I accept that not all Albertans think about public policy issues as I do. But from many conversations over the more than 40 years I have lived in the province, it is my experience that many Albertans want answers to the same questions that perplex me. Many of those Albertans might expect different answers to those questions than I do, but they don’t want to be taken for the fool. Like me they want honest engagement with the real challenges facing the province, rather than the self-serving spin that is usually on offer from both government and industry.
My hope for 2013 is that we will begin to see that honest engagement.
For example: Let’s talk about why the rate of production from the oilsands should be increased? What’s the hurry? If the rate of production is not increased, then where is the need for increased transportation capacity, such as the Northern Gateway pipeline? And what about that increased transportation capacity? Albertans don’t really think that increased revenue from sales to Asia is the only relevant consideration, do we?
And while we are thinking about how quickly resources are produced, what’s wrong with the provincial government moderating resource development rates such as Norway did in the North Sea to maximize the benefits to its citizens?
In another energy context: Why do we still burn coal for electricity generation in the province when the hazards to global climate and human health are well known and safe, renewable alternatives are abundant? Why do we choose ignorance over the knowledge produced by organizations such as the Pembina Institute as to how we could get substantially off coal reasonably quickly? We could have a smart economy. Are we really content to settle for a stupid one?
Nova Scotia has reduced has reduced its reliance on coal for electricity production from 80 to 56 percent in a short period. Its premier says, “Fundamentally we just wanted to get off of fossil fuels …” Maybe Albertans do too. How are we know if we don’t discuss it?
Public finance gives rise to some tricky but pressing questions. For example, wouldn’t budgeting for the provision for public services, such as healthcare and education – the need for which does not vary with short-term commodity price fluctuations – work much better if more revenues came from taxation and fewer from resource revenues? Under that approach we could expect government to respond to our needs rather than those of the resource development companies. Don’t we want a government that makes the needs of the people its highest priority rather than one that sleeps with industry, its number one “client”?
What about social justice in the province? Not everyone enjoys the Alberta good-life – far from it. In Calgary alone, over 100,000 people annually have to use food banks. Is this acceptable in one of the richest jurisdictions in the world? Is it OK that some seniors receive only one bath a week in publicly supported institutions? Really? Is that going to be good enough for you or your family members?
What about the integrity of democracy in the province? Is our electoral system good enough when 44 % of voters cast their ballot for the PCs but that party ended up with 70 % of the seats in the Legislature? At the same time, Wildrose garnered 34 % of the votes but ended up with only 20% of the MLAs. Alberta is a diverse place. Shouldn’t our system of government more accurately reflect our actual political preferences? Isn’t it time we got serious about implementing a different – fairer – way to connect our votes with political outcomes?
Lurking is a bigger question, one about the general course we seem to be on. Our general course looks like one of rapacious exploitation of the environment, and the resources it holds, and an often equally harsh and self-interested way of dealing with people, whether it is Aboriginal people who still live closer to the land than most of us, employees or increasingly insecure contractors in our workplaces, the temporary foreign workers we treat as disposable or the others beyond Alberta’s and Canada’s borders who are already suffering the consequences of our carbon intensive lifestyle.
Is this direction basically OK, with only some fine-tuning at the margins needed? I recently came across this statement: “If we don’t change direction soon, we’ll end up where we’re heading.” Don’t we need to seriously discuss whether we want to end up where we’re headed?
I suggest that what Albertans of all, and no, political stripe want is not spin, ideology or excessive partisanship but an honest engagement with the problems that face Alberta and for which Albertans bear a shared responsibility. The questions that call out for our attention may never be answered the way I think they should. But we’ll never know what Albertans collectively think – will we? – if these questions are never openly and thoroughly addressed?
Janet Keeping is a lawyer and leader of the Green Party of Alberta.