Honour a Premier for setting an example
By Bruce A Stewart
Order of Canada holders are supposed to be exemplars: people others can look up to and set their course by.
By that standard, former Alberta Premier Ralph Klein is an obvious candidate for inclusion.
Here’s why: at a time when, for a brief moment, restraint and paying down the debt of the past was public policy, he actually completed the task.
The sainted Paul Martin and be-haloed Jean Chrétien? Gag me with a spoon.
I remember when David Cameron became British Prime Minister and talked about copying “Canada’s example from the 1990s: they eliminated their deficits and so can we.” At the time, I called a good friend in the UK and asked him “when did you get provinces, because that deficit reduction was basically done by screwing them?”
It’s easy to get your house in some degree of order by shredding other levels of government. Brings a whole new meaning to “passing the buck” (or, in this case, not passing it).
Besides, two years later, the spending taps were turned back on. Remember all the end of fiscal year largesse? Remember that only one-third of the savings went to pay down the debt?
If they’d been serious about it, and disciplined about it, Stephen Harper wouldn’t have been able to wipe out their entire reduction in a year and a half.
But they weren’t. The two Liberal “saviours” only got the deficit-fighting religion because the bond agencies and the IMF were banging on the door, saying “banana republic time, boys”.
Then there’s everyone’s favourite punching bag in Ontario, Mike Harris, another deficit fighter, at least in mythology.
He, of course, had to absorb Martin’s stomping all over provincial transfers, ignoring the Canada Health Act‘s fiscal requirements amongst others.
It’s why Ontario managed to cut spending by a whopping 5% or so for a couple of years. Then it started going up again.
The debt? “Let it accumulate.”
After two years, Harris was worrying about his next election … and the Common Sense Revolution was over.
Frankly, the NDP Premier of Nova Scotia, Darrell Dexter, is doing at least as good a job of wrestling a province’s budget out of control to the ground as Harris ever did.
No one remembers that it’s not enough to stop the bleeding — the deficits. You have to pay down the pile of debt that’s accumulated. Every dollar in interest is a tax dollar that could be funding programs. Every time it has to roll over, you’re at risk that interest rates have moved against you and your costs will suddenly go up.
That Ralph Klein stayed the course, risked his next election to do so, and tackled not just the deficits but the debt in Alberta is why he ought to be in the Order of Canada.
It’s hard for a politician to say “no” year after year. It’s hard for a politician to wrestle control from the permanent government — the bureaucracy — and actually make a sustained effort happen. It’s hard to sit around the cabinet table and say “no career building goodies for you to hand out”, or to tell a caucus “don’t care, we have to do this” over and over again.
Klein stood up for the principle that if you want something, you pay for it. Not your children, not your grandchildren, but you, right here and now. That’s what being debt-free and budgeting for a surplus means.
It’s also good Keynesian economics: the deficits (and debt) to fight a doldrum here have to be paid back when the winds freshen. (Everyone who likes to “stimulate” forgets that Keynes hated the notion that the debts didn’t matter.)
You can quibble about the flaws of Ralph Klein all day. His accomplishment should be recognized. Maybe in future we’ll get a few more like him, who’ll do the jobs that need doing.