Tuesday, June 24, 2008

I'm Betting Kevin Taft Intends to Stay On as Leader of the Alberta Liberals.

Reading Kevin Taft’s op-ed in the Edmonton Journal this Monday does not sound like a man about to leave his party’s leadership or political life for that matter.

My bet is Taft is planning on staying on as the Alberta Liberal leader and he will announce that intention on or before next Monday.

Taft is definitely talking future forward in the op-ed and making suggestions about what to do with non-renewable resource revenue surpluses. He suggests we bank the entire $32B in estimated surpluses said to be coming the next 2 years. He says put it all right into the Heritage Savings and Trust Fund in perpetuity.

His rationale makes some short term sense. He says that while we need pubic infrastructure, we don’t need it all at once and we ought not build it in ways that cost a premium in our overheated economy and that adds to our increasing inflation. He says saving all the resource revenues is the best solution to the problem he identifies as our government not knowing how to spend these funds sensibly. Isn’t that a sad indictment of the capacity, consciousness and vision of our political class – from all parties?

The problem with the total saving suggestion is that it ignores the other significant Alberta public infrastructure deficit, namely the huge and growing social infrastructure deficit. The wealth Alberta is generating is not being shared equitable with all Albertans. We are quick to note how much of our growth benefits the rest of Canada. We are myopic on the social damage the pace of growth and coagulation of cash at the top of our social food chain is having on the quality of life of ordinary Albertans.

We have our most vulnerable citizens being left on our streets like the hard to manage developmentally disabled people are being sent to hospitals because there is nobody able to meet their needs in safe and nurturing places. They are now clogging our hospitals because we don’t pay communiy based social service staff a livable wage as they try to meet the complex needs of developmentally disabled citizens. So many of the programs get cancelled and seriously at-risk people end up getting turned away and loose in our community with nowhere to go. We are recycling other less fortunate’s through our shelters, courts and correction system. We find many other vulnerable citizens like the elderly and addicted being subjected to more abuse and violence and that is making our communities unsafe and our citizens insecure.

We also need to invest more in the environmental deficit we have created with growth pressures caused by runaway oil sands development. We need to do something serious about picking up the pace reclamation and cleaning up contaminated abandoned convention oil and gas sites. We need R and D investment in new green technologies and techniques like carbon capture and sequestration and new oil sands extraction technologies making it a greener energy source.

I am all for saving a significant portion of non-renewable resource revenues and agree we can spread out our building of some public capital infrastructure projects. Alberta cannot continue to delay addressing the human, social and natural capital infrastructure deficits we have created and ignoring.

So much of our political thought these days focus on rising costs and inflation. That is part of the puzzle but not all of it because it focuses on the importance of controlling costs and ignores the enhancement of the value of what makes our lives worth living.

A strong adaptive economy is like water is to soup, necessary but not sufficient in itself. Part of the role of modern democracies is to facilitate the expression of our collective empathy over what we as a society are responsible for and what we really care about. That must include caring for people, protecting place and addressing our many predicaments as a society.

Socking some of our cash in the Heritage Fund is part of a long term inter-generational fairness solution. But to rely solely on non-renewable surpluses for savings as a fiscal policy is not a serious solution to any of the real and immediate and significant challenges we face in our society today. Using such savings as a means to merely reduce taxes is more about pandering politics than good public policy. It ends up stifling the capacity of our government to use the tax base and the growth of the economy as the means to meet our current, on-going and long term social and ecological obligations.

Saving is a virtue but not the only virtue for a society. Taxes may be just plain evil in the minds of many citizens, but we also know they are a necessary evil. Governments are supposed to find the balance for us and so far Mr. Taft's proposal for saving all our surpluses has not done that.