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Redford is right: Let's get beyond ideology

Appeared in the Calgary Herald
Release Date: April 29, 2012

Back in 1988 when I moved to Alberta for the first time, I was amazed at how reluctant the Progressive Conservative government was to enact significant policy reforms despite the obvious need. Deficits were the norm and Premier Don Getty’s government was bereft of any ideas beyond a massive tax hike. In the previous year, 1987, the Tories raised taxes by $1 billion, or 12.5 per cent relative to existing own-source revenues (a tax hike that today would equate to $4.4 billion).

Having come from British Columbia, I quickly figured out that Alberta’s government was afraid of being labelled “ideological.” It is a tag occasionally accurately applied. More often, it is used by people allergic to sober policy thinking—rather unfortunate if one is responsible for billions in government spending.

Which brings me to Premier Alison Redford’s post-election comment that we should all move beyond ideology.

I agree—which is why my columns are so often devoted to analyses of policy in Alberta and abroad. But the Premier and her fellow MLAs will be tempted to dismiss ideas and policy reform as ideological when in fact they originate in arithmetic and in what works elsewhere.

That would be a mistake, but one that already occurs. For example, when some politician or pundit tries to frighten the public away from more private involvement in health care, be it in delivery or insurance, it takes a millisecond before someone labels the proposal “American” or “ideological.” The assertion is nonsensical, given how European nations have plenty of private participation and with universal coverage.

That other tag—the knee-jerk “American” one—also helps explain the reluctance by some to embrace what I will label fiscal conservatism, and let’s be clear about what the term represents: an attachment to property rights, solid institutions, independent courts, the rule of law, free trade, competition (and thus no monopolies in the public or private sector), sensible and not overweening regulation, rare instead of routine deficits, and moderate tax levels.

These ideas, worked out over centuries based on what works and how they allow individuals, families and societies to flourish, pre-date Canada. They come from our classic liberal British heritage and also from the "liberty" side of the impetus for the 1789 French revolution.

More recently, the preference for fiscal conservatism revived first, not in Alberta, but in British Columbia.

Consider privatization. In the late 1970s, British Columbia's Social Credit government under Premier Bill Bennett started bundling together, in one entity, companies and assets that the NDP had previously nationalized. The holding company, the British Columbia Resources Investment Corporation (BCRIC), was then distributed to each British Columbian in the form of five free BCRIC shares.

Or consider another conservative notion: limited government.

The first government to try to limit the size and scope of government after the expansionist 1960s and 1970s was again Bennett's, starting in 1983 with its "restraint" program. That was a full decade before budget reductions introduced by Ralph Klein, and 12 years before Mike Harris took power in Ontario.

Bennett pruned government not on ideological grounds, but on what today should be known as the “Greek precautionary principle:” too many deficits will wreck the private sector, public sector, programs, and taxpayers alike.

The pioneering West Coast ideas initiated by Bennett and his colleagues were later picked up by other governments of all partisan stripes: Brian Mulroney's Tories (privatization); the Saskatchewan NDP, the federal Liberals and Ontario Conservatives (who balanced budgets and then lowered historically high taxes).

Going back further, the notion of a limited government that lives within the means of the taxpaying public was a core conviction of Canada's founding fathers.

To use one example, consider this 1878 speech: "It is the sacred duty of the government to take only from the people what is necessary to the proper discharge of the public service; and that taxation in any other mode is legalized robbery."

That speech was not, as might be presumed, delivered by some "right-wing" American or "Albertan" ideologue. It came from Sir Richard Cartwright, Canada's first post-Confederation Liberal finance minister.

The PC government MLAs are going to have to shed their fear of being labelled ideological or American. They will need to reform government, bring in European-style health care, and ensure public sector wages and pensions do not further escalate above private sector norms and taxpayers’ ability to pay. They will also need to reverse themselves and ensure accountability in education, instead of what the Tories now plan to do: disrupt standardized testing so as to make school comparisons impossible.

Far from being ideological or “American,” such actions would pay attention to mathematical realities. In addition, they would mimic Canada’s history of good government from Richard Cartwright to Bill Bennett.