It’s hard not to cheer for an economic downturn

Photo by Dave Cournoyer

Photo by Dave Cournoyer

The prospect of a housing market collapse makes me giddy. Low oil prices? It warms my heart. Higher interest rates? Ooh, baby.

I would be willing to bet there are a lot of you reading that and nodding your head in agreement. Yes, you think, that could be great. It might even mean that one day I’ll be able to buy a house, or afford my rent.

If you don’t have crushing debt levels that would be affected by higher interest rates, you might have a point. I feel that way. I’m excited by the prospect of an economy in distress, and that’s problematic.

We have ended up in a situation, in this city more than any other jurisdiction in Canada, where too many are being suffocated by a system geared towards rewarding the already successful. It’s been said many times, and it bears repeating, that it is difficult to thrive in this town if you don’t have the “right” kind of job. That not only breeds resentment, it also sets things up so that people like me, and probably people like you, cheer for a downfall that will bring many down with it.

Not only are we suffering from a bigger wealth gap in this city and in this province than other areas of Canada (and of the U.S. as a whole), we are mercilessly tied to the type of oil and gas commodity swings that recently wiped out $7 billion from provincial coffers virtually overnight, or that bring incredible wealth to a few, while driving up costs for the many.

And so some of us cheer when we see bitumen drop from $100 per barrel to $40. We envision foreclosed houses in inner-city communities that we could actually get our hands on. But of course it’s nothing to be happy about.

We (and I use that term to mean those of us without bursting bank accounts) are just as desperately tied to the swings of the market and the price of oil as the next guy. Sure, the effects of a major disruption will hit those in the downtown towers harder and faster, and may even open up some opportunities, but if that market trauma lasts for too long, it brings almost everybody down with it.

Here we’ve gotten to the meat of the matter. We are hopelessly unable to untether ourselves from the almighty market and its total indifference to our lives and our circumstances. We have a provincial government that is unwilling to even consider how to alleviate the nauseating swings by bringing in corrections like a provincial sales tax, or a progressive income tax, or a living wage policy, or increased corporate taxes, or increased royalties, or real environmental regulations, or a carbon tax, or reliable money transfers to municipalities for things like affordable housing and increased transit.

We have a city council that can’t even pass basic measures to allow for more secondary suites in a city that is years into a housing crisis, not to mention some form of rent control to alleviate gouging by some landlords.

What we get instead of all of these things is a circling of the conservative wagons in Alberta in order to impose austerity measures that will undoubtedly wreak havoc on the lives of the poor while barely touching those in the higher wage brackets. Already the unions are fighting back the first wave of attacks and there are certain to be more. On a city level, we have at least one councillor who would rather fine distracted pedestrians than consider affordable housing measures (no, seriously, you can’t make this up).

It all points to a sick system, and profoundly blinded provincial and federal governments and civic politicians. It’s a system where my automatic reaction to a downturn is to cheer the negative consequences for others in the hopes that I can get a share of the pie, even if I might be hurt as well. It’s a system where those who win, continue to win, without looking after others who fall through the cracks. It’s a system where we destroy in order to accumulate without regard to the future or any semblance of dependability and consistency.

The only hope is that during the coming financial storm, our governments remember the mistakes of the past and the continuing social deficit left over from Ralph Klein’s destructive reign, and realize that in order to build a province, you can’t keep hacking at the legs of the majority of its citizens.

This post originally appeared in Fast Forward Weekly.

Cut the public affairs bureau

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The latest provincial budget comes out on March 6 and the opposition is already circling, with Wildrose leading the charge. On February 25, Alberta’s other right wing released its budget recommendations. No surprise, there were lots of savings to be found in the bullet points (see, it’s easy!).

It was bullet number 4 that, as an editor, caught my eye: cut the size of the Public Affairs Bureau in half [$10 million]. Ten million!

For those of you who don’t know, the PAB is the sprawling communications branch of the government, which is mandated to be a non-partisan disperser of information. You know, for the citizens. Of course, after 41 years of Progressive Conservative rule and some tweaking by the late Ralph Klein, the PAB is anything but neutral and has grown exponentially, from $10 million in 2002-03 to nearly $20 million today.

The PAB has inserted Conservative boilerplate into press releases (now seemingly replaced with touting the Building Alberta Plan, a $1.7 million branding exercise praising Alison Redford and featuring the blue and orange of the PCs), it relentlessly praises the Conservative agenda, and its spokespeople are well-trained professionals adept at not really answering the question. It amounts to a taxpayer-funded political campaign that never ends. The government stresses that it has introduced press secretaries for cabinet ministers in order to handle the more partisan communications, but the PAB, which reports to the government’s executive council, is still controlled by the Office of the Premier.

When we ran a story on the PAB in 2011, we couldn’t get Redford on record and said so in our story. The day it was published, Stephen Carter, then the premier’s chief of staff, phoned to yell profanities at me. It was an indication of just how twitchy this administration is when it comes to the topic, and that was before they started shovelling millions of extra dollars into it.

The fact that you can cut $10 million and there’s still $10 million left over should be of deep concern to Albertans who want unbiased information about what our government is doing. At a time when newsrooms are being slashed, those that spin the news of the day are getting paid a lot of money and have a lot of resources at their disposal. In fact, 77 people who worked in communication (not all in the PAB) for the Executive Council in 2013 made over $100,000. The government is doubling down on information control.

Needless to say, the opposition parties aren’t big fans of the bureau. They’ve been on the losing end of slanted government communications for years and are eager, at least while still sitting in opposition benches, to hack away at the flacks. Some, like the Alberta Liberal Party, would do away with the whole thing. Some, like the NDP and the Wildrose, would greatly reduce its size and scope, hopefully leading to an organization that obeys the government’s own code of conduct, which states “partisan political matters are the exclusive domain of Ministers and their offices….”

Of course, the fact of the matter is that this government desperately needs to spin what has become a horror show. Slashing of post-secondary budgets after promising increases, walking away from its obligations to fund the Epcor Centre, excessive and entitled travel expenses, the depletion of our savings and the near psychotic promotion of out-of-control growth in the oilsands (including millions spent to lobby U.S. lawmakers over a private company’s pipeline), among so many other examples — Redford and her crowd have been a dismal failure. Rather than owning up to it, or trying to change, they shovel money into “issues management” while dismantling collective bargaining and reducing pensions in the public sector.

Losing a chunk of one’s pension, however, isn’t really anyone’s fault but those who chose to work in the wrong area of government. Had they decided on communications rather than, say, tracking down royalty payments, they could walk away with a padded bank account, and maybe even a $40,000 severance package. But you’d think with all of those communications professionals, someone could have at least picked up the phone and told the Alberta Union of Public Employees they were gutting their benefits. Sorry, I mean, “recalibrating union members’ golden handshakes for the benefit of all Alberta taxpayers. #WeAreAlberta. #ResponsibleChange.”