Magazine article Canadian Dimension

Dissent and Discipline in Alberta

Magazine article Canadian Dimension

Dissent and Discipline in Alberta

Article excerpt

With the election of the Harris government in Ontario, the eastward shift of the "common sense" conservative revolution seems to be in full swing. The Harris government's downsizing plans followed the path cleared by Alberta Premier Ralph Klein's cut and slash heroics. And Klein is apparently all the more popular for it with approval ratings in the high 60 per centrange.

The popularity of deficit reduction and spending cuts would not have been possible without the pervasiveness of the belief that deficits and debt are exclusively the consequence of "excessive" spending on education, health care and social programs. After being told this often enough, the majority of Albertans seemed willing to accept the painful medicine being dished out by the Klein government, especially if the bulk of the cuts targeted a minority of Albertans: social assistance recipients, students, civil servants, health care providers and users, union members and seniors. After all, the notion of fiscal discipline is a seductive one, more so if someone else is being asked to bear the burden of this discipline.

To say, as outside commentators are wont to do, that Albertans have embraced these government initiatives and that Albertans tend to be politically docile in term of resisting these actions misrepresents the power dynamics of life in Alberta. I would like to argue that the apparent success of this "common sense revolution" in Alberta has more to do with the substance underlying the government arguments. It is the ideological and disciplinary work undertaken by these organizations that has made the slash and bum tactics possible. The role of business in supporting the common sense of deficit reduction became evident to me when a colleague and I attempted to question the government's preoccupation with spending cuts. Government officials kept telling Albertans that the province had a spending problem. But our analysis of government public account data painted a very different picture. Our analysis suggested that it was royalty holidays granted to oil and gas companies and excessive spending on "industrial development", not social spending, that were to blame for Alberta's recent history of deficit. Furthermore, we suggested that government methods of accounting artificially inflated both the deficit and debt numbers being presented to the public.

In essence our argument was that Alberta had a revenue problem not a spending problem. Royalty holidays and other tax breaks to the resource sector reduced the implicit rate of taxation on oil from about 40 per cent in 1979 to less than 15 per cent in 1993.

Likewise, spending on industrial development (read grants to oil companies, farmers and failed diversification attempts) were four times the national average, amounting to $18 billion in the 1984-1993 period. Meanwhile spending on social programs over this period was less than the national average and had been falling in real dollar terms. Our conclusion was that the resource companies were paying less and less for the privilege of extracting more and more public resources, and it was the marginalized, the young, and the elderly that were being sacrificed on the altar of deficit reduction.

When we published a full page commentary on the results of our research in the Calgary Herald (Tuesday April 11, 1995), the reaction of business was swift. The next day Canada West faxed a twcf page letter to us. The following quotes from the introduction and conclusion give you a flavour of their response:

"Upon reading your article in the Calgary Herald entitled Deceptive Deficit, it is evident that the analysis you present is both simplistic and misguided ... the title of your article uses the word deceptive presumably to describe the Klein agenda. Isn't the word deceptive more accurately used to describe your analysis?"

Canada West is an Alberta-based think-tank modeled after the Fraser Institute, including its reliance on corporate funding. …

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