Sunday, April 27, 2003

Canadian Politics – The Alberta Connection

As I mentioned a few days ago, two important political events took place in Canada during my recent visit. The first was the Quebec election and the return of the provincial Liberals, though under the leadership of the conservative Jean Charest.

The other event, actually events, occurred in Alberta, the other place where Canadian politics is interesting. The first Alberta event was typically Albertan, which means typically economic, but with strong political overtones: the Alberta government delivered its annual budget. This may not sound all that exciting since all governments engage in said activity, but there are a few things worth noting. First, Alberta once again delivered a balanced budget with a 1.2 billion dollar surplus (that’s Canadian dollars so it isn’t as impressive as it would be in American dollars but it is still substantial for a province of three million inhabitants). In addition the current Alberta debt, which was quite enormous during the late 1980’s and early 90’s is now down to about 4 billion dollars and declining every year. This needs to be contrasted with Canada’s three other largest provinces: Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia. Quebec and Ontario have been doing relatively well on the financial side lately and both provincial governments have brought down balanced budgets but with no substantial surplus, and each still carries a significant overall debt load. British Columbia is in much worse shape, running a large annual deficit on top of a huge overall debt thanks to years of inept socialist governments in Victoria.

Alberta’s comparative economic success, it would seem, is due to one thing: oil. It certainly is the case that Alberta has made incredible economic progress thanks to the province’s significant oil and gas industry. However, there’s more to it. In fact, the Alberta economy has diversified at an impressive rate such that the oil and gas sector now accounts for far less of the provincial revenue than it did only twenty years ago. Much of the reason for this is that Alberta is far and away the most entrepreneurial of Canada’s provinces with the most favorable corporate and private tax structures. Just as important, however, is the strong sense of independence among the Alberta population, a desire which is undoubtedly a political desire.

Now Albertans, infused with some of the virtues of their southern neighbors (a large portion of Albertans, especially those in southern Alberta and Calgary are descendants of American settlers) have always valued their political liberties. Between 1921 and 1971, the province was governed by political parties made in Alberta, without any connection to Canada’s national parties. And when the provincial Progressive Conservatives did take power in 1971, they demonstrated an equal concern for guarding the province’s rights. This dedication would become most apparent during the years of the National Energy Program when Pierre Trudeau’s Liberal government in Ottawa imposed a selective tax on Alberta’s oil industry that utterly desolated the province’s economy.

The provincial premier of the day, Peter Lougheed, did all he could to enhance provincial control over natural resources, which are constitutionally the preserve of the provinces anyhow. Subsequent Alberta governments have continued this pattern, attempting to increase, whenever possible, the domain of provincial rights. In this regard, Alberta is not unlike Quebec with both provinces taking the lead in the defense of provincial powers.

But Alberta, unlike Quebec, could not wield the power of a large province. Alberta’s population remained small until recently, and the economic fallout from the National Energy Program did nothing to help. As things stood, Albertans’ political desires were continually frustrated on the national level. As I’ve noted before, this had a great deal to do with the fact that Canada is still governed as though we’re living in 1867 when there were only four provinces with English Ontario and French Quebec as the two central powers. Canada has never adapted its federal political institutions to the growing importance of provinces like Alberta and British Columbia. Indeed, as it now stands the combined population of Alberta and British Columbia is almost equivalent to that of Quebec. And, in terms of representation in Canada’s House of Commons the latest census shows that Quebec should now have 65 seats with Alberta and BC having 64. However, such is not the case. As of the next federal election Alberta and BC will indeed have 64 seats, but Quebec will have 75. From the perspective of a western Canadian, one can’t help but be somewhat disgruntled.

This isn’t to say that western Canadians have not attempted to change things on the federal scene. Since 1993, the majority of the seats from the four western provinces have been won by first the Reform Party and then its offspring Canadian Alliance. The main political goal of the party has been to alter national political institutions to increase the role of western Canada in Ottawa. The party has had some success, rising from third place in 1993 to second place in 1997, surpassing the separatist Bloc Quebecois.

That the Canadian Alliance and the Bloc Quebecois are the second and third largest parties in the House of Commons after the perennially governing Liberals says a great deal about Canada. Though the Alliance does not seek western separation like the Bloc, it does share a profound political desire to increase the political role of its constituents. By contrast, the federal Liberals have won three consecutive majorities relying largely on their ability to sweep virtually every one of Ontario’s 103 Commons seats, a fact that only aggravates regional dissatisfaction. As a result, the federal scene, more than ever in Canada’s history has been a mirror of provincial political aspirations and slights.

The response of the federal government has largely been to languish in a pit of irrelevancy and scandal. Backers of Jean Chretien’s Liberals will note that his government did balance the budget, though whether this was due to the Liberals or more appropriately to the preceding Conservative government’s efforts to fix what was broken by the Trudeau government, is open for debate. What does seem to have happened, in any case, is the increasing destruction of the national Canadian political scene, and today we are at the point where Canada really has no national political life. Rather, the federal government of Canada is little more than a humanitarian agency or a non-governmental organization, comporting itself as such on both the international and national stage. Such would be the case both with its rejection of Canada’s traditional alliance with the English-speaking democracies during the Iraq war, and at home with the introduction of a useless and massively expensive gun registry.

In the absence of a national political life, all political life in Canada has moved to the provincial level. While there was some hope among western Canadians that the national scene could be changed through the Canadian Alliance, this seems to have more or less faded away. Undoubtedly, the Alliance will still do well in the western provinces, but it has become clear, especially to the government of Alberta, that the only way to have a true political life in Canada is to live it as a province. A lesson Quebec seems to have taken to heart.

This brings me back to the Alberta budget. Today, Alberta is an economic powerhouse. Over the last thirty years it learned not to trust the federal government and has struck out on its own, fostering direct relations with foreign governments, especially in Latin America, Asia and Washington DC. Also, as noted, its economy has diversified substantially. It is now using this economic power as leverage to increase its political power. And this brings me to the second event of importance that occurred while I was in Alberta. Shortly before I left, the provincial premier raised the possibility that Alberta would construct a “firewall.” The point is that, as with a computer, the wall would prevent the federal government from having control over money coming in and out of Alberta. In other words, the provincial government would start collecting mores taxes directly from Albertans and take immediate responsibility for such things as health care, pensions and policing, something that Quebec has more or less already been doing.

Oddly enough, it may well be that the election in Quebec will help Alberta in pursuing these objectives, because the new Quebec premier has somewhat the same objectives. It is worth noting as well that the new premier of Quebec and the premier of Alberta, far more than any other provincial premiers, have a notable presence on the national stage. Together, they could form a formidable alliance. This really shouldn’t be too surprising since it is ultimately these two provinces which are the most political in Canada, it is from these two provinces that have come all the suggestions for changing the political map of Canada in a substantial and truly political way. At the same time, the federal government has become less and less a government and more and more an NGO. It is likely this trend will continue, regardless of who takes over the federal government following Jean Chretien’s departure in 2004. It is one of the odd facts of Canadian political life that Quebec sought independence through referenda, while Alberta sought political reform through a new national political party. Ultimately, neither of these things, it seems, will come about through direct political action. What will happen is a sort of de facto independence for these provinces through a de facto political reform that renders the federal government little more than a figurehead, much like that far-flung monarch who still ostensibly rules our nation. In Canada, politics seems always to come in through the backdoor, but it finds its place at the table nonetheless.

For more on western Canada, see the recent series of articles running in the National Post. These include discussions of Alberta’s impressive wealth, the role Quebec will play in tandem with Alberta, and a few myths about the west that need to be put to rest.

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