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Lean times, hard choices


There are few simple solutions in the real world of societal economics.

Even if the ideas seem unassailable — that government is almost always, at some level, an inefficient and costly service provider, for example — getting to the crux of the problem, and fixing it, requires time, skill and clarity.

And it requires committed political leadership, and an enduring mandate, to get it done.

You can’t just tear down a bureaucracy, and the culture that built it, and reconstruct it. There are huge systemic issues, and devastating human costs, that must be addressed. The roots of the bureaucratic structure run deep.

Similarly, expecting an overnight, definitive solution to a problem as vexing as Alberta’s budget deficit is neither prudent nor progressive. Haste makes waste, or at least makes for a wasteland of devastating social costs. Restructuring the tax model, creating an economic engine that is more than a one-trick pony, and protecting core services at the same time will require skill, determination and plenty of patience.

That’s not to say we don’t need a massive overhaul. We decidedly do need a diversified economy, a tax regimen that is uniformly fair, and a sustainable funding model for infrastructure and municipalities.

But, again, we can’t be impatient.

Red Deer College president Joel Ward’s words of caution, after attending last weekend’s Alberta Economic Summit, are instructive.

“I don’t think anything learned by the government will be taken into consideration for this coming budget,” Ward said after Premier Alison Redford’s invitation-only summit. “It’s really about what we might do going forward.”

In other words, knee-jerk reactions to economic problems are unwise.

We do need to repair Alberta’s economic model, but we should expect it to happen over the longer term.

Redford’s first post-election budget will be presented on March 7. It is being cobbled together out of the debris left after the Progressive Conservative government conceded it is facing a $6-billion deficit in energy royalties in the next fiscal year. (It has not conceded that its projections of a year ago were dishonest, and driven by a desire to be re-elected, but by now we all understand the impetus for last year’s rosy fiscal picture.)

That’s the kind of sobering news that few jurisdictions ever face, primarily because it is rare that a government is so reliant on one revenue source, generation after generation (the Leduc oilfield was discovered 66 years ago this week). And rare that a government is so recalcitrant, year after year, about building a solid, multi-faceted economic foundation.

That we have a made-in-Alberta problem can’t be denied. How can the province with the most robust economy in the nation, the lowest unemployment, the most political stability and a basic education system that is the envy of the world be in such a fiscal quagmire?

We have all the ingredients for success, but somehow we have frittered away a fortune and now look to a decidedly uncertain future.

It is never too late to get it right, of course, and we should be making a clear plan. And Redford should be as transparent as possible about that plan (she owes it to us, and her political future, to be so).

Certainly things like last weekend’s summit can lead to solutions (although this province’s past is littered with similar events that were either stage-managed by the Conservatives or the ideas offered were simply ignored, or both).

And the province’s invitation to us all to play with budget numbers (Your Choice Budget at www.budgetchoice.ca) is seemingly intended to let the average person feel invested in the process (and designed to show us how difficult the decision-making process can be).

But if we can get past the notion that there are quick-fixes, and begin to understand that a new Alberta requires planning and persistence, we just might be able to give this province the future we all deserve.

John Stewart is the Advocate’s managing editor.

 
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