Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
March 15, 1999
Alberta's spirit of openness
Ontario economist Armine Yalnizyan came to Alberta this month and applauded the province for its spirit of openness. In a talk to a Rotary Club luncheon she also noted that the gap between rich and poor is growing faster here than anywhere else in Canada.
Perhaps she was too laudatory about our province. No sooner had she spoken than Premier Ralph Klein fired off an intemperate letter to the University of Alberta president Rod Fraser criticizing the Parkland Institute which had brought Yalnizyan to town for a conference on poverty. The institute, which receives office space and a small grant from the university, "appears dedicated to the manipulation and misuse of statistics to spread its apparent doctrine that Alberta is bad," wrote Klein.
So much for the spirit of openness. And why Klein didn't direct his comments to the Rotary Club or Yalnizyan herself we may never know.
The thin-skinned premier's letter is most disturbing. It can only be seen as an attempt to intimidate the university to rein in critics who dare to point out weaknesses in our social fabric. If the university does not in the future receive the full measure of its requested grant from the province, it (and we) would be entitled to ask: Is it because the university dares to support independent inquiry which sometimes points out social inequality? And if the university's funding is reduced, will it become even more dependent on private sources of funding disinclined to raise uncomfortable questions about social inequality?
Indeed, if the premier were as concerned with the factual accuracy of Yalnizyan's conclusions as he claims, would it not have been more appropriate to raise specific challenges to her presentation and leave it at that? Why write to the president of the U of A?
Klein has blasted the Parkland Institute in the past. When it published Kevin Taft's little book Shredding the Public Interest in 1997, he called them communists.
It's perhaps time to again review some of Taft's conclusions. He argued against Klein's thesis when he came to office that public spending in Alberta was out of control. In fact, said Taft, Alberta had the tightest government spending controls in Canada. He argued that while the Klein government attacked spending on social services, health and education, it ignored the fact that the province's private sector had been the most heavily subsidized in Canada for more than 20 years.
Taft's book was certainly critical of the Klein government. It was far from being communistic.
Alberta needs critics like the Parkland Institute. In the last 64 years, the province has had only one change of government. That record may indicate the bulk of people are satisfied. It also points to a need for critics who will crack any complacency which might develop.
The health of our political system can be best assured not by only proclaiming its good news, but also by assuring room for criticism by those outside the establishment. A government must be open to criticism if it wants to avoid stagnation.
It is especially important that provision be made to fund critics who speak on behalf of the poor and those otherwise excluded from the mainstream of society. Business groups, for example, can afford to pay for their own lobby groups and think tanks; the poor - by virtue of the very fact they are poor - cannot hire people to speak on their behalf.
Institutions, such as universities, churches and social service organizations, whose very existence testifies to the fact that there are values other than the financial bottom line have a responsibility to support groups like the Parkland Institute. The premier of Alberta should recognize the vital contribution groups like the Parkland Institute make to the common good. Their insights and criticisms should be welcomed, rather than squelched.
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