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Who's right-wing? Not Albertans

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Do you hear the far-off tinkling of broken glass? That's the sound of another Prairie myth being shattered.

The myth said Albertans love right-wing parties that deliver small governments and reduced spending on social programs. The myth added that Prime Minister Stephen Harper, whose bailiwick is Calgary, was going to bring this kind of government to Ottawa and destroy Canada's social security net.

Hogwash. Last week, in yet another example of why the myth is wrong, Alberta's long-ruling Progressive Conservatives elected Alison Redford, 46, as leader. Because the PCs are in power, Redford becomes Alberta's first female premier.

Redford, a human rights lawyer and first-term MLA, is an avowed centrist and during her campaign emphasized the need for better education and a strong public health-care system. She had to speak to the PC convention fewer than 24 hours after the death of her mother.

On the contest's first ballot, the two most right-wing candidates came last: Ted Morton got 12 per cent of the vote and Rick Orman got 10 per cent.

Redford joins the other women who are already premiers -- Kathy Dunderdale of Newfoundland and Labrador and Christy Clark of British Columbia. Eva Aariak is head of Nunavut's government. That number of women is a first for Canada.

Redford's platform is decidedly centrist. She may dip into Alberta's sustainability fund -- a rainy-day kitty made up of energy income -- to pay for her $107-million promise to rescind cuts to public education. She also wants to negotiate long-term contracts with teachers and nurses.

Redford's transition team is led by her former husband, Robert Hawkes, a Calgary lawyer.

A look at the province's books also exposes the right-wing myth. Alberta is Canada's wealthiest province, but it's a big-spender. On a per-capita basis, it has Canada's largest public service and spends more than any other province on health care (closely followed by Manitoba).

Alberta created the Heritage Savings Trust in 1976, setting aside 30 per cent of all oil and gas revenues. Since 1987, the province has taken much more out of the fund than it has put in. It got 23.5 per cent of its total revenue last year from oil, gas and coal -- a total of more than $8 billion. By contrast, Norway, also resource rich, sets aside for investment 96 per cent of its resource revenue.

The fact Alberta's government has a deficit despite all the oil revenue sloshing into its coffers angers David Dodge, Canada's deficit guru. He was the federal deputy finance minister who helped Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin cut expenses and reduce Ottawa's deficit. He was governor of the Bank of Canada and a member of Alberta's Premier's Council of Economic Strategy.

After the release of the council's final report this summer, Dodge told the Lethbridge Chamber of Commerce the provincial government must stop raiding the rainy-day fund and balance its budget through more taxes or service cutbacks.

It's foolhardy, he said, to "buy the groceries" with Alberta's energy income. In addition, he said, Alberta should take income from land sales, royalties and other resource-related sources and invest in economic-growth initiatives such as electrical transmission, better education for First Nations students and a new institute for applied technology like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

His ideas have been met mostly with silence, even from the new Wildrose Party, which is supposed to be full of fire-breathing right-wingers. I was in Calgary at the time of the party's annual meeting this summer. From what I could see, the party was not wild and its future wasn't particularly rosy.

Prime Minister Harper knows there is little demand in Alberta for him to get right-wing tough. For example, he wants to balance the federal budget, but if the economies of the U.S. and EU get any worse, he's willing to be flexible.

A year ago, a university professor with no political experience, Naheed Nenshi, was elected Calgary's mayor, the first Muslim to be elected a mayor in Canada. "Albertans," he says, "do not define themselves against that old, tired left-right spectrum. They are pragmatic and interested in good, competent government that improves their quality of life."

Peter Lougheed, who brought the Alberta PC party to power 40 years ago, says almost the same thing: "The PCs will win the next election if we stay in the centre."


Tom Ford is editor of The Issues Network.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 11, 2011 A10

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