Alberta needs a revolution in political thinking and that will require going back to the future to recall the kind of thinking that helped establish the province.
A hundred years ago, settlers in Alberta found a way to prosper amid harsh conditions and isolation.
"Back then, before oil, Alberta was not a wealthy place," said Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, at Thursday's Southern Alberta Council on Public Affairs session. "People eked out a modest living, they raised cattle, they planted crops, they scratched coal from the coalface."
Today in Alberta, sod houses have been replaced by climate-controlled homes and tradesmen earn healthy wages building oilsands projects. Even though Alberta today is a world apart from what it was in 1910, McGowan said the lessons of the past hold the key to solving today's problems.
Rather than being rugged individualists who made their own way, Alberta pioneers worked hard but also valued co-operation.
"They knew that some challenges, some problems were too big for one person to handle so they banded together to find public solutions to public problems," he said.
They created school boards, irrigation co-operatives, wheat pools and marketing boards.
"It's important to say that those things didn't come with private enterprise; it was public enterprise that brought those services to these far-flung communities," McGowan said.
That kind of approach allowed Peter Lougheed to establish a petro-chemical industry, by using regulation and public ownership, when he saw that jobs were being lost because raw forms of natural gas were being shipped out of the province.
"What previous generations of Albertans knew was that some problems were too big and some issues too important to be left to chance or the vagaries of the free market," he said.
McGowan said he doesn't see things have changed that much. The environmental implications of oilsands development, the loss of jobs down the pipeline as raw bitumen is exported, education for the technical jobs of the 21st century, better health care, meeting the needs of rapidly growing populations and declining pension coverage are all public problems.
Public solutions are one thing; paying for them is another. McGowan said Alberta has the resources to deal with the problems. Despite the recession, Alberta has a rainy-day fund and no public debt. Over the past 20 years the provincial economy has grown by leaps and bounds and corporate profits are four times greater while their tax rates have gone down.
"We have a situation of unprecedented private wealth while at the same time we have a government that's pleading poverty. There's a disconnect," he said.
McGowan said politics lies at the heart of the matter. Over the past 20 years, politics in much of the western world has been dominated by a "virulent" form of conservatism that demonizes the public sector, that rejects community solutions and puts the free market up on a pedestal.
"Politicians in Alberta have embraced what I would describe as a dangerous mythology, one that sees a vastly diminished role for government in promoting and protecting our public interest," he said.
McGowan said he sees three problems with that approach: It's simplistic; it doesn't reflect Albertans' values; and it imposes a restraint on debate.
Instead of having a range of options to consider, governments with this narrow view won't even consider options previous governments would have. Government interventions of the Lougheed kind wouldn't even be considered in today's political climate.
"We have to start expanding the range of possible. In many ways we have to go back to the future," he said. "We have to go back to that pioneer thinking which characterized Alberta from the beginning which took a very pragmatic approach to political problem-solving."
Byline: Caroline Zentner