Thursday, May 7, 2015

An Open Letter to Rachel Notley

An open letter to Rachel Notley:

You don't this yet, but one day you and I will have a conversation sometime in the future.  We'll talk about Cinco de Mayo in the year 2015 and how that day forever shaped Alberta.  On that day, you had your own unlikely victory over insurmountable forces.  Although your battle against the Alberta conservatives doesn't quite compare to the Battle of Puebla, one can't dismiss the historic results of the NDP against not one, but two conservative parties.

In our conversation, I'll ask you about that victory and how you felt during those first years.  We'll celebrate the great province of Alberta and its many splendors under your government.  We'll look back at the headlines and social media posts that were filled with cynicism and you'll tell me what it was like to become Premier during one of the hardest times in Alberta.  I'll raise the topic of women in politics and how the public had felt betrayed by their government and disappointed by a former female Premier.  You'll tell the world that as one of the first women to be in such a position, you had to work twice as hard, be twice as careful and operate with integrity above all because everyone was waiting to see you slip up. You'll tell stories about how you were tested many times throughout your career and never once gave into temptation or became corrupt with power.  We will be unhappy to see you step down as leader of the province, but it will be by choice:  to give others like yourself an opportunity to excel and to leave before you lost your passion for the job.  Your story will be a great example to the next generation and you will be credited for restoring our faith in political leaders after so many of them had let the public down.  I'm not talking about all of them, but enough that it made a difference.

We'll also talk about your achievements for the Alberta NDP.  We'll be impressed by how you took a group of mostly inexperienced MLAs and taught them how to run a province better than people who had been doing it for years, even decades.  You will rise above your predecessors who demonstrated injustice by ignoring the voices of people who were represented by someone with a differing perspective.  Your party will be known as the government that listens and respects all points of view.  You will show the world how a "leftist" party became a leader for businesses and took the energy sector to new heights.  And most importantly, you'll explain how you got our education and health care system back on track, cleaned up the environment, reunited municipalities, and repaired our economy while ensuring that Alberta was once again an affordable place to live for the masses.  You will continue to be good to our province long after we had forgotten how bad things had become and had started complaining about trivial things.  In short, you made believers of us all.

I'm writing this to you because I represent the optimistic Albertan - one who was fed up with a government with deaf ears and a dictatorial style.  I am not a Conservative, a Liberal, a New Democrat or loyal to any party.  I simply believe in fairness for all, I stand up for what's right and feel that we need to leave this place better than we found it.  There are those who are afraid of what Alberta will become because they've seen what has happened in other provinces in the past.  I'm not worried because I already know what our future has in store.  You will read this one day and you'll know there are people out there that understand your vision.  Many of us have the same vision, but very few have the opportunity and the ability to pull it off.  In 2015 I was inspired by your victory and filled with great hope for Alberta.


A faithful Albertan

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Election Day on Cinco de Mayo!

The future of Alberta is being shaped today by your votes; but how is this one different than previous elections?  This is the first time in 44 years that we can realistically expect a changing of the guard… or at least that’s what the polls would have you believe.  I personally don’t take too much stock in polling information because the results don’t typically represent the voting demographic.  This election even has the media (who is supposed to be impartial) banding together against a possible NDP win.  The problem with polls and media support is that it has a tendency to influence the results.  It’s like the “time travel paradox” where your knowledge of the future can alter the outcome of a situation and be the very cause of the event you’re trying to stop from happening.  Too nerdy?

If the predictions are correct and we end up with a minority government, the result is likely a difficult 4 years ahead of us depending on who the winner is.  If the NDP wins, the PC’s and Wildrose are likely to band together and oppose any changes the NDP will try to make because of the fundamental differences in their politics.  If the PC’s or Wildrose are victorious, they will likely see years of opposition from the other parties simply for the sake of opposition.   The most likely outcome is another early election that costs millions of taxpayer dollars.  And that’s what's frustrating about our system of government, the party politics really don’t allow individual MLA’s to vote their conscience on decisions that they feel are best for Alberta – they must “tow the party line”.

Imagine, if you will, a collaborate system of government where your elected representatives will advocate and even vote on policies and legislation that are in the best interest of your region rather than advancing the agenda of the party.  I believe that if the Wildrose Party provided reasonable opposition to the PC’s in the past and showed support where agreement was possible, they would have garnered way more support during this campaign.  Instead, their focus was on personal attacks that centered around the character and ethics of their opposition.  These are important matters, but they failed to show us a better path on the big ticket items.  On issues that they could have supported, many instead chose to cross the floor (allegedly) and change parties rather than simply voting in favour.  How is that ethical?

Why am I calling out this system of government?  Well, if municipalities (towns, cities, MDs and counties) are children of the province, then we have a very dysfunctional family here… and it starts from the top down.  They’ve created a very adversarial system and they wonder why there’s so much conflict in the province.

I want to bring the spotlight onto the Alberta Party for a minute.  They are the only party who says they’ll allow their representatives to act independently and vote their conscience.  There is something very appealing about that prospect which seems modern and progressive for politics.  I believe that if this movement grows, we would be a much more productive province and be representative of what people really want.  I think I’m drawn to this concept because I don’t agree with everything any one party is calling for.  NDP is wanting to raise corporate taxes too high to pay for services and is threatening changes that could slow our economy; PC’s aren’t spreading out the responsibility to pay and are showing themselves as being too arrogant to listen; Wildrose are too extreme in wanting to stay out of the way; and I can‘t tell what the Liberals want outside of vague generalities.  The Alberta Party is being somewhat vague as well, but this is because they want to have local MLA’s represent local issues.  I guess I’m being a little greedy because I want the best of all their worlds.

There are worse things that can happen than having a minority government.  It sends a strong message that people want things to change.  Who knows, this may force the parties to work together on the individual issues, however, I’m not holding out too much hope of that happening.  The last election created an overwhelming majority PC government and that wasn’t great for our province either.  I’d like to continue to see a strong PC party with a strong NDP opposition and enough Alberta Party, Liberal and Wildrose seats to make a difference.  If the balance worked out just right and a few seats became swing votes that would be incredible for Alberta.  That would mean the power could shift with just a few seats and theoretically, the policies that are debated would have to stand on their own merits.

Regardless of what I believe, I just want people to go out and vote based on their own principles, research or gut feelings.  No vote is wrong except the one that you don’t cast.  As the campaign says, “don’t let others decide for you”.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Decision Time - Who to Vote For?

The decision of who and which party to vote for is a very personal one, but one that we need more people to exercise when it comes to voting.  It's always disappointing to see our low voter turnout come election time.

It seems there's a call for change at this election.  At least, that's what I'm hearing in our area.  Change can come in many forms.  It can be a changing of the guard in our conservative country or maybe people are looking for the existing party to change how they do business and increase transparency.  Either way, those who are following the election can see that the public is polarizing into different camps and there is definitely some ebbing and flowing going on in Alberta politics.

I'm seeing quite a bit of debate about the NDP since they seem to be making huge gains according to the polls.  I don't like getting caught in opinions masquerading as facts or people spouting extreme doom and gloom propaganda.  Especially since Alberta is just one province within an entire country -- we will have a major influence on the rest of Canada, but we're still only one part.

I think we can get a little glimpse of what our province could look like if we compare ourselves with political examples around the world.  On the extreme left, an NDP government would have us looking more like the Dutch/Scandanavian countries, without the extreme tax levels they employ.  Everyone there pays more, but the quality of life and satisfaction levels amongst the entire population are extremely high.  A right-wing Conservative government vote will model our system closer to the U.S. where corporations get most of the breaks, but we wouldn't have the intense privatization of social programs.  The economy would be humming, jobs given to workers and people dream of one day becoming as wealthy as those at the top.  While neither is an excellent example of what we might look like, it gives us and idea.  It's safe to say that Canada is a country that only leans slightly to the left or right of centre so we don't have to worry about becoming exactly like these other places.

Here's my opinion on the various parties in the Grande Prairie Smoky and Wapiti constituencies.  I may not be 100% unbiased in my views since I'm starting to get a little jaded and frustrated with our economic situation.  Although the government is working on digging us out of the hole they got us in, I feel we need to make some drastic changes in order to build a proper future for Alberta.  I summed most of them up in my commentary on the budget.  In any case, I can tell you that I proudly voted PC in the last few elections but this time around, I'm taking a lot of time to think about my decision.

Progressive Conservative
The PC party has been in power for 44 years and have done a fairly decent job at keeping Alberta's economic engine running.  They've been criticized by many (including myself) for cutting (or not funding the growth) in education, healthcare, seniors' care and other social programs while leaving corporations and oil companies unscathed.  Many were shocked... but they shouldn't be.  Idealogically, conservative governments believe that people will thrive if the economy thrives and that is achieved by supporting small businesses and corporations.  That's been great for making Alberta one of the  most envied on the corporate level.  Has that been great for the rest of us?  We have an excellent education system, but one of the lowest rates of graduating students.  We have one of the highest rates of population growth, but that is stressing out our healthcare system and social services.  As a young province our culture and heritage is lacking and we focus more on our pioneer history than our First Nations.  All advantages seem to be focused on subsidizing taxes for everyone, which means more money in our pockets, but little in the way of really standing out as an enhanced province.

There are other parties that have come up with plans to get us out our current situation.  The common denominator is what they all call "mismanagement" by the government.  We can only speculate whether any other government would or would not be in the same situation given the Alberta boom/bust cycles.  After all it's human nature for us to get accustomed to the lifestyle from all that oil revenue.  Is there a cause and effect relationship, or is the world economy just that much more unstable these days?  Those are all factors that we must ponder as we go to the polls.  I think it's fair to say that the policies that were in place did not work for us during this time of population growth.

In terms of my personal opinion of the PC Party, I think that Jim Prentice is making all the right changes and I also really like the candidates representing Grande Prairie.  However, I have a similar feeling towards the party that others are having around Alberta: the party has a sense of entitlement and that raises questions of their ethics.  Now don't take me wrong, there are some really great people in that party.  As a past councillor though, I witnessed some first-hand arrogance by MLAs and cabinet ministers that left me with a bad taste.  I could forgive those attitudes if I felt their decisions worked out to our benefit.  As we can see, the province is in a heap of trouble.  Truthfully, I just wanted to know that they were listening and would find a way to help deal with our problems instead of acting superior and dismissive.  Again, this is no reflection on our local representatives.  They have been great.  I just don't think their party demonstrates their strength by letting large corporations and oil companies off the hook.  If however, you constantly find yourself saying "the government shouldn't be competing with private industry" or something like that, this may be the party for you.

For many conservatives, the Wildrose party seems to be a strong alternative since they basically have the same philosophical principles as the PCs.  Wildrose is calling for more transparency and accountability and have their own take on what should or should not be funded.  Their 10/10 plan seems reasonable, but without projections of how that would have worked in the past and how it could work in the future, it's difficult to form a good opinion on it.  In addition, I don't know much about their leader, Brian Jean, but I hear he is a big improvement over Smith, who made a controversial decision to cross the floor and join another party and set the party back few years.  From what I hear, Jean is wanting to put into place some principles of what MLAs should be charging for on their expense accounts so that the average taxpayer doesn't get charged for reasonable everyday expenses that politician incur.  Outside of those impressions, I find myself afraid to vote for a more conservative government in Alberta.

New Democrats
The NDP is hot on the trail of the PC party.  This is a major swing in Alberta's political views.  If you're the type that feels that we need to fund education, healthcare and social programs as a major priority then NDP might be the party of choice for you.  This party is typically focused on more government control and more control (and usually costs) to corporations.  The NDP is calling for higher corporate tax rates and higher oil royalties to pay for the needs of our growing province.  The thing that scares most businesses about the NDP is their support of labour unions because they affect the bottom line profits.  Personally, I'm not sure if they'd be great for our Alberta, but they'd be a strong opposition party since they typically act with a strong social conscience.  Unfortunately, you can't vote for who you want as an opposition, only who you want to win.  If they win, I see a better quality of life in the long run, but a lot of short-term turmoil (in my crystal ball).  In terms of their party leader, Rachel Notley, she seems to be the strongest and most relatable leader out of all of them.

Alberta Party
People seem to be dismissing the Alberta Party as a viable alternative which is a shame.  Yes, they don't have a federal party presence, but neither do the Wildrose Party and they came on really strong in the past decade.  The Alberta Party is a centrist party, which means they're offering a balanced political view.  They are also offering the ability for your local MLA to act independently of party policy, except on major issues like the budget.  In theory, this sounds great, but I feel like they need to fine tune their policies first and really get a solid foundation built for their party.  I've met several of their candidates from all over the province and some of them are extremely impressive, some are real duds.  Some of their candidates' views seem right wing, while others seem left wing.  That's the danger of allowing independence:  you open the door to a mismash of politics which average out to a centrist view.  But maybe that's what a true democratic government should look like:  healthy debate over the issues and let the chips fall. 

Greg Clark is the leader of the party and he has qualities that you'd like to see from your leader:  smart, humble and relatable.  It's not surprising to see these characteristics of someone in a young party who hasn't been corrupted by the system yet.  The one thing I can say for this party is that they are in touch with what the general population wants from their government.  The only apprehension about the Alberta Party is whether or not they can do what they say they can.  This is a party I can support if they gain some traction.  My views align well with the party and those of our local candidate.
Slightly to the left of centre is the Liberal Party.  They're calling for a more taxation for corporations, better funding for schools and healthcare.  I also agree with a lot of what they're saying.  This party, however, has not been good for Alberta in the past and people who lived through the National Energy Program of the 1980s and the recession it created will never allow this party to get into power again.  Notwithstanding the past, the Liberal Party has served Canada well at the federal level and would probably do a good job in Alberta.

I personally find their leader, Dr. David Swann, difficult to relate to because he seems like so much of a politician: always looking for that angle to talk about what is on his agenda.  Typically, if people became disillusioned by the Tories, they would swing to this party.  In Alberta, this doesn't seem the case.  Albertans are looking for an alternative, but they aren't looking for leadership from our Liberals and this party is in big trouble this election.

In summary,  these are my thoughts on the current election.  They're written down to help me decide how to cast my vote.  If it helps some others, that's great news.  If you find it unfair and biased, that's ok, write your own blog about it.  I just hope it helps to motivate the undecided voter to get out and take part in the future of their province.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Election Forum on April 23, 2015

The election forum was extremely interesting this time around since there has been a lot of political unrest in the public.  In the last election, it was quite clear that the PC government was going to take a majority of seats in the Legislature and that the Wildrose Party was breathing heavily over their necks.  This time around, there’s a buzz around change and possibly a minority government after May 5th.  I enjoyed listening to candidates represent their parties at the forum and I have my opinions about how the evening went.  I’m not sure if others will agree, but this is what I observed.

The biggest surprise of the evening: NDP candidate for GP Smoky, Todd Russell.  He looked the most prepared to address the issues and questions from the audience.  If there was a winner that evening, it would have been Russell, hands down.  Todd was armed with facts that both shocked and awed the crowd that evening.  It was obvious that the audience was filled with his supporters or people that supported his views.  His answers were interrupted by cheers and applause much of the time, which is always a good sign.  The NDP is the only party that has presented a detailed alternative budget and Russell was able to speak to those questions quite confidently.

A close second was Alberta Party candidate for GP Wapiti, Rory Tarant.  Tarant is a city councillor (currently taking a leave of absence) and is well educated about government operations and politics.  He responded quite expertly on the tough questions.  Tarant explained that the Alberta Party will allow him to be the only representative that can act independently for the best interests of the people in the region.  The Alberta Party has made that principle part of its core ideologies.

Coming in third was incumbent MLA for GP Wapiti, Wayne Drysdale.  He was well prepared with his responses with facts and figures and his tone gives the impression that he’s being genuine.  The line of questions for incumbent MLA’s was tough and it was clear that the audience had some criticisms of the proposed budget.  Audience questions on MLA salaries and the proposed budget were answered in detail, although not so well received by the crowd in attendance.

Todd Loewen, Wildrose Candidate for GP Smoky, also handled himself well.  He ran in the previous election and barely lost out in his riding to Everett McDonald.  Loewen is fairly new to politics but was prepared with information from his party and from his personal perspective.  All in all, he had a strong showing that evening.

MLA for GP Smoky, Everett McDonald, would rank about fifth at the election forum for performance.  He is a solid candidate, but some of his answers weren’t very well received by the audience.  In addition, any time questions were posed to both incumbent candidates, he was chosen to answer them second, which put him at a disadvantage.  His attempt to answer questions by stating the party’s position, felt cold at times and didn’t resonate well with non-PC supporters that evening.

Perpetual Liberal candidate for GP Smoky, Kevin McLean, made a decent showing, but didn’t stand out in the crowd.  This is consistent with a party that is losing ground across the province.  Although he made some fairly well founded criticisms of the PC government on various policies and decisions, McLean was likely not able to garner support at this forum.  He also made a somewhat personal attack on one of the candidates that didn’t sit well with the audience.

The last two candidates for GP Wapiti were Laila Goodrich (Wildrose) and Mary Dahr (NDP).  Both these candidates lacked the presence to stand up against their opponents that evening.  Goodrich is young, inexperienced and focused mainly on the Wildrose’s line of “years of mismanagement by the PC government”. Dahr appeared to have difficultly answering the range of questions with any expertise and in my opinion didn’t help the NDP cause.

I’d like to take a moment and congratulate and thank all the candidates for running in the election.  Putting yourself out there is not an easy thing to do and there is a lot of work to do throughout their campaigns.  All the candidates are great people and on a personal level, I wish them all the best.  My opinion of the forum is simply that, just an opinion.  Others may have seen it differently.  I have additional thoughts on the election itself which I hope to be able to write about.

2015 Provincial Budget Thoughts

The upcoming election has me reflecting on the proposed 2015 provincial budget and I wanted to share my thoughts on it.  My initial reaction to the 2015 budget was probably like everyone else’s – I was pissed off and highly critical.  After all, no one likes to see increases in user fees or taxes.  After coming to terms with the fact that the government needs to make up an extremely large projected deficit and that Alberta in general needs to get off of oil revenue roller coaster, I was able to look at the budget from a more logical perspective.

There are some much needed changes that are introduced in the budget:

·         Progressive personal income tax – it’s about time!
·         Increase in fuel and sin taxes – an easy target to generate revenue and agreeable under the circumstances.
·         Increase to licence fees and fines – another necessary evil.
·         Cuts to provincial services – fine, but it’s likely they will download that cost onto municipalities who will have no choice but to pass that onto the taxpayer through property taxes.  Either that, or drastically cut service levels.
·         More tax breaks to seniors and low income families – a good idea which will increase their standard of living in Alberta.
·         Return of Health Care Premiums – Pros: the health care system is in desperate need of additional funding and the progressive system shouldn’t hurt lower income families because it doesn’t start until $50k/yr in earnings.  Cons: revenue doesn’t come close to covering service demands and it doesn’t address the fact that migrant workers still don’t pay into Alberta’s healthcare system.  The final analysis – mildly palatable.

Critical points:

·         Corporations, who have the ability for more tax deductions than any other taxpaying body, are not sharing in any of the increases.  A 1% increase would generate about $500M/yr in revenue and which could potentially fund off a lot of the cuts that are being proposed.  It would also keep Alberta tied for the lowest corporate tax rate in the country.
·         Cuts to health care and education don’t make a lot sense since the demand for these areas are increasing due to an increase in population numbers.  In addition, the education portion on property taxes has risen substantially this year, essentially giving you less service for more money.
·         The progressive tax system isn’t progressive enough.  I hate the idea of having to pay more taxes, but if it’s going to happen, I want it to make a difference.  In this case, there is no increase if you make less than $100k/yr.  In Alberta, that’s slightly lower than the median wage.  This means that most people won’t pay any more tax than they did before.  That threshold could easily have been lowered to include the median wage of $87,000/yr to help spread out the financial burden.
·         No sales tax.  A hotly debated topic, but I believe we need a 3% sales tax to offset the costs.  Sales taxes are paid by everyone who buys things in the province.  They typically aren’t charged on unprocessed foods, so it doesn’t cut into basic living costs.  The theory is that we could generate revenue from non-residents (i.e. non-taxpayers like migrant workers and tourists) who help to beat up our roads and use tax-subsidized public services (social services, recreation and entertainment).  It costs the rich more because they presumably spend more and is estimated to generate $1 billion for every 1% of sales tax.  On the flip side businesses hate collecting and reporting it, and people don’t like paying it.  There are some that think a sales tax will harm Alberta’s competitive advantage for retailers, however, a small sales tax should still keep us enticing to cross-border shoppers (12% HST in BC, 10% HST in SK).
·         No changes in oil royalty rates.  Now is probably the worst time to introduce an increase in royalties since Alberta is heavily reliant oil companies for these revenues.  However, once the finance situation is stabilized, increases should be discussed so Albertans get more of their fair share.

Governments have their reasons for implementing and setting various taxes/fees and every one of them will tell you that they are right.  The truth is there is no right or wrong answer here, just better or worse options.  The provincial finance engine is a complicated one and although we can speculate what the outcome will be, we’ll never really know until we see its impact.

Whether you agree with it or not, the budget does reflect a plan to balance the books within a few years.  My main critique on the budget is that it under-delivers when it comes to weaning us off of oil revenues and gives corporations a free pass in ponying up their share.  It seems to me that the drastic steps taken will result in lower service levels and continue to perpetuate problems on a municipal level.  It will also have a major impact on education, healthcare and social programs.  In the end, the province will stay afloat, but the richest province in Canada will still not thrive.