pretty much got the true situation in the Alberta Legislature bass-ackwards.
Today, arguably, there are four right-wing parties in the Legislature.
Here’s Mr. Morton’s summation of his budget strategy: “Budget 2010 strikes the right balance between fiscal discipline and protecting core programs. It enhances our competitiveness by keeping taxes low and investing in infrastructure for the future, and positions us to be back in the black within three years.” (Emphasis added.)
Here’s Ms. Smith’s official line: “…A Wildrose Government would legislatively cap spending to the rate of inflation plus population growth, which this PC government has repeatedly failed to do.” (Ditto.) She also said: “The Wildrose Caucus is offering solutions that would help eliminate the PC deficit in two years.”
OK, so that’s what the right-wing right-wing parties say.
Here’s what Liberal Leader David Swann’s news release on the budget had to say: “…These spending increases are unsustainable.” The release didn’t make this promise, but who would bet Dr. Swann wouldn’t promise to eliminate the deficit in one year, given half a chance?
And here’s New Democratic Party Leader Brian Mason’s two bits’ worth, according to a pull quote, not available on-line, on Page A4 of Wednesday’s Edmonton Journal: “They’re spending the sustainability fund like drunken sailors and that is going to be almost gone in the next two or three years. …”
Do you see a common theme here? Granted, Mr. Mason’s comments taken in context are more nuanced. For that matter, so are Mr. Morton’s. But everyone, even Mr. Mason, seems to have drunk the spending-is-a-problem Kool-Aid.
Is it really? Look, you can always find an example of a tax dollar foolishly spent. The same would go for corporate dollars if you were ever allowed to look. And, yes, it is possible to spend beyond your means. But while this may not boil down to a quotable little Fraser Institute sound bite, the fact is that Alberta has a revenue problem, not a spending problem.
As Oliver Wendell Holmes quite rightly pointed out, it takes a certain amount of money to run a decent civilization. That’s what taxes are for, no matter how much the hyper-rich and the market fundamentalists may hate the idea. And in Alberta, we don’t tax some people nearly enough, and we don’t manage our taxes in a way that makes sense.
Our spending on most public services is low compared to other provinces. We could raise our taxes by more than $10-billion a year and still be the lowest-taxed jurisdiction in Canada. We could raise them by $14 billion and just meet the Canadian average!
If we brought back a fair taxation policy, instead of a flat tax that favoured the wealthy at the expense of everyone else, we’d have about $5.5 billion more in revenue. (Where are the huge benefits this Klein-era flat-tax scam was supposed to bring us? Where are our trickle-down riches?)
Moreover, we charge too little in royalties for the non-renewable resources that belong to all Albertans. If we’d had the same royalty structure as Norway, we would have brought in an additional $5.7 billion a decade ago, and presumably more in each year since.
Instead, we charge too little, then ride the oil and gas price roller coaster. We act as if the funding issues our government faces are the result of too much spending on public services, not the shortfall in revenues collected by the government. And everyone in the Legislature seems to agree. Everyone.
According to Ted Morton, quoted yesterday in the Edmonton Journal, “the last thing Alberta needs is two conservative parties.”
No, two conservative parties is just fine. The problem is, we have four.