Micro-Targeting Alberta Electorate Obscures Economic Questions: ‘Vote buy” policies weaken policy discourse

Alberta, Commentary, Joseph Quesnel, Local Government, Uncategorized

Two issues critical to the long term economic survival of Alberta are not getting much attention in major campaign coverage.

The first is a predictable property rights regime. Media attention about Alberta’s “land bills” and their declared negative impact on property rights was plentiful before the election. Some argue the rising fortunes of the Wildrose Alliance are at least partly due to a rural revolt over these bills.

Economists tell us that economic growth and prosperity is intimately connected to strong property rights. The recently-released International Property Rights Index (a measure of 130 countries by the U.S.-based Property Rights Alliance) remind us that property rights protections  are connected with foreign direct investment inflows  and with  economic growth as measured by GDP per capita.

But, perhaps politicos think the matter to be too abstract for the regular voter. Political campaign managers prefer tangible inducements to voters such as the “Dani-dollar” energy dividend, or new tax credits, or “free” tuition.  Micro-targeting voters is becoming the norm.

The other matter being underplayed is the future of a water transfer market for Alberta, particularly relevant to the semi-arid southern end of the province. Water is essential for human and ecological survival, no doubt, but Alberta’s industries and irrigated agriculture are dependent on sound water supplies. That truth may be scorned by the “water-is-a-human-right crowd,” but it is a hard truth nonetheless. Albertans earning their daily bread at businesses or agriculture who are dependent on water are also human beings.

A limited water license exchange market has existed for several years now. Like all the Western provinces, Alberta uses the “first in time, first in right” system that honours seniority in times of shortage. In Alberta, the largest water license holders are southern-based irrigation districts. A water market, despite the misconceptions, is not about “privatizing” water given that the province is still the legal owner of the resource. The province oversees a regulated market in which senior holders can “sell” their water rights to other users.

The Alberta government said they were looking into an expanded water market, but the public is still awaiting answers.

It wouldn’t be accurate to say either issue is not receiving any play. Careful monitoring of media coverage of all-candidates forums reveals the public is curious how the candidates stand on these two matters. Alberta landowners are expressing skepticism about how a property rights advocate (a new office created by the PC government) is going to ensure that they are properly compensated for property loss. Some observers argue the government’s Alberta Property Rights Task Force was simply about containing political anger over the land use bills.

Larger questions such as what is a proper ground for land expropriation or how to take the question permanently out of the hands of elected politicians were avoided.

Polls and pundits say this particular election campaign is historic and “interesting” because it appears to herald strong competition.  It is not a foregone conclusion that one specific party will win. A continuous dynasty may be coming to an end. So, we should care about what each of the smaller opposition parties advance on these two issues because they are so integral to our economic future.

Their platforms give us mostly vague declarations, although the Wildrose is clearest on property rights. When Liberals or NDP mention land use, it is usually to increase environmental controls. Those are necessary, but Alberta landowners need clarity so they can plan their economic futures.

The Alberta NDP and the Wildrose have singled out water markets. The NDP opposes them and criticizes the PC government’s interest in them. The Wildrose acknowledges the southern concern in water use, and the northern desire for quality, but details remain scant.

Premier Alison Redford has publicly declared her openness to water markets “where they are necessary.”

Establishing necessity will likely need another government study but Albertans likely don’t want more staged consultations. The case for prudently regulated water markets has already been made. Alberta parties concerned about economic prosperity need to present that vision now.

The increasingly-common tendency to adopt micro-targeting and voter segmentation campaign strategies may certainly be good politics and may elect the “right” government, but it has the potential to misdirect and weaken the policy discourse.