… we should rise above such petty, narrow views, and look at the advantages that would accrue from our being a large, united, and free people.
- John McMillan, Canadian Father of Confederation
In 1864, the Province of Canada had a large problem: it was ungovernable. The Legislative Assembly, which was elected in 1863, could be described as having five factions: Independent, Liberal-Conservative, Bleus, Liberal and Moderate Reform. These factions had disparate points of view and no cohesive vision. However, these factions were only a small example of the divisions that were found of society. Between 1841 and 1864, there were a number of groups that held seats in the Assembly. They used names like the Radical Reformers, Clear Grits, Reformers, Ministerialists, Tories, Family Compact, the Rouges and the Patriote. As I said, the Province of Canada was ungovernable.
However, the Liberal-Conservative Prime Minister Sir John A. MacDonald wanted power. As his government was collapsing, his Liberal Opponent – George Brown – gave Sir John a governing proposal: form a Coalition Government with Mr. Brown so that they could create a union of British North American Colonies. Sir John accepted and the Great Coalition – as it came to be known – guided the Province of Canada into Confederation. It was the government that split the Province of Canada, Canada East and Canada West, into the provinces of Quebec and Ontario, respectively.
This moment in Canadian History should be heartening to every member of the Alberta Liberal Party and the Alberta Party; for, it shows the very weakness of the present Prentice Administration: the Prentice Administration is vulnerable to a big idea.
A little while back, I made a simple argument: Alberta needs a party with a political vision. Like a painting or a map, a vision provides voters with an idea of the plan a government would like to implement. Sir John A. MacDonald had one and so did the successful premiers of Alberta. Names like Sifton, Rutherford, Manning, Lougheed and Getty still ring throughout this province.
Since Peter Lougheed that vision has been a simple one: the development of the Oil Sands. That vision required a Liberal Federal Prime Minister to work with the Premiers of Alberta and Ontario and it obliged Syncrude to create the technology used today. The knowledge was shared with the industry and an important sector of modern Alberta was born. Alberta built Fort McMurray and the private sector developed the resources. If one looks at Prentice’s speech, one will see that the Lougheed’s vision is still the pre-eminent one in this province.
Now, let me be honest, Lougheed’s dream was edited a little by Ralph Klein. Klein required the development of the Oil Sands to be consistent with a no debt future. Consequently, one heard Prentice encapsulate both ideas in his speech and in the budget. So last week, Prentice was on the side of the majority of Alberta, along with St. Klein and St. Lougheed, bringing our “religion”, our belief system, from the brink.
In doing that Mr. Prentice has struck a master blow as a Political Strategist. If one thinks that Harper could play two dimensional chess well, Mr. Prentice is a master of 3D chess, if not 4D or 5D chess (where the additional dimensions are power of piece and/or time). Which for those who were wondering is most likely the reason why Danielle Smith and her 8 colleagues likely crossed the floor: Mr. Prentice had and continues to paint the ideological NDP and Wildrose Party into a corner.
In the case of the NDP, the box is obvious. The NDP would normally argue for tax increases and more regulation. By providing parts of that solution, Mr. Prentice has taken away the sting of Rachel Notley. She could argue for more taxes and more regulation which ultimately makes her undesirable for most voters. While, the Wildrose Party has the unenviable case of trying to say that more cuts could make the $5 to 8 billion dollar annual short fall disappear. Given the annual migration, the fall in revenue and the existing cuts coming to government, I have a hard time seeing how one could argue that we could do more with less. That is unless one was going to be wilfully blind to the reality of the situation.
This means that Mr. Prentice has sidelined two parties and possibly given room to the more pragmatic voices in Alberta Politics. Think about it, the Alberta Liberals or the Alberta Party no longer can be called “tax and spend” politicians. They can point to the problems of forty years of Tory rule and say one thing: “we all are going to raise your taxes, so listen to our vision”.
That’s right, for a party to win the next election that party will have to have a vision. They are going to have to say where they want to take the province. This will not be a conversation about today or even tomorrow, this will be a discussion about the province’s outlooks twenty, thirty or forty years from now. Prentice has made the argument that he would like to take the province “back to the future”. If Prentice is right this will mean smaller government, no debt and saving and investing through the Heritage Fund.
That is one option. The only problem with that option is that it has failed. After forty years, Alberta has about $17.2 billion. While Alaska – who did much of the same – has $52.8-billion in its Alaska Permanent Fund. Norway, however, took a different path. Through government ownership, high taxes, strict reinvestment rules and stringent legislation, they were able to generate $1 Trillion dollars in twenty five years. Or put differently, with less time and more rules, Norway was able to make eighteen times more money. So Vision is the place to go.
Now that Vision can take many shapes. I have heard Todd Hirsch argue for a plan which focuses on the Universities, College and Hospitals and how we can export that knowledge or import patients. I have heard some argue for Green Technology and Green Energy which can also be exported to various Midwestern States and Western Provinces and I have heard some argue for the development of Calgary and Edmonton as engineering hubs given our huge human resource. Either way, there are tons of opportunities for the province and the Government of Alberta to exploit.
They are tons of big ideas that require big visions, big thoughts and big actions. If, for example, a future
Alberta Liberal Party or the Alberta Party Government were try to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, one could see the need for a Green Belt – similar to Toronto’s or Vancouver’s – to encase the cities of Calgary and Edmonton. However, it would not end there because given the traffic on Highway 2, there would also be need for intercity train service similar to Amtrak, Ontario’s GO Transit, Via Rail or the State of New York’s High Speed Intercity Passenger Rail to ease traffic volumes. I would argue that the people of Alberta would see that such a plan would be in the best long term interest of the vast majority of Albertans and we could talk through the future of any plan to ensure that those who are adversely affected can be provided for.
Either way, Premier Prentice has laid out a vision and he has indicated that taxes will be raised because of his vision. Premier Prentice is arguing that our present tax base is not enough and has given pragmatic opposition parties a hand. Consequently, it is for the pragmatic opposition to make a choice. They need to do more than talk about details like more or better schools, improved health care or the pace of Oil Sands development. The Alberta Liberals or the Alberta Party could come up with a vision; because if they don`t, Prentice will have won again.