Beyond boom and bust

From Monday's Globe and Mail Last updated on Tuesday, Jul. 07, 2009 07:31AM EDT

Unlike many other jurisdictions, Alberta can expect a reasonably speedy recovery from the global recession. The question is whether the toll exacted by the current turmoil will cause Canada's richest province to better prepare for future twists and turns, rather than simply riding the fortunes of its natural-resources industry.
Ed Stelmach, the Alberta Premier who has been cast even by some within his own Progressive Conservative Party as a hayseed, would seem an unlikely candidate to succeed at long-term economic planning neglected by some of his predecessors. But last week, Mr. Stelmach announced a serious attempt to come to grips with the province's economic prospects, appointing a blue-ribbon panel to help shape forward-looking public policy.
"It's to look well ahead to see whether the policies we have today will still serve us well into the future," Mr. Stelmach said in explaining the committee's purpose. "What are the challenges and opportunities that will define Alberta over the next three or four decades, and what conditions should the government put in place over the next three to four years?"
With such an ambitious mandate, there are no assurances that the panel will be able to get beyond the abstract, to put forward ideas that are practical for the government to implement. But Mr. Stelmach has given it a fair shot by attracting some of the best policy minds in the country. David Dodge, formerly the governor of the Bank of Canada and a federal deputy finance minister, is considered by some people to be Canada's top economist. Former foreign affairs minister David Emerson, who will chair the panel, is a leading expert on international trade.
The 12-member panel is not without strong Alberta representation, including former federal minister Anne McLellan and Jim Gray, a former oil executive who chairs the Canada West Foundation. But it speaks well of Mr. Stelmach's aims that he looked outside both his party and his province. With the provincial Conservatives facing little political competition, Alberta's government risks suffering from a paucity of fresh voices and ideas. People such as Mr. Dodge and Mr. Emerson will bring a new perspective, and help the province's challenges to be understood within a broader context.
The decisions Alberta makes in the next several years on everything from regulatory policy and taxation to areas of investment will help determine whether it is able to break the boom-and-bust cycle and enjoy consistent, long-term prosperity. The consequences of failing to manage the energy industry's growth, to improve Alberta's environmental record and diversify its economy, would likely not be felt until long after Mr. Stelmach leaves office. Given the degree to which the country's economic future rests upon the health of its wealthiest province, Canadians should be heartened that Mr. Stelmach is nevertheless trying to break from a pattern of short-term thinking.


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