Alberta is many things but never boring. Given the tumultuous status of our provincial economy, the falling market for the synthetic crude and bitumen coming out of our oil sands and the growing conflicts between the provincial government, the municipal governments and the province’s population of teachers, things are looking a little dour this holiday season. Here, then, is a list of changes that would help Alberta to stabilize its prospect and brighten its future in 2013 and beyond.
5) Increased Cooperation with Metropolitan Municipalities:
The Albertan way of life is no longer rural. Since 2006 the population of Calgary has grown from 988,193 to 1,214,839. Edmonton has grown from a population of 1,034,945 to a population of 1,159,869 in that same time period. With a total provincial population of 3,645,257 the percentage of Albertans who live in either Calgary or Edmonton is over 65% and growing. As this demographic shift continues, the municipal governments of the major metropolitan areas must become active participants with the provincial government.
If the arts wither in Calgary, as they have with the cuts in budget for the city’s primary museum and gallery, The Glenbow, they wither for over 33% of the province’s population. As the province’s major cities continue to grow, the lines that separate the responsibilities of the provincial and those municipal governments become increasingly blurred. It is therefore a matter of growing importance that those governments work in partnership to facilitate a higher quality of life for an increasingly dominant segment of Alberta’s population.
4) Appreciable Growth for the Political Left:
The Progressive Conservatives were elected into power in 1971 and have continued uninterrupted ever since. When Allison Redford was appointed premier after Ed Stelmach stepped down in 2011 she did so with a centrist bent that emphasized the importance of healthcare and education over the interests of industry and oil. This change was heartening and seemed in line with the growing leftist sentiments that have been colouring our province’s political scene since the election of Naheed Nenshi and formation of the Alberta Party. Redford went on to handily beat lobbyist-turned-politician Danielle Smith and her terrifyingly conservative Wildrose Alliance in April. Things were looking good. The Conservative Party was prioritizing people, provincial Liberal Party leader Raj Sherman had, arguably, made his party more relevant than they had been in years by shining a light on Alberta’s healthcare shortcomings and the centrist Alberta Party was growing in its numbers and influence. Our politics were stable and leaning towards the middle.
But there are still some serious cracks in the foundations of Alberta politics and policies. Our focus on the environment remains negligible and Redford’s Conservatives have recently become wracked by scandal. As we move forward it is important that the Progressive Conservative dynasty with its constant lean to the right, away from the interests of the environment, energy innovation and the arts be challenged by a dynamic left. If only to achieve progress, accountability and balance.
3) Tiered Taxation:
Money is tight right now in Alberta. With the province posting an over-all deficit of over $3 billion for 2012, volatile global oil prices and an increase American oil production, finance minister Doug Horner forecasting budget troubles and cuts for 2013 and education minister Jeff Johnson warning school districts that the province will most likely not be able to deliver on the promises that helped them to defeat the Wildrose Alliance in April, things are looking positively gloomy.
Inflation is occurring, the costs of life –education, infrastructure, healthcare- are all getting more expensive, but our primary export, bitumen and sythentic crude from the Athebasca oil sands, is losing value in a flooded and volatile market. As a result we are looking at serious budget cuts that could lead to disruptive strikes, a continued withering of the arts and a lessening of the purchasing power for public servants that will create a lessening in the profits of the private businesses that depend on the spending of the citizenry. Essentially, we could be on the crest of a downward spiral.
In Alberta, the load is getting heavier but the width of the shoulders carrying that load is staying the same size. Clearly, this paradigm is unsustainable. It’s time for our heavy hitters to step up and swing.
As a capital of the energy industry, Alberta has some very wealthy citizens but right now we’re all paying taxes at the same percentage. We all pay 10% on all taxable income, a flat rate that spreads across the entire spectrum of the province. Incidentally, Alberta is the only province that does this. In B.C. the taxation spectrum runs from 5.06% on the first $37,013 of taxable income to 14.7% on any amount over $103,205. Those who cannot afford to pay don’t and those who can do according to their means. This is a decent and humane approach to the balancing of a society’s collective cheque book. This is the exact approach that Alberta needs to adopt in this eve of emergency.
2) Focus on Education
Right now the teachers of Alberta are working in good faith, without a contract. Alberta premier Allison Redford was elected promising to increase education grant funding by one per cent next year, and two per cent for the following two years. This is not money going into the coffers of teachers but rather the money is being invested in the system itself. This money could go into the hiring of more teachers and the subsequent shrinking of class sizes. This money could be spent on classroom resources. This money was put on the table as an investment in education and the benefits that raising children and youth in a world class school system brings. Allison Redford promised these increases, increases that barely cover the natural costs of inflation, and now education minister Jeff Johnson has taken them off the table. He has taken them off the table in the middle of a labour negotiation.
The fact is that the quality of education cannot be maintained under the current conditions and the trends they promise. The Calgary Board of Education and Edmonton Public Schools have seen an increasing average class size for at least 3 years. Rural schools are closing and costing communities important public resources and gathering places. Educators are overworked, burning out and frustrated to a point where they are willing to take a wage freeze on conditions of improved hours and workplace conditions. Teachers are not asking for more money to go into their pockets, they’re asking their government to deliver on their promises and invest in a better and healthier system that benefits everybody.
Education in Alberta is approaching a crossroads. Class sizes can’t continue to grow indefinitely. Teachers can’t continue working an average of 55 hours a week while delivering the quality of education that parents expect. Administrators can’t provide the same level of resources and opportunities with shrinking levels of purchasing power. The province can’t stand the disruption of strikes. Money is short in our province right now and teachers need to understand that, but that does not excuse the province from providing its citizens with the educational system that they deserve. It does not excuse the province from pushing its students and citizens into a dimmer horizon.
1) Diversification of Energy Resources
We’ve already discussed how the synthetic crude and bitumen coming from the Athabasca oil sands is suffering greatly from over production, American competition and an unpredictable global market. This failure of the oil sands to produce a consistently dependable stream of revenue is having a dramatic effect on Alberta’s provincial economy because the oil sands have gradually grown to become the province’s primary economic engine. It has revealed a serious flaw in our overall economy: a lack of diversity.
Alberta is one the world’s energy capitals. We possess enormous deposits of natural gas, coal and bitumen. These deposits have generated great amounts of profit for the province and allowed Alberta to thrive economically over decades of resource exploitation. They are also uniformly non-renewable, increasingly archaic and subject to the whims of global economic trends. If Alberta wants to remain a powerhouse in the energy industry it cannot remain chained to any one track particularly if that track has a definite and unavoidable end.
Diversity would provide Alberta with a system of back-up engines should one engine falter. In so doing it would enhance our financial stability. Diversity, especially into the realms of renewable sources of energy such as solar and wind power, would also provide Alberta with a longer vision for its future, one that doesn’t run dry at the moment the derricks do. We have windy plains and sun drenched grasslands. We have engineers, scientists and corporations that specialize in the production and distribution of energy already established in our province. With this many resources as our disposal there is no reason for another economic drought to ever occur. There is no reason for us to continue innovating pollution. It is possible and imperative that we be at the forefront of green energy in order for our best days to remain in front of us.
Theodore Wiebe is a writer living in Calgary. You can follow more of his important nonsense on Twitter: @TheodoreWiebe
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