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Ralph's mighty machine enfeebled

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It is ironic that, at a time when many Albertans are mourning the death of Ralph Klein under whom Alberta's Tories won some of their greatest victories, some political observers are wondering whether the party and government have run out of steam.

The immediate economic cause of these musings is the government's recent budget, a pastiche of cuts to public services amid a fiscal deficit and growing debt, things Klein's government had proudly eliminated in the mid-2000s.

If these musing should come true -- if the Tories go down to defeat in the next election, likely in 2016 -- Premier Allison Redford will take much of the blame for leading a government increasingly viewed as inept, rudderless and untrustworthy.

When political historians years from now look at the larger picture, however, most will view the end of the Tory dynasty as the result of a convergence of long-standing economic and social contradictions, many of them dating back to the Klein years, that could no longer be papered-over, wished-away, or otherwise contained.

Contradictions? Let us count the ways.

In 1971, Peter Lougheed's Conservatives came to power on promises of diversifying the Alberta economy. But today, the province remains economically, fiscally, and socially dependent on petroleum. Where Lougheed argued for value-added development, recent Alberta governments seem content, even desperate, to sell unprocessed bitumen at cut-rate prices. The plan going forward appears to be more of the same: increased production of a resource for which demand and market access are low.

Since the Klein years, the Tory government has marketed Alberta as a low-tax regime. And so it is. Including all taxes, Alberta brings in $11 billion less than the next highest province in Canada. But low taxes were only possible as long as the petro-dollars continued to roll in. Today, oil royalties -- already set far below a fair return to the province -- have slowed and Albertans suddenly find themselves once again facing massive cuts to health, education and social programs. Alberta has a revenue problem, but won't deal with it, because the politics of doing so works against sound policy.

There is revenue available: Alberta is a very wealthy province. But the majority of Albertans don't share in the wealth. Recent Statistics Canada figures show that, when the cost of living is calculated, the bottom 90 per cent of Albertans has not seen a real income increase in 30 years. At the same time, the incomes of the top 10 and, especially, the one per cent, have skyrocketed. Low taxes are a sop to corporate carpetbaggers and the wealthy elites who come to the province for a good time but not a long time and who leave the rest of Albertans to pick up the social, environmental and economic pieces again and again.

When times are good, many Albertans give tacit consent to the Tory party, but there is no enthusiasm for it. Election turnouts are notoriously low, reflecting a combination of alienation and grudging acceptance. The Conservatives hold the majority of seats in the legislature, but their political support is shallow.

Amid these growing problems, the Alberta government in early March brought down its 2013 budget that it quickly labeled as "transformative." Many critics, however, see the budget as the same-old, same-old.

The Redford government could have done something bold, shifting away from a dependence on resources to a more stable system of revenues. Even more boldly, it could have set the stage for transforming Alberta's economy into one that is genuinely diversified and sustainable; a high-wage, high-education economy; one, not incidentally, also infused with democratic principles, including greater transparency.

After the 2012 election, when the opposition Wildrose party captured much of the hard-right vote, the Tories had the political space within which to tilt towards those voters on the centre and left, mainly urban voters, who wanted to see a return to a more visionary Lougheed-style conservatism; the kind of conservatism Premier Redford said, during her leadership run and the election, that she endorsed. Instead, the government introduced a budget gauged at appeasing the Wildrose party and its supporters.

The Alberta Conservative party appears today sailing into a storm from which there is no easy escape. It has tacked its sails to the right, but will find no safe haven there; the Wildrose voters are irretrievably lost to the Tories. But, having abandoned the centre, the PCs also cannot count on the allegiance of those voters who supported them in 2012.

The next election is still a long way off; things could change, both economically and politically. When it is held, however, Alberta's Tories may find themselves adrift on the smallest boat in the ocean, attacked on the far right by the sharks of the Ayn Rand-inspired Wildrose populists and on the centre-left by an assortment of other political meat-eaters led by the New Democrats and the Liberals. These parties already smell blood in the water -- Tory blood. For the Conservative party, it might not be pretty.

Trevor W. Harrison is a political sociologist at the University of Lethbridge and director of Parkland Institute.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 2, 2013 A7

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