Free Lunch

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Jim Prentice is already in full retreat from his accusation that Albertans are to blame — individually and collectively, I presume — for the current state of Alberta finances. He didn’t mean to blame them but rather encourage them to think: ‘what can I do to make things better? We’re all in this together and we all have to work to get out of it.’

Except that’s not what he said. He did suggest that Albertans might collectively be responsible for the fact that budgeting in Canada’s putatively richest province is a tangled mess with little hope of getting straightened out even if oil prices rebound to $80 plus levels.

Nobody likes to be blamed for what is clearly someone else’s fault: the government for not being more restrained or the oil corporations for not paying their share of taxes or maybe the Saudis for driving down the price of oil just when everyone was going to get rich from the oil sands.

Of course it was Albertans who collectively voted for the Progressive Conservatives for some forty years and — no matter what they did — kept returning them to office, usually with huge majorities. And while some people can say ‘I didn’t vote for them’ that mostly means they didn’t vote at all. Alberta has the lowest voter turnout in Canada and, as we know, silence means consent. Tacitly, everyone who didn’t get out and vote for another party were supporting the one that has ruled the place for two generations.

So are Albertans to blame for the mess? Yes and no might be the most definitive answer.

After all, it could have been different. The Heritage Fund could have been the recipient of all the oil royalties collected in the province as was originally intended and, in the meantime, Albertans and Albertan corporations might have paid higher taxes for the services they wanted. But remember, Alberta is the core base of both the National Citizens Coalition (former home of Stephen Harper) and the Canadian Taxpayers Federation — two organizations who have been responsible for creating the platform of the Free Lunch Party — the political movement that promises you the moon without sending you the bill. To some extent, the people were fooled into thinking this was the way life should be by ideologues whose only job was to make sure rich people didn’t have to pay their share.

So,  Albertans elected politicians who pandered to their every desire and spent freely the money that was supposed to be set aside to maintain the prosperity of post-oil Alberta. When oil prices fell, as they did in the nineties, and, more recently last fall, these policies, which included some of the most expensive public services and the lowest taxes in the country, led to disaster.

Albertans may not to be to blame for the current crisis — and they probably won’t be forced to clean up the mess by a government that has in the past shown itself all too unwilling to declare the buffet closed. But some people in the rest of the country are enjoying seeing them squirm and thinking: Maybe it’s time to pay for your own lunch.

But that’s ten minutes.

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