Why B.C. voters should worry about Danielle Smith and the Wildrose party in Alberta
A radical right-wing party is gaining strength in Alberta, which should cause concern for Canadians across the country.
A recent Leger Marketing poll commissioned by two daily Postmedia papers showed that the Wildrose party has 41 percent support among decided voters, compared to 34 percent for Premier Alison Redford's Progressive Conservatives. The NDP and the Liberals are far back, at 12 and 10 percent, respectively.
The Wildrose party is led by former broadcaster Danielle Smith, who has been a disciple of Fraser Institute ideology since she worked for the Vancouver-based right-wing think tank in the 1990s.
Her party's platform includes numerous policies cribbed from Fraser Institute recommendations advanced by cofounder and former executive director Michael Walker.
They include tax-free medical-savings accounts. By making these accounts tax deductible, those with higher incomes derive greater benefit because they will end up with more money in their pockets than low-income people who make use of them.
Critics have claimed that modern health care is so complex and technical that consumers are not in a position to benefit from making purchasing decisions using these accounts. But that doesn't sway the free-market ideologues.
Smith doesn't want to rile the voters into thinking she's going to destroy Medicare, so she has promised that these tax-free medical-savings accounts will only apply to noninsured medical services. But including this measure in her platform is a way to get this policy onto the public agenda. It's a wedge designed to undermine Medicare in the future.
The Wildrose party has also promised to advance private-property rights, which is a hallmark of Fraser Institute thinking. As part of this push, Smith would repeal a bill allowing the government to freeze private land for public purposes.
She would kill another law allowing the government to store carbon underground in "pore space" below private property. The party would also eliminate laws requiring the province to implement regional land-use plans and allow for the construction of new transmission lines over private property.
Wildrose has proposed an "Alberta Property Rights Preservation Act", entrenching property rights in the Alberta Bill of Rights. The party also pledges to "spearhead a national initiative to add property rights to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms".
There are several potential problems associated with including property rights under Canada's constitution. First of all, it could hamper municipalities' capacity for introducing zoning rules.
Secondly, B.C.'s Agricultural Land Reserve could face a legal challenge from landowners who say their constitutional rights have been infringed upon by a law requiring them to maintain property as farmland. Of course, the head honchos at the Fraser Institute and the Business Council of B.C. have no love of protecting agricultural land if there are more lucrative uses.
That's not all. Aboriginal land claims might become even more difficult to settle if individuals launch court cases arguing that treaties infringe on their constitutional right to private property. In addition, environmental regulations could be struck down as unconstitutional if they infringe on private-property rights. And it's conceivable that divorced spouses would face new barriers to obtaining assets accrued over the course of a marriage.
But the biggest threat of all is if corporations were able to persuade the Supreme Court of Canada that this constitutional guarantee should also be extended to them. Corporations have already obtained a constitutional right to freedom of expression.
You can be certain that Corporate Canada would focus a massive amount of resources on trying to ensure that constitutional property rights also apply to their holdings. If they succeed, that could have a seriously detrimental impact on governments' ability to create Crown corporations in the future.
Wildrose threatens public education
Two years ago, Straight contributor Donald Gutstein wrote a brilliant article explaining how a voucher system would undermine public education.
Yet a voucher system is precisely what the Wildrose party is proposing in its platform: "We will empower public, Catholic and charter schools by allowing funding (operational and maintenance) to follow the student to the school each student attends."
"Smith has advocated vouchers since she was a Fraser Institute intern in the mid-’90s," Gutstein noted in his piece. "While in the think tank’s employ, she coauthored a study with Vancouver Sun editorial pages editor Fazil Mihlar (then the institute’s director of deregulation), which concluded that 'schools must be given the freedom to innovate,' and that making schools compete through a voucher scheme was the way to do this."
Not only that, but Smith wants schools to post graduation rates and subject-by-subject assessment rates. Educators often point out that the performance of schools is closely linked to students' socioeconomic backgrounds, which is why school rankings shouldn't be taken at face value.
Gutstein and others, including UBC law professor Joel Bakan, have written about how corporations are promoting "accountability measures"—like school rankings—to weaken support for public education.
At the same time, these corporations are sometimes involved in doing the actual testing, which fattens returns to their shareholders.
In Bakan's book Childhood Under Siege: How Big Business Targets Children (Allen Lane Canada, 2011), he writes that blaming teachers, principals, and schools "is the driving idea behind market-oriented reforms". But this approach imposes no accountability on contributing factors, such as chronic underfunding.
"Poverty and its ill effects of violence, crime, drug and alcohol abuse, hunger, inadequate shelter, unavailable parents, and broken and sometimes violent homes, cause students to be distracted, depressed, poorly motivated, angry, unhealthy, and low in energy and self-esteem," Bakan writes. "When schools operate in these kind of conditions it may be impossible, or extremely difficult, for teachers to teach and students to learn. Holding teachers and principals solely or primarily accountable for underperformance thus makes little sense."
At the same time, politicians like Smith, who promote school accountability, pay little heed to the impact that their policies—such as cutting taxes on the rich and curtailing social programs—have on students' educational performance.
Why British Columbians should care about Alberta's election
If Smith is elected Alberta's premier on April 23, she will receive lavish attention from the national media. Don't count on the Ottawa press gallery or right-wing newspapers like the Globe and Mail or the National Post to delve too deeply into the potential downsides of some of her ideas.
A Smith victory would embolden right-wing federal and provincial governments to pursue more extreme policies. For example, the B.C. Liberal government might respond to Smith's victory with the daffy idea of bringing school vouchers to this province. This would go some way toward destroying the public-school system.
We could also see the B.C. Liberals or B.C. Conservatives promise to introduce tax-free medical-savings accounts in B.C. There would also be a greater push to protect property rights in Canada's constitution.
Alberta already allows replacement workers during labour disputes, so there was no need for Smith to promise any legislation in this area. But here in B.C., replacement workers are still illegal under provincial labour legislation.
If the Wildrose party wins in Alberta on a hard-right platform, don't be surprised if either of B.C.'s major right-wing parties pick up on this issue as well.
Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter at twitter.com/csmithstraight.