Monday, February 06, 2012

Good People, Big Ideas, Better Government

Full disclosure: while most of my readers know that I work for the Official Opposition and I've volunteered for the Alberta Liberal Party, I played no role in the development of their just-released platform - aside from contributing one photograph. 

Today the Alberta Liberal Party released its platform for the election to come this spring. Titled simply "Yes" and divided into three sections - Good People, Big Ideas, Better Government - the platform is a bold and brave statement of vision and principle.

Since ALP Leader Raj Sherman is an emergency room doctor, it should come as no surprise that fixing the public health care system is one of the cornerstones of his party's platform. He aims to cut non-emergency surgery wait times to six months, and emergency room treatment within six hours. (A six-hour wait would be a vast improvement compared to what happened to Sylvia back when she broke her leg in 2007.) He also proposed to put decision-making back in the hands of front-line health care professionals and get every Albertan access to a family doctor. And for anyone worried about the state of care for seniors, Sherman is promising to invest heavily in public home care and public long-term care. This is necessary for two reasons: one, Alberta's seniors deserve to live in dignity. And two, caring for seniors appropriately means getting them out of acute care, which frees up hospitals and emergency rooms, unclogging the system - and saving a whole pile of taxpayer money.

For parents, Sherman is promising greater access to quality pre-school and non-profit day care, better parental leave, an end to school fees and a school lunch program.

A post-secondary endowment would eliminate post-secondary tuition.  Other endowments will support the arts and amateur sport.

But how to pay for these promises? Well, according to the conventional wisdom of the post-Reagan era, it's political suicide to campaign on raising taxes. And yet the Alberta Liberals are promising a progressive tax that would increase rates on those earning $100,000 or more and a corporate tax hike of twelve percent, up two from the current rate of ten percent. That adds up to about $1.4 billion in annual revenue. Combined with over $200 million in cuts to wasteful spending, including communications (ulp!), funding for private schools, subsidized carbon capture and storage (CCS), fewer MLAs and fewer government ministries, that's an extra $1.6 billion to help eliminate the deficit and pay for the Liberals' ambitious social programs.

The Alberta Liberals are also proposing a revenue-neutral carbon levy to cap greenhouse gas emissions, reward companies who successfully reduce emissions, and fund green transportation and environmental innovation. (CORRECTION: this proposal is not revenue neutral; it would produce $1.8 billion a year when fully phased in, a four-year process. $900 million would go back to emitters and $900 million would be used to fund green transportation. Thanks to Alex for the correction!)

The platform also features some welcome democratic reforms, chief among them instant run-off elections, an idea I've blogged about before. Alberta Liberals also promise more free votes in the legislature, a simpler and more transparent pay structure for MLAs, truly fixed election dates (as opposed to the "election season" Premier Redford has created), recall legislation and more.

In fact, there's a lot more, including help for the energy sector, a better deal for municipalities, new consumer protections, a plan to decrease power bills...I hope Albertans will read the whole document - and, of course, the platforms of the other parties when they're released.

Will this vision convince Albertans to support the province's most venerable party? Maybe, maybe not, but I'm proud of the party for stepping way outside its comfort zone and wearing its liberal heart on its sleeve. Win or lose, Alberta Liberals can be proud for campaigning on a truly Liberal platform - fiscally responsible while investing in the programs and services that ensure no Albertan is left behind.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

You didn't play any role Earl? I find that hard to believe!
Ryan
PS, I'm still reading your blog, keep up the good work.

"Too Jeff A Season" said...

Aaarargh, why do the politicians still belive that the best way to support the arts is through grants and endowments?

I can point out any number of cases where this simply does not work.

You create a bureaucracy that the arts come to depend upon.

Ths bureaucracy is always too cumbersome to dole out money effectively.

You cater to special interest groups and artists who milk the system, and bypass the much larger group of artists who have niether the patience nor the ability to function in the world of the cubicle and the perpetually counted bean. Typically, those who get the money are the same performance groups and few individuals who have always managed to play the system regardless of the quality or merit of their art, which is often dubious at best. **cough**cough**CBC**cough**cough**

Why should the State be in control of the culture of Art in the first place? Do you really want Alberta culture to be defined as the one that hangs from Raj Sherman's left tit?

Government and Art should remain at arms' length from one another. At no time should the artist ever be beholden to the paunch in the suit who is sitting on the throne for his four-year term. I find this so unbelievably repulsive.

By far, the better system is to encourage Arts through smart tax benefits. That way, private sponsors get a break by supporting the Arts, the artists get a much wider selection of patrons, and the system will come to fund itself.

Think of the film industry. It's not the happiest career choice on earth, but the spin-offs are incredible, and a well-maintained film indstry brings in benefits across the board, from tourism, to craft and education, to culture and a healthy bottom line.

Better still, think of Ireland, where registered artists live TAX-FREE. Whatever woes Ireland suffers, their Arts are as solid as the Blarney Stone.

Think of The Vatican, where citizens have the voluntary choice to donate their entire tax bill to fund the artistic goals of the Church (or not), however the citizen sees fit.

As much as I see Dr. Sherman loading ammo into his Goliath-slaying sling (or at least talking that sort of talk), I also see the kind of weak imagination in government that we saw twenty years ago, the same kind of policy-making that makes me rather pleased to not be living in my birth-province any more.

Earl J. Woods said...

Ryan: I really and truly did not play any role in the platform's creation, other than providing the aforementioned photograph.

Jeff: having experienced the terrible pain of applying for two arts grants, I know that your arguments have merit. On the other hand, I'm not sure that tax breaks will help those artists who aren't making any money from their art in the first place...nor do I relish the idea of artists being beholden to private interests. Yes, with grants they're beholden to government, somewhat, but at least governments are accountable to the electorate (theoretically), while corporations are not.

A negative income tax (aka a guaranteed income) might make it possible for artists to pursue their art while still having enough money to live on, without the hassle and strings of endowments. I'm not sure Canada's quite ready for that yet, though.

"Too Jeff A Season" (a) said...

Private sponsorship does not equal corporate sponsorship. I doubt that most artists would flourish under a corporate system, nor would they ever get ahead with government funding. Currently, most corporate art plans are set as a percenage of development costs for architecture and public works. Two percent is the standard rate. Guess who sets that standard? Your friendly neighbourhood government. Truly, most corporations would not spend even this much, were it not for legislation.

But we're back to the same old problem: only the artists who have insider knowledge of the corporate arts application system get money. Often, the artist is already connected to the corporation, so they create a hand-shake wink-wink kickback deal that sees civic art funds filter back to the dveloper and then the original corporation. Yes, that creates cash flow, but from the rich to the rich.

The partnership between art and patron has to be more intimate than Dr. Raj standing on his Gotham City 200 float yelling "hubba, hubba, hubba" and throwing handfulls of the money to the huddled masses.

We have the social, financial, and cultural capacity to achieve strong bonds between patrons and artists, more now than at any other time in history. There are a growing number of sites and forums that seek to link artists and patrons at as low as the neighbourhood level using common tools such a Facebook. What we do lack is the incentive to continue these programs and to develop the inter-regional connective tissue we need to maintain this sort of initiative.

Certainly there is no lack of desire from the artist end of things. Patrons do exist (so I have read). Would it not be more helpful to organize a system to see these two elements come together, than to just throw away the money from The Joker's parade float and take your chances with the descending balloons of Smilex gas?

Earl J. Woods said...

Sounds like you should start a facebook group, Jeff! :-)

"Too Jeff A Season" (b) said...

I suspect that you have greater faith in God than I do in Facebook, so you go first.

More to consider: in the Netherlands, State Arts subsidies are currently being clawed back by a whopping 22%. The Dutch are, by trying to balance their budget, creating a completely new welfare class.

I strongly do not believe that one's choice in profession should be affected so strongly by elected officials. But here it is: visual artists, musicians, and actors in the Netherlands are forced to endure a pay cut of almost a quarter of their salary because other professionals, i.e. the political officials, want to hang on to their own jobs.

Ask any smart politician where they woud cut the budget if they had to come up with 22% more money, and they will say that the situation needs careful and considered exploration. However off the record, and in the legistalture, the first thing to get cut is arts and cultural subsidies. Why not? You get a couple less statues in front of the new condo tower, but you can then reduce hospital ER wait times by fifteen minutes. For a smart politician looking to get his haunches into that big leather chair, that's the way the scenario will go.

It's just too hard to depend on subsidies when you know that from quarter to quarter they could get cut at any time. Considering that many art projects could take longer than any one term of office, I suggest that leaning to hard on subsidies is just too much of a risk. Art should be self sustaining, and the State should take the view that they need to foster the set of conditions where artists can create self-sustainance on their own. Subsidies do not achieve this goal.

Full disclosure: the Netherlands before the cut spent 1.3 billion dollars per annum on art, with a population of nearly 17 million people, coming out to a per-capita spending of what? $76/citizen if my math is true. Alberta's population is about 3.5 millon, so that woud give us a comparable subsidy of 266 million per year for the Arts. Am I close to Dr. Raj's proposal? I must admit I have not got that far in the document as of yet. I suspect, though, that things are exactly as you have said: what goes in Europe does not neccesarily follow for Canada.

I will go along with the thought that Raj Sherman is making steps towards reform, but as far as the Arts are concerned, I see them as baby steps at best. Baby steps that seem very close to a cliff, I might add, much like the same one that caught Dr. Swann and his predecessors.

I would very much like to see Alberta work through their cultural issues, but as I said before, I cannot afford to stick around to see what happens.