Seven years ago, when I wrote my first column for Policy Options magazine, the topic was Alberta’s white-hot labour market and how the poaching of workers was growing into a serious problem for the construction and skilled trades sectors. That issue is still with us as I write this, my last column for the magazine, which offers a moment of perspective to look back at what has changed and what has not in Alberta, and what opportunities were missed over that time.
Alberta has been altered in many ways over the past few decades, but the speed of change seems to have accelerated since 2005, when we marked our centennial as a province. We’ve become more internationally cosmopolitan, more inclusive and more wonderfully diverse. Anyone who doubts that notion should visit Millwoods Town Centre in Edmonton or attend the world’s largest Gay and Lesbian Rodeo in Strathmore. We’ve elected a woman premier and a Muslim mayor in our largest city, and neither gender nor religion even came up during their campaigns for office.
The best change is the way Alberta’s major cities have embraced urban design and aesthetics. Calgary’s new Peace Bridge (a pricey but stunningly beautiful footbridge across the Bow River) was embroiled in controversy when it was announced. Predictably, the fiscal Scrooges screamed bloody murder. But now that its lovely lines span the riverbanks, it has quickly become one of the favourite spots in the city for buskers, bikers, wedding photographers, dog walkers and strollers. The Peace Bridge has brought Calgarians together in an appealing urban public space. The value: priceless.
The construction of the Bow office tower in Calgary, the flourishing of Edmonton’s art and architectural scene with the new Art Gallery of Alberta and the public enthusiasm for Calgary’s soon-to-be-built National Music Centre represent a shift of attitude in the province. Today in Alberta, urban culture matters and beautiful public spaces are valued. Period. History will judge Calgary’s and Edmonton’s current mayors favourably for their leadership during this critical period of urban enlightenment.
The single worst change that has occurred over the past seven years is the deterioration of the provincial government’s fiscal situation. From days of paying off its debt and spending its embarrassingly large surpluses in the middle of the last decade, Alberta has slid– once again– into a deficit position. Back in 2006, few of us foresaw that we would return to this once-familiar fiscal landscape. While the provincial government says it hopes to return to surpluses in the near term, it seems incredible that we find ourselves still in the grip of the global commodities markets’ spikes and gyrations.
We have also failed to seize the opportunity to challenge conventional political wisdom by urging Albertans to finally accept, however reluctantly, a provincial sales tax. Even as revenues declined and spending promises expanded, none of the political parties in the last election would allow any suggestion of a sales tax to creep into the discussion, let alone become part of any party platform. Rather than using the contraction in energy revenues as an opportunity to convince Albertans of the need for a sales tax, the provincial government took any discussion of it off the table. Once the campaign was over, the government was left with no choice but to burn through its cash savings and impose nasty cuts to post-secondary education as the only way to make ends meet.
The temptation is to blame politicians for failing to be bold. But the reality is that they are following the voters, and Albertans show no sign of facing reality. Albertans believe they can have it both ways: high government spending and low taxes. It is a fool’s paradise, and the province blew the chance to at least begin the tough discussion on how to ensure stable, sustainable public revenues.
Yet some things that endure are to be celebrated. Albertans retain an endless, unyielding and unsinkable optimism. The province remains the place where anything is possible. That’s what built Alberta over a century ago, and that’s what carries it forward into the next century. No one cares who your dad is, where you’re from, what accent you have or who you love. If you are a positive thinker and an energetic worker, Alberta can be home.
This is my final column for Policy Options — at least for now. The demands of exciting new opportunities have necessitated, sadly, that I release some of the things I enjoy doing the most. As well as giving up my sessional teaching post at the University of Calgary, I am also concluding my column with this excellent publication. For those who have read the column over the past seven years — thanks! It’s been my honour and privilege to participate in this great Canadian dialogue.