Time to cue the Richie Rich jokes again. Cinephiles will doubtless recall the 1994 classic featuring a cherubic Macaulay Culkin as the spoiled rich kid who has everything except companionship. In many ways, Alberta is the Richie Rich of Confederation wealthy beyond compare, but essentially friendless (though perhaps having a prime minister who hails from Calgary will help change that). With Ralph Klein's $400-per-resident “prosperity bonus” now landing in mailboxes across the province, Albertans are girding for another round of national envy, and ire. It's enough to make this Alberta boy plead with his fellow Canadians. Please don't hate us just because we're rich and beautiful (you know, because we have all this loot and the Rockies too).
In fairness, it should be said that many Albertans remain deeply conflicted about the wisdom of dishing out $400 to every man, woman and child. What passes for Alberta's chattering class newspaper editorialists, political scientists and the Calgary-based Canada West Foundation opposed the idea when Klein first floated it last fall.
Giving away $1.4 billion of this year's expected $8 billion provincial surplus to individual Albertans makes no economic or strategic sense, said the pundits. It would be far better, they argued, to invest this money, along with other surplus revenues, in a vehicle like the $12 billion Alberta Heritage Savings Trust Fund, the “rainy day” piggy bank set up by Peter Lougheed's government in the 1970s. The interest revenue generated could then be used to ensure Alberta's prosperity over the long run.
Even ordinary Albertans, who might have been expected to take the Ralphbucks and run, seem a bit sheepish about it all. A Canada West Foundation poll in September indicated only 14 per cent liked the idea of doling out surplus dollars to every resident. Mind you, even fewer (12 per cent) supported the Canada West option of investing for the benefit of future generations. By far, the largest number (37 per cent) favored spending more on government programs and services.
One common objection is that the prosperity bonus makes Alberta an easy target of envy in the rest of the country. The Klein government has attempted to assuage such concerns. In November, the premier delivered several speeches in Central Canada, in which he argued that a wealthy Alberta benefits everyone. His government has also tried, unsuccessfully, to convince the media to refer to the dividend as a “resource rebate” rather than the more boastful “prosperity bonus” (the term used by the premier when he came up with the idea).
Already, Albertans are being inundated with suggestions on how to spend their booty. Charitable organizations, playing on our collective guilt, say we should sign the cheques over to help the homeless and the afflicted (see www.prosperityinperspective.com and www.sharetheprosperity.ca for some helpful tips). In a more entrepreneurial vein, the Fairmont hotel chain is urging us to spend at least some of the dough on ourselves. In a promotional package dubbed “Thanks Ralph!” we are offered the chance to stay at such swanky resorts as the Banff Springs or Chateau Lake Louise for $400 per night, food and beverage credits included. “Ralph's room rates,” declares the Fairmont Web ad, “offer big bang for the buck!” (If nothing else, the campaign says a lot about the casual relationship Albertans have with their premier. Can you imagine a similar corporate campaign in Ontario that screamed “Thanks, Dalton!” or one in Quebec that began, “Merci, Jean!”).
Alas, the charities and businesses may have to get in line. From the day Klein unveiled his bonus scheme, schoolchildren across the province (my two sons included) demanded their cut. While parents gamely suggested investing the money in, say, RESPs, the kids were having none of it. Instead, they want to grow the economy by purchasing iPods, portable DVD players and the like.
We better get used to this. With oil prices expected to remain high for years to come, Klein says the dividends may become an annual ritual. But please, Canada, don't hold it against us. As you can see, prosperity ain't all it's cracked up to be.
Brian Bergman, former Prairie Bureau Chief of Maclean's, is a Calgary-based writer and editor.