The B.C. roots of Albertan conservatism

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Appeared in the National Post

With Alberta politics taking a turn to the right, it is guaranteed that Canadians soon will be hearing more fear-mongering about how Albertan fiscal conservatism is an imported U.S. creed, and thus somehow un-Canadian.

The term fiscal conservatism describes an attachment to property rights, the rule of law, free trade, sensible (and not overweening) regulation, light debt and a moderate tax structure. Such an orientation rejects the notion that every private problem can be solved through taxpayer money.

In fact, these ideas pre-date Canada, and come both from our classic liberal British heritage (and also from the liberty side of the impetus for the 1789 French revolution). More recently, the preference for fiscal conservatism revived first, not in Alberta, but in my native province of British Columbia.

Consider privatization, for example. In the late 1970s, British Columbia's Social Credit government under Premier Bill Bennett started bundling together, in one entity, companies and assets that the NDP had previously nationalized. The holding company, the British Columbia Resources Investment Corporation (BCRIC), was then distributed to each British Columbian in the form of five free BCRIC shares with additional shares available for purchase.

Or consider another conservative notion: limited government. The first government to try to limit the size and scope of government after the expansionist 1960s and 1970s was again Bennett's, starting in 1983 with its restraint program. That was a full decade before budget reductions were a glint in the eye of Ralph Klein, and 12 years before Mike Harris took power in Ontario.

Insofar as anyone wants to blame someone for upsetting the high-tax, nationalizing, protectionist and interventionist apple cart in Canada - Bennett and his colleagues in British Columbia should be the ones who get the blame (or, as I see it, credit).

Not only were the pioneering West Coast ideas later picked up by other governments in Canada - including Brian Mulroney's Tories (privatization), the Saskatchewan NDP, the federal Liberals and Ontario Conservatives (getting budgets to balance, and then lowering taxes) - the ideas spread worldwide, in conjunction with others (Milton Friedman being the most obvious) also plumping for such policy.

Michael Walker, then executive director for the Fraser Institute and an advisor to the B.C. government in the late 1970s and early 1980s, told me in a recent conversation that when 10 Downing Street, under prime minister Mar-garet Thatcher, looked for solutions to their nationalized industries, they came to B.C. and the Fraser Institute to get the scoop on the British Columbia Resources Investment Corporation.

Going back further, small-government ideas that foment opportunity and prosperity were embraced by Canada's founding fathers.

Canada's first post-Confederation Liberal finance minister, Sir Richard Cartwright, provides an example. In an 1878 speech, he makes clear that limited government is preferable to large government: It is the sacred duty of the government to take only from the people what is necessary to the proper discharge of the public service; and that taxation in any other mode is legalized robbery.

Or consider a late 19th-century speech in favour of a general preference for freedom: The good Saxon word, freedom; freedom in every sense of the term, freedom of speech, freedom of action, freedom in religious life and civil life and last but not least, freedom in commercial life.

That 1894 speech was not, as might be presumed, delivered by some rightwing or Albertan ideologue. It was then-opposition leader, and later Liberal prime minister, Sir Wilfrid Laurier (who represented the riding of Quebec East). Conservatism, whatever its current label and regardless of what political party hews close or far from it, is an inherently Canadian concept, even if these days, it finds its most outspoken defenders in Alberta.

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