Some in Canadian business were concerned that the government had become very conservative after six years in power and could have made deeper cuts in last month’s budget. What is clear is that after six years in power, this government has learned that you win by governing from the centre, which is what they did when they unveiled the budget.
However, the emergence of Danielle Smith’s Wildrose party in Alberta is a development that could have significant repercussions across Canada by reigniting some of the Reform Party fervor that spawned conservative populism in Canada.
The pace of economic reform at the federal level has been steady and evolutionary under Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Faced with the realities of governing a geographically diverse country, he has set a course that is designed, to use a football analogy, to move the yardsticks instead of going for the goal posts. That being said, a defeat of the incumbent PC government in Alberta by the Wildrose party could pressure the federal Conservatives to go further when it comes to restructuring federal entitlement programs.
Danielle Smith, leader of the Wildrose party, is a product of the University of Calgary’s school of economics and political science. So is Stephen Harper. She is changing the face of conservatism in Canada. Again, so is Stephen Harper. Written off before the election as a longshot, Smith is now an even-odds bet to be elected the next Alberta premier. She is known to have a very good relationship with Harper, with strong ties to the organizers who helped to propel Harper’s career. University of Calgary professor Tom Flanagan is perhaps the best example. He ran both of Harper’s past campaigns and is currently running Smith’s. In last week’s televised leaders’ debate, it was telling that the only person to invoke Stephen Harper’s name in a positive light was Smith.
As the federal Conservatives settle into a cautious, evolutionary agenda, it is beginning to dawn on me that the impact of a Wildrose victory in Alberta could be far-reaching, helping to spur further reform in at least three key federal areas.
Healthcare Harper has put in place a “no strings attached” funding regime that will allow the provinces to experiment with new methods of healthcare delivery. In this election, Smith has boldly suggested that she’d be prepared to open the delivery of publically paid healthcare services to any private or non-profit healthcare providers. The province would pay the standard public healthcare fee, and the patient would pick up the rest. Smith believes this would allow faster access to specialists and medical procedures that are sometimes waitlisted for months in the public system. Don’t expect the PM to use the Canada Health Act to oppose further private delivery of healthcare.
Equalization The federal government put in place a cap to curtail equalization growth in 2009. Interestingly, as Ontario equalization payments have grown to the second largest in the country—$2.2 billion versus Quebec’s $7.8 billion—payments to the “poorer” provinces, for which the program was initially designed, have been “crowded out”. Last year, Smith chided the recipients of equalization in a speech in Montreal when she declared that equalization payments are “unearned entitlements, paying people not to work, paying provinces not to succeed (and not to secede).” At a time when both the Quebec and Ontario governments have been critical of the oil sands developments in Alberta, Smith makes the point that Alberta sends back $20 billion a year in equalization payments and in return, doesn’t get an ounce of gratitude.
Social welfare Smith is calling for federal policies that promote the movement of labour to the parts of the country where there is currently a shortage of supply. Paying workers to stay at home in Eastern Canada on unemployment insurance makes little sense when there are thousands of positions unfilled in western Canada. Interestingly, this past federal budget took some significant steps to encourage greater labour mobility.
It was Niccolò Machiavelli who said: “one change always leaves the way open for the establishment of others.”
Keeping this notion in mind, it can be argued that the emergence of Harper’s brand of populace conservatism has paved the way for a new party in Alberta. What is becoming clearer is the impact Wildrose could also have on fostering change at the federal level.