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Time for Alberta to cowboy up

Preston Manning has spoken so often of the need for public policy to be backed by a clearly articulated vision that his mission is becoming synonymous with the legend of Sisyphus, the mythical Greek king condemned to spend eternity rolling a boulder up a hill only to have it roll down again.

Having led a political movement -- Reform -- that never gained power but effectively dictated the fiscal agenda of the 1990s, he must now watch as Alberta's balanced budget boulder tumbles relentlessly back to exactly where it started a generation or so ago.

Whether that is necessary, wise or unwise, is another debate but on Manning's dark days, it must seem as if it has all been for naught.

The need for vision, a word the host of the Conference on Alberta's future held on the weekend of Feb. 5, has been used so relentlessly that many of us now hear it in Manning's unique accent, must remain a task as eternal as the boulder's inevitable return to the base of the hill.

While the tendency among politicians at the Edmonton event (Calgary MLA Kyle Fawcett of the governing Progressive Conservatives and Danielle Smith, leader of the suddenly popular conservative Wildrose Alliance) was to articulate vision through policy, most participants of all inclinations still similarly struggled to meet Manning's challenge of an intellectual core purpose: a set of shared and deeply held beliefs beyond the desire to hold and maintain power.

Whether you agree or disagree, these motivations have from time to time existed only to eventually fade into the fog of those who find core ideas too, well, lacking in the moral flexibility required to deviate from them when expedience demands.

They have, however, produced some notable hits when adhered to and, when they are pushed aside, some notable misses are evident.

Choice, introduced confidently and boldly in the 1990s, has produced an education system that has room for two publicly funded systems (one secular and one separate/Catholic), private schools, charter schools, faith-based schools and, for those who prefer none of the above, publicly funded home-schooling. This was implemented because those who did so believed that choice creates better outcomes and, if the performance of Alberta students in international tests is anything to go by, it works.

According to the provincial Education Ministry website, Alberta students scored the highest marks in the world in international testing of their reading skills and were among the top three in science and mathematics.

Unfortunately, the chief miss is the other primary area of provincial jurisdiction -- health care. Here is where, when it came to the opportunity for the sort of systemic reform that many agree is required to ensure a sustainable system into the future, Alberta's confidence in its belief system crumbled and the opportunity for sustainable, productive reform was lost. Not only is there little if any choice in Alberta's system, its failure to articulate and communicate its beliefs in this area have led to a system that is, of all the provinces, by far the most expensive (Alberta spending per capita is 30 per cent higher than in Quebec, which is the most innovative province when it comes to health-care choice) yet appears to produce no better outcomes. Alberta will increase its health-care spending this year by 17 per cent.

In 20 years, health-care spending in Alberta has grown from 27 per cent of total provincial spending to 44 per cent. At that pace, health care will consume 71 per cent of total provincial spending by 2030.

Alberta had the strut of a high school quarterback when it came to education reform. But when it came to health care it showed all the confident grace of a chess club Trekkie stammering in the presence of the popular girls at the high school dance.

At Manning's Edmonton conference, Fawcett, Smith and others spoke of the need for Alberta to worry less about what the popular girls think and more about what it believes to be right; to become fully mature, "think big" and -- as they say in Alberta -- "cowboy up" to its role as a leader on the national, if not the international stage in the 21st century.

No doubt it will. The question is: which party's leader will be holding the reins?

Ray Pennings is a senior fellow and vice-president of research in Calgary for Cardus -- a think-tank based in Hamilton, Ont.