Beggars, Afterthoughts, and Big Brother

Posted by on Apr 8, 2012 in Blog, News

You don’t have to have Charles Dickens or George Orwell on your bookshelf to know that the idea of “power” tells us what a word like “beggar” or a phrase like “Big Brother” means. My dream of the Next Alberta stresses the importance of empowering Alberta’s communities and citizens. It’s a dream demanding that Big Brother (federal and provincial governments) give beggars (communities and some citizens) the power needed to make better lives for themselves and those they serve.

The imagery of beggars and afterthoughts is borrowed from Chris Turner’s superb portrait of the relationship Alberta’s cities “enjoy” with the federal and provincial governments. Turner’s feature article appears in the April issue of Alberta Views (www.albertaviews.ab.ca). He doesn’t paint a pretty picture.

Our cities receive just 8 percent of all the revenues collected from Alberta taxpayers. From this small pot of money our cities must try to finance more than half of the infrastructure we use every day. Also, I think it’s fair to say that both federal and provincial governments have addressed their budget woes by downloading services onto municipal governments. Additional revenues seldom, if ever, accompanied this downloading.

This reality is what led Calgary’s mayor Naheed Nenshi to characterize Canada’s federal/provincial/municipal revenue and spending relationship as “the real fiscal imbalance in Canada.”

When I had the chance recently to talk to Chima Nkemdirim, Mayor Nenshi’s Chief of Staff, and Calgary councillor Brian Pincott I heard first-hand about the challenges Calgary faces in moving forward quickly on major infrastructure projects such as LRT expansion. Such projects can only proceed in a timely way if cities are guaranteed additional, long-term secure sources of funding from Alberta and Ottawa.

What can an Independent Senator do to try to empower Alberta’s cities? As Alberta and the cities try to negotiate more equitable long-term financial arrangements I can urge Senators to  appreciate that the challenges faced by cities like Edmonton and Calgary are not “Alberta-only” issues. All Canadian cities face them. We need to encourage the federal government to be a better listener. That’s the kind of voice I want to be in Ottawa.

I can also urge, hopefully with like-minded Conservative and Liberal Senators, the Harper government to take two measures immediately in order to improve the cities’ abilities to finance some of today’s and tomorrow’s essential infrastructure projects (see the Empower Albertans link in the Next Alberta section of this website for details about those measures).

Further to those suggestions, in the spirit of Chris Turner’s analysis perhaps Ottawa also should consider a permanent transfer of a portion of the federal GST – say one percent – to the cities (with a crucial condition – provinces cannot use such a transfer as an opportunity to reduce provincial financial support for cities).

When I think about the place of cities in the Next Alberta I nod in agreement with Edmonton Mayor Stephen Mandel’s comment in another article from the April issue of Alberta Views: “I’m practical.” That’s what we need more of in politics at all levels in this country – more people who are practical, fewer people who pray only to conservative, liberal, or social democratic idols.