Economic recovery explored at Re-Making Alberta conference

With the new provincial budget freshly on the table, and budget cuts expected once the details are unveiled later this month, the University of Alberta's Parkland Institute, in conjunction with the Alberta Federation of Labour, will be hosting a conference entitled Re-Making Alberta: Recession Alternatives for an Alberta that Works. Diana Gibson, research director for the institute, points out how the Stelmach government has been taking "the low road" to economic recovery by introducing budget cuts to social services.

In response, the conference has invited keynote speaker Asbjorn Wahl, Norwegian labour leader, to discuss recovery alternatives based on other models from outside Alberta.

"The Alberta government is taking such a different path from what other governments have done in this recession. So many mainstream economic organizations were saying, 'step up the stimulus, and don't talk about belt tightening' as the recession spiraled down," notes Gibson. "And our government talked about belt-tightening, and with the new budget, are already talking about reducing the deficit.

"Other governments are still focusing on stimulus spending, so we felt it was important to have a look at what's happening in, say, Nordic countries and in other provinces, and say, 'There's a different way to steward an economy, and the Alberta government is making poor choices.'"

While global economies begin a cautious recovery from the recession, Gibson sites the current government's lack of long-term vision as one of the habits that continues to plague Alberta's vulnerable economy in times of economic fluctuation.

'This government is very shortsighted; it's shown a consistent lack of desire to manage the economy to mitigate booms and busts. In fact, they've done the opposite: they've spent at the top of the boom and cut at the bottom of a recession, making the booms and busts worse, and they've consistently shown that mentality rather than showing a long-term management plan for investment, so that the employment is there over a longer period of time. They seem to think that the only way Alberta can compete is to give away our resources raw for the lowest dollar."

Among the many possible solutions to be discussed at the conference, Gibson hopes to address weaknesses in the Alberta economy, while Wahl's keynote address will highlight successful European case studies.

"One of the big things is to acknowledge is that we can't rely on natural gas revenues to run our economy. We need to restructure our economy into having a higher tax base, because we have the lowest tax base of any provinces. We could raise it by $10.7 billion and still be the lowest in the country.

"But we shouldn't have to be the lowest either. We can compete by having strong healthy infrastructure, healthy educated workers, great resource access and becoming a more sophisticated economy where we compete in more sophisticated ways. And in the throne speech yesterday, they've made it really clear they're not going to. We need to value our public services, and recognize that in paying for them through taxes it's the most efficient way to pay for them."

It's too easy to look south to the American model for recovery, Gibson adds, as opposed to similar economies of scale that don't immediately come to mind, but that have more to offer in terms of realistic alternatives.

"The U.S. has shown that they're not the best path; they were the epicenter of the recession," Gibson points out. "The big thing that motivated this conference is to see people discuss the differences between the American-style rugged individualism versus the European dream of collective productivity and equal access to resources.

"We're at a crossroads in Alberta. We should be debating which model we want to have, one that's based on exclusivity, or one that's universal? The Nordic countries provide an example of a place where they still have a strong, competitive economy, but they have an approach based on universality, equity and inclusiveness.

"That's the high road," Gibson hints, "and Alberta can pick it. We have the resource bounty, the ability and we have the moment. What we need to do is choose the high road."

Vue Weekly, Week of February 11, 2010
Bline: Mike Angus

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