Sunday, March 7, 2010

Catching Up: Alberta's Speech From The Throne

Alright, Nation - a month has passed since the Speech from the Throne was delivered by Lt. Governor Norman Kwong. A lot, obviously, has happened SINCE then.

But, in the interest of going back and finishing the blog posts that I've been trying to get rattled off over the past month, we're going to start at the beginning of the backlog - which is my analysis of the Throne Speech.



The speech was somewhat light on specific details - but most Throne Speeches are. The Throne Speech is designed to give a basic outline of the direction in which the government plans to take the province over the next 12 months (or, alternatively, to throw in a red herring about changing the lyrics to O Canada so people don't look at the rest of the speech too closely - but I digress). The REAL details come in the budget. So, I won't belabour the point that the details in the speech are a bit fuzzy.

Alberta Capital Bonds were announced early on in the speech. I've got to say that while I'm not in love with the fact that we NEED to borrow money from Albertans to pay for vital infrastructure, I'd rather go about it THIS way than through raised taxes. At least by raising money through bonds, the people of Alberta will be able to decide for themselves if they wish to participate. Is this debt? Absolutely, it is. And I hate that it's needed. But, I can't think of a better way to address our current infrastructure needs - right now, TODAY - than through the issuing of Alberta Capital Bonds. All things considered, if we HAVE to assume debt, I'd rather owe that money to Albertans than to China.

The Sustainability Fund is brought up several times in the speech - and with good reason. Alberta went into this recession with money in the bank, and we were one of the only jurisdictions to have to foresight to squirrel money away - probably because our history has taught us that what goes up will inevitably come down, especially here in Alberta. The fact that the government had the foresight to put money away, like most of us have to, is to be commended. What I have yet to see, though, is a firm commitment to replenish that money - or even grow the account larger in the future. You can't stop thinking about the next rainy day just because there are drops falling right now - focus on today, but keep planning for tomorrow.

There is mention of "living within our means" in this speech. It's hard to write about this knowing, as I do, what the subsequent budget contained, but I will try to come up with a suitable mix of reaction and context: We absolutely HAVE to live within our means. As I mentioned recently in response to a commenter on another post, there is no such thing, in my estimation, as "government money" - it's MY money, and YOUR money, and our politicians have an obligation to treat that money with the same respect when spending it as they do with our democratic franchise when exercising it.

Okay, bad example. But still...

There are areas on the "government spending map" that look like fiscal black holes - money goes in, and then utterly and completely disappears. And the holes are never filled - they're still sitting there, yawning wide open, waiting for more dollars to fall into their gaping maw. We have to, as a province, have a discussion amongst ourselves about what we think is important government spending, and what is not. And it needs to be an exhaustive discussion, with specifics. The 2 biggest "black holes" are education and health care, by far. Yet, if we have a series of town hall forums or surveys, they'll come up as the highest priority areas for spending - and with good reason. I have absolutely no issue with those priorities. But then, the discussion needs to be taken one step further: What, SPECIFICALLY, in Health Care is a high priority for spending? Research? Administration? Centralized hospitals, or smaller, regional health centres with trauma and urgent care capacity? Preventative medicine? Chiropractic? Dental? Massage therapy? Nutrition? Health workforce replenishment? More beds? More doctors? We need to have this discussion, and a similar one about education, because throwing more money into the black holes is not sustainable - it will ALWAYS be needed, along with much more. The money will run out long before the need - so, we have to have a rational discussion about what we expect from these government departments and how we feel services should be paid for. Marking our "x" next to a candidate and their party's "vision" once every 4 to 5 years is a shirking of our personal responsibility to make this system work.

In the short term, the stable funding mentioned in the Throne Speech will at least allow the Health system to plan for the next few years. Which is good.

Gang reduction strategy? Sounds good to me. More cops? Great. More child care spaces? I'd settle for BETTER child care spaces, but the population is growing in this province (just not in the Savage household any time soon), so I'm sure the added spaces will be more than useful.

Affordable housing units? Very good - there are a LOT of "working poor" in the province, particularly in Calgary, who end up stacked like cordwood in ratty apartments because they're caught in the cycle of needing to work 60 to 80 hours per week to make ends meet, and can't take the time or money to train for something that pays better. 11,000 units will be helpful, but I don't know if it goes far enough. The construction of these units, by the way, also keeps tradespeople employed, and paying taxes - so this isn't money that's just being flushed. It's important, though, that we avoid the natural inclination to "ghetto-ize" certain neighbourhoods, by putting large quantities of affordable units smashed together into one place (District 9, anyone?). It's not societally productive to marginalize those most in need of help, and hiding them on the wrong side of the tracks so the upper middle class can forget that they're there. The children of those families deserve better than an urban apartheid. It bodes well that they've put notorious Red Tory Jonathan Denis on this file.

The government wants to help us save for retirement. Sure, I can get down with that. There are important questions to be answered, though - chief among them, is "where does the seed money for the system come from?". Will the CPP just send the amounts contributed from Albertans so we can set up an Alberta Pension Plan? Don't count on it. And let's not forget that the entire public pension system is going to be under immense strain once the Boomers start turning 65 and retiring en masse... which should be right about... now. (Boomers born 9 months after our boys started coming home from Europe should be turning 65 in Feb. 2011 - children of troops from the Pacific theatre will be turning 65 next summer)

Regarding the "new vision for education" mentioned in the Throne Speech - I don't know what the new vision will look like, but I saw the trial balloon that was floated regarding fine arts education, and it was absolutely terrible - high school music and drama courses would be GUTTED under the proposed changes. There might be something in the new vision that undoes the damage, but seeing will be believing.

Fostering economic growth in the North through infrastructure building makes good sense, and I'm glad to see this commitment being made. These aren't just the oil fields of today - it's also the grain belt of tomorrow.

The competitiveness review is coming out soon, and the Throne Speech talks about this. I can not emphasize the following statement enough, so rather than bolding it, increasing the font, or underlining it I'll just say it with a typically long-winded E.S. preamble: Predictability and stability are key for the royalty regime. Set the number, set the system, and then CARVE IT IN STONE. No more tweaking - even if it's a tweak that will work better for producers AND for Alberta. Set the system, announce that this is how it's going to be until whenever - 2020, 2030 - and then walk away.

Businesses that are looking at making billion-dollar commitments spanning decades want to know exactly what the regime is going to be. We don't need to "Roll back" the premiums to the Klein-era levels - we just need to stick by whatever levels we DO set. A percent here or there is not as important to these companies - and to their financial backers - as knowing, beyond a shadow of a doubt, exactly what the regulatory environment is going to be in the long-term. If you build it - and then leave it alone - they will come. We've got the infrastructure, the educated workforce, and (most importantly) the OIL. But it's no wonder why some companies hesitate to invest, when they know that waiting 6 months might get them a better deal - or that investing now, with a razor-thin margin - might come back to bite them if the regime changes 6 months from now. Removal of that uncertainty is the single best way to encourage investment in Alberta's energy sector.

The speech then talks about protecting the environment without crippling the economy (good), and about energy conservation (VERY good).

Then we get to the traditional "Alberta's place in Confederation" section of the Throne Speech. In a nutshell: "To heck with you guys and your superior attitudes, we're not kids anymore!". Most notable in this year's version is the statement that the government is going to loudly complain to the Feds when transfer payments for things like health are lower to Alberta than promised, or than to other provinces - in essence, Alberta will pull what is referred to locally as "A Bronconnier" to make sure we get a fair share back from Ottawa, which - when considering what we put IN, is the least that Stephen can do.

Those are my thoughts - what are yours?

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