Happy Family Day

By Harold Jansen on Feb 18, 2008

It seems entirely appropriate that we're in the midst of a provincial election on Family Day. Those of you who are really old (like me) will remember that Family Day originated duing the 1989 election campaign. Let's see if this sounds familiar....

In 1989, a nice, well-meaning leader had succeeded a powerful and charismatic premier. Despite being a decent person, he gave the impression that he wasn't up for the job and he wasn't a particularly good communicator. This leader -- we'll call  him Don -- was in electoral trouble and basically used elections as an opportunity to buy voters with spending announcements left and right. Family Day was part of the promise orgy of 1989.

Fast forward to 2008: similar kind of leader in similar trouble. The thing that has struck me is the rash of expensive promises that Stelmach and company have been rolling out. Last week it was $40 million for a new science centre in Calgary. That has been going on for the last several months. Here at my university in Lethbridge, we've been promised tens of millions in new building over the past few months. Furthermore, the province is building abunch of new schools. The problem is not that these projects aren't worthwhile. We need the new buildings at the U of L; Calgary and Edmonton desparately need new schools; the Calgary science centre is looking pretty decrepit. The problem is that we need these things built regularly, when they are needed, not when the government needs them to win elections.

The problem is that this gets at two of the Tories' weaknesses. First, they are being accused of not having a plan to manage growth. The government's behaviour over the past few months seems to imply that the only plan they have is to get re-elected. Second, the government's reputation as effective and stingy fiscal managers has taken a real beating. If the Wildrose Alliance, campaigning to the right of the Conservatives, could get its act together, this feeds right into them.

In fairness to the government, the Liberals and NDP are promising to spend lots of money, too, in their own effort to buy voters. Unlike other provinces, where revenues are limited, we haven't had a debate on how weare going to pay for all of this. The problem with capital projects, though, is that they are only very rarely a one-time expenditure. If the government gives Calgary money for new schools, it also have to give the school boards money for staff and supplies to maintain them on an annual basis. We simply haven't had that debate.

A lot has changed in Alberta, but the electoral tactics of political parties seem to remain intact: votes can be bought with voters' own money.

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