February 8, 2010
Wilfrid Laurier’s Values and a More Powerful West
A strong Alberta can lead to a more powerful West
Almost 2,500 years ago in ancient Greece, the naval empire of Athens invaded an occasional Spartan ally, the isle of Melos. The Athenian commanders demanded the island submit to Athens, or else Melos and its 700-year history would be wiped away. The Melians refused and instead appealed to the gods, justice and hope. The reply from the Athenians is considered a classic realist statement in international politics: “Your strongest arguments depend upon hope and the future, and your actual resources are too scanty.”
The Athenian reference was to military capacity but the point is relevant to any jurisdiction faced with change, desire or imposed: Resources matter.
In the case of Alberta, the provincial government—through over-spending, by doing little to build up the Alberta Heritage Fund in good times, and through unwise policy on oil and gas—has risked squandering the province’s resource advantage. As a result, it quite literally risks making Alberta’s fiscal resources “too scanty” for future generations.
The province can change course. It might as well in a tight fiscal environment given how scarcity concentrates the mind. So in the context of decreased revenues, the government should think hard about how to deliver programs more effectively. As an example, on health care, the province should look to Sweden; on education, to the Netherlands. In those countries, money follows the patient and student (respectively) instead of being allocated to an institution merely because it exists. It makes for better, more effective social programs.
But there is another substantial benefit to getting Alberta’s fiscal house in order. It’s about the role of the West within confederation. Market-friendly, low-tax, free-trading, balanced budget jurisdictions with predictable and smart regulations create an ever-expanding circle of economic virtue. It’s where jobs, incomes and people’s living standards are created and then raised; such places act as people magnets.
And such policies are contagious. A prosperous Alberta can be part of a Western attempt to renew Canada in the direction of our country’s historic values, too often forgotten in the last half-century.
Canada’s historic values include not just the above-noted policies but the principles of valuing property rights, freedom of expression and self-reliance insofar as one is able. In short, the policies and principles together might be described as the early Canadian ethic of responsibility.
In the past, that ethic was understood to create a mutually beneficial, self-reinforcing effect upon desirable virtues: volunteerism, charity, a willingness to get involved in one’s neighbourhood. You helped out others because you could, because it was part of the bargain, and because it was the decent thing to do. That combination is what once led Prairie folk to build their own hockey rinks and farmer’s cooperatives, examples of the “little platoons” which Edmund Burke argued were necessary for a healthy society.
None of the above policies, practices or principles are exclusively Albertan or Western. But insofar as they are perceived to be, it is often in a negative sense, as when some idea or policy is occasionally derided as “Albertan” and delivered with a sneer.
But such critics are misinformed. Consider just one example from our history. In his 1894 campaign swing through Winnipeg, then Liberal opposition leader Wilfrid Laurier attacked the protectionist policies of the Conservative government. Laurier emphasized appreciation for an individual’s room to move—for freedom, on a variety of levels. “The good Saxon word, freedom; freedom in every sense of the term, freedom of speech, freedom of action, freedom in religious life and civil life and last but not least, freedom in commercial life,” said Laurier.
That from the man who would later become our first francophone Prime Minister. His comments should not surprise us. Recall that Montreal in Laurier’s day was the economic capital of Canada. Laurier’s values were Montreal’s values and they were Canada’s values. Today, they might exist more in some regions than others—here in Alberta, in pockets of British Columbia from where I hail, or in enterprise-friendly Saskatoon. However, that respect for and an understanding of the importance of Laurier’s list arguably ebbs the further one travels east.
To renew an ethic of responsibility nationwide requires a strong Alberta; it requires a prosperous West that is that way because it continually embraces Laurier’s vision of freedom wherever it can be sensibly applied. Then, the resources of power that matter in a democratic society—people— naturally follow. When the West has a larger population vis-à-vis the rest of the country, it then gains more parliamentary seats and clout. That leads to a more Western-focused national Parliament.
Virtue in personal life or in policy can be and is its own reward. But there is a wonderful spin-off benefit to smart, Laurier-like policy and principles in Alberta: A robust province and region that attracts more people and tilts the demographic, economic, cultural and political centre of the country westward.
Assuming the West can retain her values, values which nurture individuals, families and communities every day and in the most informal and most positive ways, that would allow us to point the rest of Canada in a sensible –and historic Canadian—direction.
Mark Milke, Director of Research
also lectures in Political Science at the University of Calgary where he received his doctorate. He is the author of three books on Canadian politics, including the 2006 A Nation of Serfs? How Canada’s Political Culture Corrupts Canadian Values from John Wiley & Sons. He is a former director (first in Alberta and then British Columbia) with the Canadian Taxpayers Federation 1997-2002. Since 2002, among other work, Mark has written policy papers on British Columbia’s treaty process, the Canada Pension Plan, Alberta’s Heritage Fund, automobile insurance, corporate welfare and the flat tax. He is writing a book on the effects of anti-Americanism on deliberative democracy in Canada and is a Sunday columnist for the Calgary Herald. In addition, his columns on politics, hiking, nature and architecture have been published across Canada including in the National Post, Globe and Mail, Reader’s Digest, The Western Standard, Vancouver Sun, and Victoria Times Colonist and the Washington DC magazine on politics, The Weekly Standard.