15 June 2011

Spend ‘em if ya got ‘em: the Alberta version

In light of the suggestion the provincial government needs a blue ribbon panel of experts to decide how to safeguard the provincial economic future, take a look at what is going on in Alberta.

Conservative premier Ed Stelmach appointed just such a panel headed up by former federal cabinet minister David Emerson.

And, not surprisingly, the Stelmach government is likely to reject all of the panel’s suggestions. You can find an excellent discussion of it in a Jeff Simpson column from the end of May.

The Stelmach government’s decision is hardly surprising given the history of Conservative governments in Alberta since Peter Lougheed left office.  But it is also hardly surprising since the current Conservative administration in this province is basically following the same policy of spending that Alberta Conservatives have been following. 

What the locals haven’t adopted is the low tax, small government mantra of their western cousins.  They also don’t have the enormous oil and gas resources.

What they share with their Alberta relatives is the same fundamental attitudes that the panel identifies as being serious risks:  complacency and insularity.  As you can read on page 16 of the panel’s report:

Alberta has resources the world needs, but we cannot assume the world will beat a path to our door. Boom times can breed complacency. We can forget we are facing stiff global competition, and that our productivity lags that of competitor countries…

The report criticises the fixation with “selling stuff” to people.  There’s a parallel in this province, incidentally, in the drive to build expensive electricity projects at huge cost.  The current provincial government talks about it as a strategic investment but, in reality, it is nothing more than “selling stuff” to people.

What the Emerson panel described as a strategic approach is decidedly different:

We must take steps now to ensure we realize the full benefit of our energy resources and broaden our economic base in the new global context. As we look outward, we must expand our thinking beyond simply “selling stuff” to those who want it.

Now is the time to think more broadly about investing strategically in businesses in other parts of the world, attracting investment to Alberta, becoming part of the international networks that are creating exciting new knowledge and technology, and finding specialized niches we might fill in global supply networks. We must invest in helping Albertans engage with the world and prosper in a global economy, carefully considering how we use our current public wealth to build a legacy for future generations.

Interesting ideas; ideas worthy of further discussion, especially since they harken back to strategic ideas developed in this province almost two decades ago as the way we could move forward successfully in a highly competitive world.

- srbp -