A grasping riot of mutual pocket-pickers

COYNE: Edmontonians saw federal funding not as a favour, but as an entitlement

Artist's rendering of EXPO 2017

Artist's rendering of EXPO 2017

The writer for the Edmonton Sun was measuring his words. Edmontonians, he wrote, “don’t feel we have been kicked in the teeth by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Edmonton ‘lieutenant’ Rona Ambrose.” Pause. “Because it’s far more comparable to being kicked in the groin.”

He was hardly alone in the sentiment. It was a “cold shoulder to the jaw,” said the Edmonton Journal. A writer for the paper complained the city had been “stonewalled, snubbed and rejected without appeal.” As for the mayor, well, “this is the most disheartened day I’ve had as an Edmontonian, as a Canadian, as an Albertan,” he said, accusing Ambrose of having “failed the city.”

And everyone agreed: come the next election, local Tory MPs would pay with their seats.
What had set off all this rending of garments? What terrible injury had the city suffered? The federal government had failed to cough up the $706 million the city was hoping would help defray the costs of putting on Expo 2017, on which it has bid. Edmonton was a pleasant, prosperous place to live before it ever entered anyone’s head to host a world’s fair, as it will be long after Expo 2017, wherever it is eventually held, has been forgotten. But at this particular moment in time, the fair’s promoters had worked themselves up into the belief that the whole future of the city depended on it.

And, more to the point, that they were owed. The money was not something they were requesting, as a special favour. No, it was theirs. They were entitled to it.

To be fair, Edmontonians have some reason to feel ill-used. The feds had, after all, kicked in funding for the Vancouver Olympics, as they have the Toronto Pan-Am Games. As citizens of the richest province, moreover, Albertans foot a disproportionate amount of the bill whenever Ottawa flashes its credit card in this way.

But the sense of grievance, the bellicose rhetoric, the demands that local MPs “deliver the goods,” the willingness to resort to blackmail and threats—that was all too familiar. In recent times we have seen the same script played out in Quebec City, over its proposed arena, and in Saskatchewan, over potash, and in Newfoundland, over just about everything. Nor are these isolated examples. It is the standard tactic of every province, industry or interest group in the country, all of them firmly convinced the rest of the country is sponging off them, and each one just as insistent the rest of Canada owes them a living.

Because that’s the principle at work in each of these disputes. Even where there is no explicit transfer of funds from the federal treasury, it’s always about redistributing income from one group of Canadians to another. The Potash decision, for example, was not, as claimed, about Ottawa “saying no” to a foreign multinational. It was about Ottawa confiscating the capital gain the sale might have yielded the Canadian shareholders in Potash Corp.—and from the other companies across the country in which they might have reinvested the proceeds—for the benefit of the government of Saskatchewan, and whichever interests it preferred to favour.

Possibly, if those involved stopped to think, they would feel ashamed. It is a shameful thing, after all, to beg. It is twice as shameful to beg that someone steal from someone else on your behalf. And it is three times as shameful if in fact you are not even begging, but demanding, backed by threats. But because it is the government, and especially because it is in far-off Ottawa, we persuade ourselves that we are not doing what we plainly are.

When did we become such chronic whiners? How did a country founded by fur traders and built by sodbusters and loggers and adventurers of every kind turn into this grasping, covetous riot of mutual pocket-pickers?

I’ll tell you how. Because it works. Because time after time, the federal government has shown it can be rolled. Because, in the end, the money is there. And it will not stop until the feds start saying no, until they make clear that, actually, the money is not there—it’s all borrowed—and it certainly isn’t theirs.

Or short of that, we could lay down a few ground rules. First, that the only moral basis of redistribution is from rich to poor—not from Edmonton to Quebec, or Quebec to Edmonton, or city to country, or roads to trains to planes and back to roads, or the thousand other ways in which governments attempt the arithmetically impossible task of redistributing from everybody to everybody.

Second, ministers should be legally required, when making spending announcements, to express them as a percentage of the budget, rather than in dollar terms. This would have three salutary effects. One, to destroy the pretense that the money is a result of the minister’s personal munificence. Two, to emphasize that spending decisions are about choices, about allocating scarce resources among competing wants, not raw amounts. And three, to produce a disappointingly small number: “three-tenths of one per cent of current federal spending” is rather less exciting than “$706 million.”

Last, there should be appointed a Minister of Opportunity Costs, whose sole responsibility would be to remind his colleagues around the cabinet table that nothing is free, that to favour one industry is to penalize every other. No doubt they will be astonished to hear it. Every single time.


A grasping riot of mutual pocket-pickers

  1. Sorry, Quebec still rules! Do as your told. And, in french!

    • If Quebec rules please explain why Canada is NOT honouring Kyoto?

  2. Edmonton has neither the transport infrastructure nor the accommodations to host a world's fair, it's a dumb idea.

    • But that is exactly why cities want these games no matter the debt the country goes into because we pay for their new infrastructure and that is what they want more than any other thing they may claim they are going to get.

    • Durward, the whole exercise was to get funding for Mayor Mandel's pet project…..Light Rail Transit. The expansion plans Edmonton has for LRT will boggle the mind. It appears to be a round about way of getting the funding.

      • LRT expansion boggles the minds of Canadians because we are never given the direct costs of the roads we use.

  3. Nothing annoys me more than to hear a Canadian pundit repeat the old saw "…Albertans pay/foot/donate a disproportionate amount….blah, blah, blah…." Coyne does this of course to support his some-what more useful arguments about our approach to Government largesse and the sense of entitlement that is near crippling Canada these days. However "render unto Ceasar" I say; if we slice and dice the river of taxes we pay to our politicians as being mine or yours or that cousin who went west 40 years ago, in order to promote our own place in the queue then it would equally valid to suggest that Doctors and Lawyers and particularly Indian Chiefs theses days, pay more. Or we could work the stats and define exactly how much left-handers pay than right handers and should get in return and how much umbrage they should feel about the process. We could probably get an Indignation Index started so you could find your own place in the pile
    The tax levies of the Provincial Governments are the responsibility of the residents of that Province, the tax levies of the Government of Canada are the responsibilities of all Canadians regardless of what particular degree of latitude you reside at.

    • Excuse me? ""…Albertans pay/foot/donate a disproportionate amount….blah, blah, blah…."

      They give 18 billion dollars in equalization payments.

    • Uh, Ritchie, you most desperately need to take a peek at the federal books, if only for a moment, to discover the incredibly hefty "transfers to provinces" line items. For it should (hopefully) not take you much time to learn that "[t]he tax levies of the Provincial Governments are" in no recognizable form "the responsibility of the residents of that Province."

      • Indian chiefs don't pay taxes on those salaries so not only are they making $400 000 from our pockets they're keeping all of it.

    • I'm not sure what your point is about the Doctor's and Lawyers, but if you're suggesting that they should pay more taxes, they already do. Income tax is a progressive tax. Given the salaries that doctors and lawyers make, they generally pay a greater percentage of their income in tax than does most of the population.

  4. Guest luminator FTW! If the game is stupid gratuitous Quebec bashing for the Don Cherry crowd, that is.

    • Rock em sock em! It must be the chicken frenchies. Duh….

  5. Interesting argument, but it is flawed due to one fact: the Feds asked cities in Canada to prepare a bid for the Expo to coincide with Canada’s 150th birthday. Just like with the federal government’s call for a new National Portrait Gallery, when Edmonton stepped up to the plate and delivered a viable plan, the feds changed their mind. I guess the feds will also not be spending on any 150 anniversary celebrations. Right.

  6. Edmontonians didn't get a say in this request, it was all Mandels stupid idea. When the final bill comes in and the cost is twice or more the quoted expense who do you think would be stuck with paying it off…the taxpayers in Edmonton and Alberta. Just ask Montreal how long it took them to pay off the 1967 games that were not going to cost the taxpayer anything…20 years, by then some of the buildings that had been built were falling apart. It was all about infrastructure and the extention of the LRT…now the mayor is moaning that the LRT extention will have to be put off….too bad, people can take a bus or drive their car and it won't cost me for the next 20 years.

    • Montreal's Expo in 1967 was a World's Fair; you mention it as 1967 games. The Olympic Games in 1976 were in Montreal and it took more than 20 years to pay them off. What buildings besides the Olympic Stadium are falling apart?

  7. "Last, there should be appointed a Minister of Opportunity Costs, whose sole responsibility would be to remind his colleagues around the cabinet table that nothing is free, that to favour one industry is to penalize every other. No doubt they will be astonished to hear it. Every single time."

    This is a brilliant idea. That's why it will never be adopted.

    • Agreed, this is an excellent idea

      • There is one. He's called the Finance Minister.

  8. "First, that the only moral basis of redistribution is from rich to poor…"

    Sure, but let's set that ground rule in stone:

    Thou Shall Only Redistribute from Rich to Poor.

    Thankfully, today's technology allows for a direct redistribution that leaves out both the middle class and the middle man from this moral arrangement Simply tally up the gross income and number of "the rich" and the number and income requirements of "the poor", do the math and set up a monthly direct deposit from one group to the other. Not only is this "moral" but it is much more efficient than endless taxpayer grants to the poverty industry and an expensive army of social service employees.

    The intent of your article (smaller government and ending the entitlement attitude) is excellent but your examples seem to have been chosen to be provocative rather than serious.

    • We are sinking in a fetid pool of Reform morality which for some reason is so much higher than everybody else's morality. These may be born-again Christians, but dammit I've always been a Christian and never lost my faith and how dare this lot make me feel a second-class citizen for never having doubted Jesus. I have held hope until now that the Conservative Party might reappear but it is clear our noxious Prime Minister and his silent majority cabinet will block all reasonable attempts at openess or fairness. Mussonli smiled, then ate the canary.

      • Way to stay on point.

        • Well, Peter saw Alberta and Edmonton mentioned in the article, so he needed to sooth his soul with a lefty mantra

    • "but your examples seem to have been chosen to be provocative rather than serious"

      I believe that's called journalism now.

  9. Well Alberta you argued for equality. A kick in the teeth and the groin. This is who these people are. These are the people you created. Bad luck, perhaps you should start again.

    • Yeah, that's it. Anything and everything that is wrong, or goes wrong, is Harper's Fault.

      • Pretty much…

        The only reason Edmonton did not get the funding is that Harper has spent and borrowed tens of billions of $$$ to try to buy his precious majority. There is no more money for boondoggle projects. There is no more money period.

        That is Harper's fault. No doubt you will try to blame it on Trudeau.

        • No I blame it on all 4 of our major federal political parties, since they all emphatically supported the federal stimulus package. As I recall, the Liberals, Dippers and Bloc threatened to bring the government down unless it opened up the spending taps nice and wide. What's your recollection?

  10. finally, someone wrote a story on this expo thing that made sense. As a edmontonian it was a stupid idea. I would like infrastructure for people that live her not that MAY visit here. Edmonton is not a destination sadly to say…..No-one would come. Also our mayor acted (again) like a petulent child. Even after the PM took the time to meet with him personally on a contentious issue, he embarassed the city again with his comments after the meeting. For someone that was supposed to be a great businessman, it makes me wonder how he ever did it…..

  11. Coyne writes: "…the only moral basis of redistribution is from rich to poor." Wrong. The only moral basis of redistribution is when it's done voluntarily. Coerced redistribution is theft, no matter who benefits.

    • Exactly! I don't see how stealing from the rich is a moral good. It's still stealing.

      In fact, I'm convinced this is why we have such an entitled attitude. 'Yes, we can afford to pay $100K to the TTC booth collector because somebody else is paying it and therefore, we can afford it. It's not robbery that we're making a decision that would normally be ludicrous.'

      • the Canadian malignancy: statism

  12. All Edmonton was asking was three-tenths of one per cent of current federal spending. 3/10 of 1%. 0.3%. 3 one-thousandths. .003. Hardly anything.

    • Hey, maybe I'll try that logic, and see if they'll give the same amount to me.

      Hardly anything, right?

  13. As an Edmontionian I can tell you very few cared about the Expo bid and those who did sigh a breath of relief when the feds refused to foot ther bill. Edmonton doesen't need the expo and we don't need the subsequent bill that we will have to pay off. The Tory's will not feel any loss in the next election due to this.

    • "The Tory's will not feel any loss in the next election due to this"

      Ha, only your very silly Mayor, what a tantrum, like a three year old child!!

    • It wasn't so much the expo as the infrastructure that most edmontonians would be looking forward to. LRT expansion in specific is something that would be of great benefit to the city and the expo bid was an excuse to accelerate the timetable and get all the main trunks up inside of 10 years instead of 25. As much as i don't give a damn about the expo itself, i really would like to see the LRT servicing the entire city.

      As for feeling jilted about lack of federal funding, there is a point to it as mentioned in the article. These large events have large costs, and to support them across all levels of government is normal, the federal contribution being but a blip on the radar. Yes it is money from other regions, but you can accept that under the premise that sooner or later it'll be 'your turn' to bid for a major event and you'll get a similar contribution when the time comes to update your infrastructure.

      If this was truly a start of a trend as Mr Coyne wishes, that would be one thing. If the federal government never again committed to help a bid for an international event it would be easy to accept. The way things are being done has changed. But likely this is just a one-off decision and the next request from a city in a more electorally contested region may well go the other way. So perhaps our MPs should pay with their seats – areas where there's something to be won or lost get more attention, strongholds are quickly forgotten.

  14. There is no moral redistribution of tax money. The only redistribution that is moral is one that is voluntary. In other words, if people freely give their money for causes, charitable ends, or for anything else, it is moral, it does not matter if it is from rich to poor. If the money is taken away by law, it is not moral, it does not matter if it is from rich to poor. This is my morality, and it is the morality of many religions as well, such as Christianity and Judaism.

    The rich to poor meme is also open to abuse. What's stopping Edmonton from saying they deserve money because they are poorer than somewhere else in the country (anywhere else will do, there's gotta be somewhere in the country with more money than them). In fact, on average, half the country will be poorer than the other half, a perfect excuse for begging for federal handouts. But there is only one city that is richer than everywhere else, and all others will be begging to their hearts content, as long as there is money to be had.

    • Really? Do you really think that? That thing about it's only moral if it's freely given, and it doesn't matter from whom it's given or to whom it's given? I'll ask again: do you really, really, really think that?

      I mean, perhaps I'm taking your generalization a little to seriously. But one example should suffice: I freely choose to give my money to the Taliban. I could think of many other examples where money is freely given but we should all be hesitant to say it was a moral action.

      • do you really, really, really think that?

        I mean, perhaps I'm taking your generalization a little to seriously. But one example should suffice: I freely choose to give my money to the Taliban.
        You really think you're clever, don't you? You're not. That's an easy one. There's nothing immoral about that. It all depends on what the taliban do with it. It's not who they are they makes them immoral, it's what they do. Just like when you shoot somebody, it's not the gun that's to blame, it's the shooter that's to blame. There's nothing immoral at all about giving money to anybody, voluntarily. Even if you give the money to your mother and she uses it to buy a bomb to blow up the neighbours. You are not to blame, nor is the money to blame. In fact, when you give something to someone, you can never be sure what they'll do with it, but that's the nature of a gift, it's no longer yours to decide.

        One again, this is the morality of many religions as well, such as Christianity and Judaism. Treat everybody as you would treat yourself, all people are equal, give to everyone you meet, etc… even if they're the Taliban.

        Those who are Christians would be very aware of this morality… he gave to everyone, whether they were his friends or whether they persecuted him. He didn't qualify those who deserved his gifts. He didn't exclude. He helped everyone and anyone, even those who were murderers and thieves, the rich, the poor, everybody.

        Now, why you would voluntarily give to the Taliban, I don't know, I know I wouldn't. It seems to me they have no shortage of money, and I figure that they have no need for my money, while there are plenty who would need it more, but who knows, maybe you have your own reasons.

        • truer words have never been spoken. The whole concept of "from each according to their ability to each according to their need" is a fallacy that was designed to concentrate power into the hands of a few who gained their position of influence not through being the best at what they do but through nepotism. Then solidifies their position at the top and gives them the power to pick their winners. We see this dynamic far too often in modern society. Capitalism for all its flaws can still provide an environment where a nobody can earn his way to a preferable lifestyle without having to beg for special favours from the guys at the top.

          • you're kidding
            Capitalism as it is practiced in the west today is the most closed club in town. It is a classic example of poor to rich wealth distribution carefully disguised as free enterprise. The myths propagated about how anybody can make it to the top if only they work hard enough are laughable.
            Companies are continually looking for hand outs and sweeteners from the public purse, they are constantly looking to form monopolies or near monopolies and force out competition. How many oil companies are there and with oil at an all time high they still can't make enough for new start ups without public money.? The Walmartisation of communities, forcing out hard working nobodies and snuffing out their chances of making it. The lobbying and interference with government, to ensure that decisions are always in the company's favour. Banks, Car companies, Airlines, Oil Companies all recent winners.
            Power is being concentrated all right but it is being done through companies seeking to limit freedom of trade and concentrate power. This is a select club and not just anyone can enter.

        • So you're invoking the existence of invisible sky daddies to back up your case. The golden rule is a rule that makes sense in the absence of such an hypothesis.
          Xtians may be aware of the rule and might be somewhat aware of the giving philosophy that their saviour espoused, but I doubt that they give to everybody. In fact judging by the hoopla over the distribution of taxes in this country, inhabited mainly by xtians, I am extremely certain that most xtians in this country really hate the idea of giving to the poor, the criminal and most importantly anybody who isn't them.
          But if invoking the words of a relation to your sky daddy, even though most of his followers ignore them, helps you feel better about your views, you keep plucking that chicken.

          • You couldn't possibly be more wrong. Firstly, I'm not Christian. Secondly, Christians are very charitable people.

            The single biggest predictor of someone's altruism, Willett says, is religion. It increasingly correlates with conservative political affiliations because, as Brooks' book says, "the percentage of self-described Democrats who say they have 'no religion' has more than quadrupled since the early 1970s." America is largely divided between religious givers and secular nongivers, and the former are disproportionately conservative.

          • So conservatives give to churches that they attend and they give to youth groups their kids attend. That is certainly a form of charity. And charity begins at home I guess. I checked out Brooks book and the data he cited. It was carefully organised and it is apparent your source George Will cherry picked his points because it suited his point of view. Buying the preacher a new roller or mansion does use charity dollars but is it charity?. Supporting your kids youth club is certainly charity but isn't it also self serving?
            You also need to remember that the majority of Red States get more tax money returned to them than they pay. The Blue states in effect support the Red states through taxation. http://www.taxfoundation.org/publications/show/62
            So teh liberals are in fact being charitable to those who oppose them and their ideas. One of the characteristics you praised xtians for, but they seem to actually lack.
            G Will and RCP are not a good source for truthful stats, truthiness maybe.

          • Like I said, taxes aren't charity. Neither is pork. You do know what pork is, don't you? You must be the first person in history to call it charity. And you're the one talking about truthiness! LOL

          • Yeah
            But the fact that the extremist xtian south not only overwhelmingly donates to itself while all the time taking taxes and decrying taxation seems to escape you. They aren't more charitable, they give to themselves and take from others. I believe you were arguing the opposite.
            Arguing with an xtian apologist is a hard job, they lie and change the subject so often they can't even keep their lies straight.
            Red states hate taxation. Red states would be desolate if they didn't receive money from the Blue states. The Blue states think the less fortunate should be supported by the more fortunate. The Blue states advocate for more social programmes so that the less fortunate get this support. Consequently the Blue states agree to pay more in taxation to help the Red states out. The Red states take this support. You call it taxation but it is apparent that it is in fact charity. It is institutionalised charity, but the laws were enacted by those in Blue states, voluntarily, to help the financially bereft Red Staters.
            Pork is charity and so is taxation when the haves legislate to pass on assistance to the less fortunate. The haves decided to legislate this voluntarily because the have-nots needed it.
            I doubt that I'm the first person to notice that taxation and pork is the most common form of charity. Nobody likes to be called needy, but siting military bases and building bridges to nowhere make neediness less obvious.

  15. a Minister of Opportunity Costs

    If only there was a political party with the next largest number of seats in the House of Commons, whose legally mandated purpose was to expose the opportunity costs of government decisions. Maybe we should go to the trouble of inventing one?

  16. Second, ministers should be legally required, when making spending announcements, to express them as a percentage of the budget, rather than in dollar terms.

    Like your freedom-hating "all citizens should be legally required to vote" canard, may this one die a quick death. The PEOPLE should care enough to insist on it, so that those politicians who do so may be rewarded at the ballot box. Restricting the freedom of speech of politicians, by forcing them to speak in Coyne-approved fashion, stinks of anti-freedom nonsense no matter how splendid the idea sounds.

    Ahhh, freedom. Remember freedom, Andrew?

    • You've got a point. AC is just making demands that should be part of what citizens, the media, and the opposition expose on an every-day basis, and really should not be a part of law at all. There's nothing stopping anybody, particularly the media, from providing these figures, whether opportunity costs, or percent of budget, or whatnot.

  17. "When did we become such chronic whiners?"

    See: the Trudeau through Chretien years.

    • amen!

  18. Ah, such a simplistic analysis of a complex issue. This was about Canada on its 150th anniversary, not just Edmonton or politics. It was an opportunity for Canada to have a national conversation about our stories, our vision for our next 150 years. It was an opportunity for us to engage citizens in a conversation about the character of this country. It was an opportunity to share our pride and our patriotism. Instead, we are caught up in yet another divisive quibble on who gets what and who gives what. We need to quit descending to that level. More importantly, we need to quit supporting politicians who foster this kind of acrimonious and simplistic arguments.

    • You hit the nail on the head imo. Its supporting this, being used to this type of politics. We shouldnt be used to it, we should be trying to change it? Honestly ive seen no change since harper stepped in except this feeling of spiraling downwards into nothingness. GOD I hate you harper.

      • That's a new one: if Harper remains in power, we will all spiral downwards into nothingness and cease to exist.

        Can't wait to see the opposition attack ad explaining this. Way more alarmist than soldiers with guns in our streets . . .

    • Sure we should celebrate 150 years. But honestly…why would anyone want to go to Edmonton?

  19. Andrew, you, Max and s_c_f should really get together and provide Canadians with a new political party.

  20. Andrew…

    I'm still hoping to hear back from you with regards to my query on Maclean's failing to report on issues that the parent company Rogers is lobbying hard for.

    Are these not the droids I am looking for? Should I move along?

  21. "- actually, the money isn't there – it is all borrowed – and it certainly isn't theirs."

    To me this is the very centre of the piece. I have to ask: Who is it borrowed from? and: If it isn't theirs, who's is it?

    At the end of the day, it is all about the Bordens. How these questions are answered is the difference between ecomomic development and it's counterfeit: financial profits.