A Canadian province shows WA how to win influence in the national capital.
A HIGH-SPENDING, eastern-focused central government; a western state contributing more than its fair share to national taxes.
That same state is home to a large and successful mineral and energy industry, with its capital a young city regarded as culturally backwards by eastern urbane metropolises. And then there’s also a state-wide groundswell of resentment towards a central government not interested in the site of national wealth generation.
Alberta, Canada. Right?
You’d not have been alone in thinking that this was a description of Western Australia today.
By historical accidents, Alberta and WA are both part of larger English-speaking settler society; are blessed with rich mineral and energy deposits; and, despite both being large geographically, only have a small, sparse population. However, as the structural prices of commodities shifted from historical norms, these previously derided ‘old economy’ states came to represent the future of Australia and Canada. In both cases, the dominant trend has been one of increasing economic activity in the west, which has displaced and surpassed rust belt industries in the east.
So what can WA learn from its Canadian cousin Alberta?
Key to the experience of Alberta has been the ability to craft a positive, clear and broadly accepted narrative of its aspirations within the Canadian federation.
In the early 2000s, within the context of Canadian politics and federal-state relations, Alberta was demonised in the national political process because of its policy direction and desire to use wealth in ways different to the approved national approach.
This also coincided with a period of political realignment and turbulence in political party structures. Centralist sentiments dominated the national capital and there was no viable political movement able to articulate a federalist approach.
To respond to criticism of the central government, there was a calculated and methodical crafting of an ‘Alberta Agenda’.
The Alberta Agenda took the form of an open letter to the then premier of Alberta by a group of leading public policy analysts and economists, which was published in the National Post, the equivalent in many respects to The Australian.
The letter focused on recognisable themes of health policy independence and control of funding, erosion of taxing ability and financial outflows to poorer performing regions, which were less efficient and wasteful.
This Alberta Agenda sparked a major national debate, which reframed provincial-national relations, as well as the extent to which the Canadian provinces, which we call states, could determine their own destiny.
It also helped redefine relations with the national capital, Ottawa.
What is remarkable is that Alberta-Ottawa relations of the early 2000s are incredibly similar to WA-Canberra relations in 2010.
This is particularly relevant to contemporary Australian politics.
Given that the Alberta Agenda was put forward as an intellectually cohesive argument that resonated with the broader public makes it worth reviewing for Western Australia.
The Alberta Agenda popularised by presenting a prudent middle ground between the extremism of separatism and the equally irresponsible response of letting the federal government walk all over it.
One of the authors of the 2000 Alberta Agenda was Stephen Harper, then heading a think-tank, now the 22nd prime minister of Canada (Canadian patliament, pictured). A central figure in the formulation and popularisation of the broader concept of an Alberta Agenda at the national level, his work shifted the mindset of Ottawa closer to the prevailing sentiments of the west, where the centre of wealth creation and economic gravity was moving.
This came about by dealing with major fractures in the conservative movement, which meant that it had lost its direction and had not been able to present a coherent national message.
The Alberta Agenda helped the centre-right conservatives recalibrate their philosophy and constituency.
In appealing to middle-class suburban and aspirational voters – rather than the inner-city, leftist orientated doctor’s wives demographic that found their home in the bizarrely named Progressive Conservative Party of Canada – a new electoral paradigm was created.
Stephen Harper now leads the Canadian Conservative Party with its electoral base and philosophical home located in the west.
Western Australians have much to learn from their cousins in Alberta. Stephen Harper’s efforts should be studied by all Western Australians.
What is needed is a ‘Western Australian Agenda’, and the matching philosophy to deal with our friends in Canberra. Perhaps it is time to consider building a firewall around WA?
Andrew Pickford is a senior fellow at Mannkal Economic Education Foundation and has spent time in Canada working on state and federal relations.