Gary Lamphier: Resource wealth the only thing that will fill Canada’s fiscal gap

February 29, 2016

By: Edmonton Journal

I admit it. I love reading my fan mail. I try not to let it get to my head (blush), but admittedly, that’s often tough to do. After all, I’m only human. When it comes to flattery, I’m as big a sucker for it as anyone.

Here are just a few of the glowing comments lavished on yours truly by grateful readers in response to last Saturday’s column, which chronicled the massive net outflow of funds to Ottawa — an estimated $200 billion or more — from individual and corporate taxpayers in Alberta over the past 15 years:

Mr. Biz Columnist, my admirers gushed, you’re a “liar,” a “shrill shill” for Big Oil, and a “rabble rousing” Rush Limbaugh wannabe who seeks to divide this glorious nation. Sigh. Such praise. It made my heart sing. And that was just a start.

In dozens of emails and online comments, Journal readers heaped on the superlatives, variously describing me as “arrogant,” an “ungrateful bastard,” and “not a real journalist” who spews “drivel” designed to perpetuate a “victim mentality” among Albertans.

One obviously enraged critic, after swapping several emails back and forth, urged me to (ahem) go forth and multiply. IN CAPITAL LETTERS no less, just to ensure I got the point. (Yes I did, thanks very much.)

OK, so it wasn’t all vitriolic Sturm und Drang. In fact, the verbal rock throwers were actually outnumbered by those who offered thanks for shedding light on a topic that has been all but verboten in Canada. They included everyone from retirees and oilpatch workers to CEOs, academics and ex-politicians.

And although the Toronto-based media steadfastly ignored the topic this week — as predicted — several small-city Ontario newspapers picked it up, prompting more emails from places such as Windsor, Kingston and London.

Many expressed genuine shock at the huge net outflow of capital from Alberta between 2000 and 2014 — equal to roughly 12 times the current value of the $17.4 billion Alberta Heritage Savings Trust Fund — and what seems to be an unofficial news blackout on a topic that’s deemed treasonous to acknowledge.

One well-known prof at the University of Calgary says he was so “floored” by the magnitude of Alberta’s outgoing cash gusher that he hopes to work with my source — Fred McDougall, a former Alberta government deputy minister and ex-forestry executive with Weyerhaeuser — to produce a full report on it.

I hope he does. Canadians have been in the dark for far too long about what really drives the national economy, where Canada’s wealth comes from, and which provinces do most of the heavy lifting. Alberta has played a leading role and it’s long past time for some straight talk on the subject.

McDougall’s data, which was largely corroborated by Alberta Finance, shows without a doubt that Alberta taxpayers and companies bore a huge share of the financial load for this country until oil prices collapsed in late 2014.

The efforts by some readers to downplay it was telling. Some conflated Alberta’s net contributions — the total amount of tax dollars shipped to Ottawa, less those reinvested here by the feds — with the gross tax amounts paid in other provinces. Others misconstrued the column as a piece on federal equalization transfers.

Still others angrily noted that federal tax rates are uniform across the country — a fact no one disputes, although it’s unclear what that has to do with the subject in any case.

So why does documenting the vast amount of wealth generated in Alberta for the rest of the country the past 15 years matter? The answer should be obvious.

If Canadians don’t clearly understand where the wealth comes from in this country, beyond the generalities offered by economists and politicians, how can we possibly have an intelligent debate about how to sustain the industries that matter most, namely, our struggling energy industry?

Without the kind of relevant fiscal data uncovered by McDougall, Canadians are doomed to remain economically illiterate. Canada’s public policy think tanks certainly don’t seem eager to lift the lid on this stuff. None of the four leading think tanks I contacted for last week’s column had anything useful to say.

Look, I don’t doubt sectors like biotech or software or video game production are important. Certainly, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is eager to promote Canada’s “resourcefulness” over its “resources,” while posing for photo ops at tech firms such as Ubisoft, the Montreal video game house he visited Thursday.

But in a resource-dependent, export-driven economy like Canada’s, these sectors will never generate the jobs, the wealth, and the tax revenues that spring from traditional industries like mining, forestry and oil and gas.

When Trudeau and Canada’s premiers meet in Vancouver this coming week, it would be nice to see some evidence that the Selfie King understands this. If he doesn’t, the fiscal swamp the federal government is about to enter is going to get a lot deeper, and last a lot longer, than he can yet imagine.

By: Edmonton Journal

Your comments.

  1. Brian Campbell says:

    This is the passionate lead in to a national conversation we must have to protect our economy. We are competent resource managers. And appropriate sustainable industrial production eliminates the frantic calls for conservation at any cost… thank you for publishing this and many other important pieces.

  2. Greg Cowman says:

    Excellent article and an expose that needs telling over and over, at all levels, until Canadians understand what makes up our economy.
    Those that preach adding value to our industry base, by manufacturing our resources into finished products, just don’t understand that the world doesn’t want our finished products. They want our resources so they can manufacture products cheaper than we can and sell them back to us.
    Our resource wealth has produced such a high standard of living and high wage rates, we can’t afford to buy our own goods, as nice a dream as that may sound.
    It’s my only hope that the Liberals don’t try to sell our water to pay for their (our) debts.

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