“Tonight we will witness a debate of Epic Proportions! “In the Right Corner, the Freedom Fighter—Danielle Smith!!! In the Left Corner, the Protector of the People—Brian Mason!!!”
Mount Royal University was hosting the ninth and final debate between Wildrose leader, Danielle Smith, and NDP leader, Brian Mason. We expected to see sinewy kickboxers pouncing on each other in the fighting cage. Instead we got two respectful politicians (an oxymoron?) who were able to disagree without being disagreeable.
They were entertaining, informative and downright funny. Mason conceded the starting position to Smith because he always lost at “rock, paper, scissors”. Smith surprised Mason by leading the crowd in singing Happy Birthday Dear Brian halfway through the debate.
The PCs are done
After 40 plus years of continuous rule the PCs have become corrupt, arrogant and a transparent as a brick. Smith and Mason used the debate to preview their competing visions for a PC-free Alberta.
Not surprisingly, they were aligned on what needed to be fixed—healthcare, education, a balanced budget, economic priorities, global warming, land owners’ rights—but were at opposite ends of the spectrum on how to fix it.
Smith demonstrated an economist’s unfailing faith in the power of the market to find social solutions while Mason held firm to the altruistic belief in an individual’s willingness to support the greater good.
The problem: A hole in the revenue stream
Smith and Mason ravaged Redford’s use of the Bitumen Bubble to explain the budget deficit. Smith called it the “unicorn of Alberta politics”. Mason was more blunt—it wasn’t a mythical beast, it was simply “bull”!
Alberta’s oil and gas prices have always been lower than world prices. The Bitumen Bubble was a feeble effort to disguise the fact that the PCs have no strategy to ride through the “bust” part of a boom/bust cycle.
So how would the WR or the NDP fill the hole in Alberta’s revenue stream created by a cratered natural gas market and low oil prices?
Pipelines: Both leaders favoured more oil pipelines, however Mason argued that Alberta should export upgraded crude and refined products in order to maximize the value of the resource and keep jobs in Alberta.
Smith responded that upgrading is uneconomic and would force the government to subsidize refiners. This would be costly and unnecessary because the market is willing to export oilsands bitumen now.
Taxes and royalties: Mason would reverse Klein’s flat tax so everyone pays their fair share. He’d increase royalties on oilsands production, but not on conventional oil, and augment these revenue sources with capital borrowing to fund public infrastructure.
Not surprisingly Smith rejected any increase in taxes or royalties for fear that this would drive business out of Alberta. Instead she’d implement a Natural Gas Strategy to switch from coal-fired to gas-fired power generation, push hard on bitumen export pipelines, invest in the Heritage Savings Trust Fund to fill a gap in revenue when royalties are low and—now this was interesting—push for changes the federal equalization payment structure to decrease support for, say, Quebec.
She also rejected capital borrowing because once a government goes into debt it stays there.
University funding: Smith proposed a funding model based on a university’s ability to compete for students. Universities that attract more students would get a bigger slice of the budget than those that don’t.
Mason argued that education should be valued for its own sake and forcing universities to compete would detract from the primary objective of teaching while at the same time killing smaller institutions that can’t afford the bells and whistles necessary to make them more “competitive”.
Healthcare: Mason laid the blame for AHS’ death spiral at the feet of former PC health minister Ron Liepert who adopted a corporate healthcare delivery model complete with a fatcat board of directors and overpaid executives, and argued that structure and pay scales should reflect the public, not private, sector.
Smith promoted patients’ choice. Funding should follow the patient under a decentralized healthcare delivery model with decision making occurring at the local level. While she supports a publicly funded healthcare system she’d allow healthcare to be privately delivered.
Flashpoints and Rhetoric
The debate around global warming and the legalization of marijuana pushed some hot buttons, but not the ones I expected.
Smith and Mason agreed that Redford’s “stellar” environmental record was simply propaganda that had no traction on the global stage. However when Smith challenged Mason on his willingness to allow “his boss”, Thomas Mulcair, to meddle in Alberta’s environmental process, Mason shot back with “He’s not my boss, trust me!”
The debate around the legalization of marijuana was equally enlightening.
Both leaders scoffed at Redford’s rigid refusal to consider decriminalization. Mason supported decriminalization but would hold off on legalization until he’d had time to consider the impact of legalization in Colorado and Washington.
Smith said her caucus was evenly divided on the issue—eight favoured decriminalization and eight were against it. Smith supported decriminalization if for no other reason than prosecution was a waste of resources.
Mason seized upon the 50/50 split as proof that the Wildrose were one-half libertarians who didn’t care and one-half social conservatives whose heads would explode.
Smith responded that unlike the NDP who are controlled from on high, the Wildrose party believes in the free vote. If the party does not have a policy with respect to an issue then MLAs are free to vote in accordance with their constituents’ views.
The Winner is….
After “measuring” the level of whooping, clapping and shouting, the moderator declared Danielle Smith to be the winner. Smith accepted the win with humility, pointing out that the NDP had won six debates, the Wildrose two and they’d tied one.
I voted for Smith, not because I support her policies, but because she did a better job of explaining her vision. Let’s face it. It’s easier to explain the “economic” theory of government—the free market is efficient and works (even when it doesn’t); than the “greater good” theory of government—public goods are for everyone’s benefit and we should all pay our fair share.
Now consider this for a minute. Mason and Smith gave us a taste of their pre-election rhetoric: Mason is positioning the Wildrose as a party packed with crazy social conservatives who take their marching orders from Big Oil. Their goal is to privatize public services until the profit streams dry up and the public sector collapses.
Smith will paint the NDP is the Central Planning Party that takes its instructions from the “boss” Thomas Mulcair. They will raise taxes and royalties until they’ve succeeded in driving away business and strangling Alberta’s ability to fund public services.
Given these extreme positions from opposite ends of the spectrum there’s a void in the middle that could be filled by the progressive parties if they could just get their acts together.
Over to you Raj Sherman, Greg Clark, and Janet Keeping.