Simple solutions (or Hands off our cash)

In 2004 Alberta Premier Ralph Klein was accuse...

LAST WORD: Simple solutions (or Hands off our cash)

Lexpert, November 2005

by Marzena Czarnecka

Prince’s Island is Calgary’s more modest version of Montreal’s Mount Royal–a sizeable downtown park enjoyed by much of Calgary’s human and canine population. A small sign is affixed to each of the Island’s bridges: “Dogs not allowed in Park on Canada Day and Heritage Day.” These days, whenever I see that sign, crossing into Prince’s Island with a slim 70 lb Doberman at my hip, I think of Ralph Klein.

Ever since I first saw it, that sign–or rather, the bylaw it announced–seemed to me an epitome of the best of the Calgary–perhaps even Alberta–way. You see, on Canada Day and Heritage Day, as all of Calgary’s population congregates in the park, the park becomes a giant outdoor mosh pit. Not the best environment, I’m sure you’ll agree, for my somewhat neurotic Doberman or other people’s nippy Jack Russells. The City of Calgary, recognising that the presence of dogs on the Island on those two days was problematic, banned the dogs from the Island on those two days.

A simple and effective solution that directly addresses the problem. For me, that’s Calgary. In some other jurisdictions–for some reason, Ontario immediately springs to mind–one could envision a similar situation resulting in the unilateral ban of dogs from the park–if not the city and province–at all times until the end of time. Not in Calgary, where not even the nuttiest nut job on city council is quite that nutty.

But back to Klein: a similar approach–finding a simple, direct solution to a problem–has long characterised Alberta’s government philosophy. To wit, problem: the province has a ballooning debt and deficit. Solution: spend less. (In some other jurisdictions–I won’t name names, but Ontario needn’t feel singled out–that concept has seemed incredibly difficult to grasp.)

Klein is applying the same problem-solving formula to Alberta’s current problem–an embarrassment of riches stemming from the ridiculously high price of oil. Problem: the province has a sh-tload of money. Solution: give it back to Albertans.

I really shouldn’t complain. Courtesy of Klein’s simple-conomics, I will be getting a $400 cheque from the Government of Alberta for Christmas. It’s just that… well, what’s $400? For the Calgary lawyers that frequent these pages, that’s less than one hour’s work (twice that for the ones just starting out). For the oil barons they serve, that’s… what, eight and a half barrels of oil? What’s that, a nanoseconds’ worth of work?

I’m nowhere near that income category–I may very well be the “average” Albertan Klein wants to reward for a decade-plus of cutting pain with a $400 Christmas present. But no matter what I do with (it’s probably going into my children’s RESPs), a one-time cheque for $400 makes absolutely no difference. And I can’t see how this “gift” will make life easier for lower-income Albertans. Granted, it may tide them over a high-spending season. But come January, will any of them–us–be thanking Klein?

The Calgary business community is disenchanted with the Klein bonus (as I pointed out above, a nanoseconds’ worth of work), and even the average Albertan-on-the-freshly-paved-street isn’t that enthused. But our grumbling isn’t any more a challenge to Klein than the well-documented opposition of his caucus was. (Besides, the government has kinda leaked news that it is seriously looking at tax cuts that will benefit both corporations and lowest income earners, appeasing whiners on both ends of the spectrum.) One, he’s heading out and, like Jean Chretien, couldn’t give a fig for what we all think. Two, he knows his constituency, none better. He knows deep inside, Albertans like the simple solution of the prosperity bonus. It’s not that, to borrow an ill-chosen phrase a certain Conservative Albertan used to describe a certain ex-Conservative Ontarian, complexity isn’t our strong point. It’s just that we are a practical, realist peoples who know that complexity isn’t the government’s strong point. Something simple, like distributing $1.4 billion equitably among the province’s population via individual cheques, that Klein and co. can do. Fancy-schmancy long-term contingency planning that may be affected by dozens of unpredictable factors, the unreliability of high oil prices first among them, well, we’re not too sure about that. Klein knows us, but we know Klein too.

And, of course, Klein’s prosperity bonus addresses the real problem: how to keep all those Alberta dollars away from money blackhole we call the nation’s capital. ‘Cause if complexity isn’t the strong point of our provincial government, the only strong point we have thus far identified in our federal government is the propensity to fritter away money.

Marzena Czarnecka is a Calgary-based freelance writer who gratefully walks her Doberman on Prince’s Island 363 days a year.

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