Last Updated on Monday, 18 April 2011 20:21
Premier Klein's $500,000 mail-in survey reads like it was designed by the Liberals or NDP. The survey's underlying assumptions are that government is responsible for our lives and our happiness, and that problems can be solved by throwing tax dollars at them.
Surveys are a poor substitute for real democratic accountability. This will exist only when Albertans acquire the right to initiate and vote in referendums on issues important to them.
This mail-in survey leaves no room for solutions other than spending tax dollars.
The survey assumes that Albertans will enjoy better health care only if more tax dollars are thrown at the government's health care monopoly. Albertans are not asked whether they support the development of a parallel private system to co-exist alongside the public one, as is the case in dozens of countries with better health care systems than Canada.
The survey assumes that more tax dollars will necessarily lead to a better education system, without asking Albertans about giving parents more choice, or introducing more accountability for tax dollars spent.
The survey assumes that the government - not the private sector - is responsible for the economy, and should spend our tax dollars to "build a more diverse, innovative economy."
The survey assumes that government - not individuals and families and charities - is responsible for providing "support to Albertans who need it." If it wasn't for three levels of government taking 49% of Canadians' earnings, we would all be in a position to give a lot more money to people who need it, without the government's help or guidance.
Other questions imply that the government should spend our tax dollars on "preserving rural communities" and "responding to growth in cities," again without proposing any specific policy options. Assigning a priority ranking to vague platitudes like these is a meaningless exercise.
Of course most Albertans will give "quality health care" and "an outstanding education system" a high-priority ranking. The government will then feel like it has a mandate to tax-and-spend billions more than what it already does now, without introducing real accountability and real choice into the health or education systems. A survey biased in favour of big government will inevitably produce answers which support big government.
As for the survey's question about "a refund to every Albertan," Albertans have already told their premier twice - in province-wide surveys in 1998 and 2000 - that they prefer tax cuts to spending increases. Premier Klein responded with small tax cuts and huge spending increases, effectively reading the survey results upside-down.
Surveys do nothing to challenge the absolute monopoly on power which politicians enjoy between elections. Rather than leaving it to politicians to formulate the questions, citizens themselves should have the right to initiate referendums on issues which they consider important. Citizens in Switzerland, Italy, 23 U.S. states, New Zealand and British Columbia have the power to put a specific proposal on the ballot, which can then be debated and voted on by their fellow citizens. An Environics poll in 2001 revealed that 79% of Albertans want this right to initiate and vote in referendums. If Premier Klein was truly interested in listening to Albertans, he would pass citizens' initiative legislation, rather than spending $500,000 of our money on a biased survey.
Last Updated on Monday, 18 April 2011 20:27
Having announced last month that Alberta will be debt-free, Premier Klein now plans to conduct another province-wide survey to ask Albertans about taxes, spending and savings.
Consulting taxpayers about their money is always a good thing, especially because Albertans do not enjoy the right to initiate and vote in referendums on issues important to them. Nor do Albertans have taxpayer protection legislation to require politicians to put proposed tax increases and new taxes to the people in a referendum. Democracy in Alberta is limited to placing an "x" on your ballot once every four years, after which politicians enjoy an absolute monopoly on power, without any direct accountability. The politicians' monopoly on power includes the right to raise any tax at any time for any reason, without having to obtain permission from those who pay the bills.
The tax dollars spent on printing hundreds of thousands of surveys, and mailing them to every household in Alberta, are well spent only if Premier Klein heeds the survey's results.
Premier Klein has largely ignored Albertans' views on taxes and spending, as expressed on province-wide surveys in 1998 and 2000. In the 1998 "Talk it up, Talk it out" survey, Albertans were asked to rank the importance of debt repayment, tax cuts, increased spending on government programs, and savings in the Heritage Fund. Converted into a 100-point index of importance, Albertans' priorities were debt repayment (75 points), then tax cuts (61 points), then increased spending (56 points), and then more savings in the Heritage Fund (19 points). The results of the 2000 "It's your money" survey were similar, with tax cuts scoring 73 points, and increased spending a distant second at 44 points. In short, Albertans have twice told their premier that tax cuts are more important than spending increases.
Premier Klein reduced corporate income tax from 15.5% to 11.5%, and the small business rate from 6% to 3%. Albertans also pay less provincial income tax today than what we did in the late 1990s.
However, these tax cuts have been off-set by increases to the health care premium tax, higher taxes on alcohol and tobacco, and large increases in various licences and fees. In 2002, Premier Klein raised the health care premium tax - all of which flows into the government's General Revenues - to $1,056 per family, $528 for individuals.
In contrast to small and modest tax cuts, spending on government programs rose by 69% from 1996 to 2003. During the same period, the Consumer Price Index rose by 20% and Alberta's population grew by 14%.
Albertans told Premier Klein their top priority was tax cuts, with spending increases a distant second. In response, Premier Klein reduced tax rates somewhat, but hiked spending by 69%.
If Premier Klein had increased spending since 1996 just to keep pace with inflation and population growth, Albertans' annual provincial tax bill would be at least $4 billion lower today. A $4 billion tax cut would mean:
- Reducing personal income tax from 10% to 2%, or
- Eliminating provincial property tax and cutting personal income tax from 10% to 5%, or
- Eliminating the health care premium tax and provincial property tax and cutting personal income tax from 10% to 7%
But alas, Premier Klein has ignored the surveys, and is spending our tax cut. Another province-wide survey on taxes and spending is worthwhile - but only if Premier Klein plans to heed the results.
Last Updated on Monday, 18 April 2011 20:29
The Graydon Report on Health Care Funding is a recipe for more tax increases, without any substantive reforms to give patients better quality health care.
This 2002 report of the task force chaired by MLA Gordon Graydon was kept secret from taxpayers until last month. This report correctly points out that government spending on its health care monopoly is growing much, much faster than Alberta' combined inflation and population growth. The Alberta government's spending on health care is up from $4 billion in 1996 to $8.7 billion in 2004. This 118% spending increase since 1996 far exceeds Alberta's 17% population growth and 22% cumulative inflation since 1996.
Rising health care costs should come as no surprise to anyone, considering that there is an infinite demand for more, faster, and better health care. When a public sector monopoly tries to meet an infinite demand, it inevitably consumes more and more tax dollars. Determined to think inside the box, Mr. Graydon and his Tory colleagues ask Premier Klein to consider four different tax increases. First, raise Alberta's provincial income tax from 10% to 12%. Second, double the health care premium tax from $1,056 per family per year to $2,112. Third, give Regional Health Authorities more taxing powers. Fourth, charge patients a "health care deductible" for using the system, in addition to the health care premium tax and other provincial taxes they already pay.
Of these four proposals, only the fourth one creates a link between using the health care system and paying for this use. But even this proposal, like the first three, does not provide patients with choice to get treatment outside of the government's health care monopoly. Charging a "health care deductible" merely forces middle- and higher-income Albertans to pay even more taxes for the same government monopoly. This is unfair because Albertans who earn more money already pay the bulk of Alberta's business, property, income and other taxes.
Premier Klein already raised taxes "for health care" in 2002, even though revenues from the health care premium tax flow into General Revenues like every other provincial tax. Rather than raise taxes again, the federal and provincial governments should allow Canadians to spend their own money on health care outside of the government's monopoly. It's odd - and very unjust - that people have unlimited freedom to spend their money as they please on clothing, food, tobacco, alcohol, houses, cars, and holidays . . . but not health care.
The Canada Health Act should be amended to allow all provinces to innovate better health care policies, including the development of a parallel private system. Canada's Constitution gives provinces exclusive jurisdiction over hospitals. Provinces - not Ottawa - pay most of the health care costs. Provinces should be able to learn from each other's successes and failures, just as our federal system allows them to do with other government programs and policies. Further, the Canada Health Act should be amended to include the principles of quality, choice, accountability and sustainability.
Premier Klein should reject the tax increases recommended in the Graydon Report. Rather than raising taxes again, he should challenge the Canada Health Act, promote the development of a parallel private system, and give Albertans the freedom to spend their own money on the health care of their choosing.
Last Updated on Monday, 18 April 2011 20:29
With the election out of the way, now is a good time to contemplate just how narrow and limited our democracy is. Having put your "x" on your ballot, your direct input into how our country is run - and how politicians spend billions of our tax dollars - is now finished. Certainly you can always approach your MP cap-in-hand with phone calls, letters and e-mails. But your opportunity to actually exercise some power and exert some direct control is effectively over, until the next election.
Our Canadian - and Alberta provincial - democracy is limited because the voter is forced to choose one "complete package" consisting of party leader, party policies and local candidate. The "x" on the ballot endorses all three, even if the voter intensely dislikes the local candidate or the party leader or some of the party's policies. Further, the extreme dominance of the Prime Minister's Office in our federal democracy - and the Premier's Office provincially - means that MPs and MLAs have now become "voting machines" who do their leaders' bidding.
Voters do not have a direct say on immigration, the definition of marriage, the criminal justice system, the rights of unborn children, or any other issues which affect their lives. Instead, voters must choose that one "package" of policies they dislike the least. A Conservative victory might be an endorsement of tax cuts or a rejection of gay marriage, but nobody can be certain of this. A Liberal victory doesn't prove that Canadians support gay marriage, or that they are content with current levels of taxation.
No person dares criticize the wisdom of voters during an election, even though the election's outcome says nothing clear or definitive about which policies voters have endorsed, and which policies have been rejected.
If voters are smart enough to vote in elections, why should they not have a direct say in a referendum on a major issue affecting their daily lives Do we really need Paul Martin and Ralph Klein creating rigid "packages" for us, which limit our democratic choice On important issues, why not let these two gentlemen vote in a referendum, just like their fellow citizens
Of course there would be confusion and chaos if every detail of public policy were decided by a multitude of ongoing referendums. But nobody advocates year-round, continuous referendums on every issue. This is merely a straw dummy, set up by elitists who want politicians to retain control over all issues at all times, without a direct say from citizens.
There is no reason why voters' choice cannot - and should not - be expanded by giving them the right to initiate and vote in referendums on issues important to them. Citizens in Switzerland, New Zealand, numerous U.S. states, Italy and British Columbia can engage in democratic debate on issues without having to seek the permission of politicians.
Citizens' initiative legislation will create a healthy separation between issues and personalities. According to a 2001 Environics poll, 79% of Albertans want this legislation. It's time for Premier Klein to take Alberta beyond the narrow confines of our limited, restricted democracy. If Alberta leads by example, we can ask Ottawa to follow.