04/23/2012 12:00 EDT | Updated 06/22/2012 05:12 EDT

The Real Choice Facing Alberta Voters

When Albertans go to the polls on Monday, they will likely send four parties to the legislature. There's a slight chance that they will even see their first ever minority government. But at the end of the day, Albertans essentially have a choice between two directions. The choice isn't big government versus small government, as some commentators have argued. Neither of the front running parties has any plans to reduce the size or scope of government. The choice is between centralization and subsidiarity. While the differences may seem subtle, the policy consequences are significant.

The principle of subsidiarity holds that decision making ought to be made at the lowest level practical. The goal is to empower local decision makers, while introducing an element of competition into service delivery. Some issues, such as national defense, are more practically delivered by the federal government. But from a subsidiarity perspective, programs such as healthcare are best delivered at the provincial level. It creates competition between jurisdictions, and allows voters more direct input over how healthcare is delivered. Similarly, it makes more sense for municipalities to be responsible for local roads and sewers, while massive programs like healthcare can more efficiently be administered at the provincial level due to economies of scale. There can be some disagreement over whether some programs ought to be delivered at one level or another, but the bias according to the subsidiarity principle, ought to be towards the lowest level of government.

Centralization of service delivery hinges on the idea that giving the provincial government more decision-making power over program spending ensures a uniform standard of quality, and to reduce bureaucratic redundancy. The tradeoff is less local autonomy, and less competition.

A caveat is necessary before looking at specific platform items. The PCs haven't, and aren't, committing to wholesale centralization of the provinces economy or anything silly like that. They merely tend to opt for centralized programs to solve the province's problems. Similarly, Wildrose Alliance is not promising to introduce the type of radical decentralization that advocates of subsidiarity would like to see. They simply intend to move in that direction.

To illustrate the differing party philosophies, let's contrast their approaches on a few key issues. The example that stands out the most is municipal financing. The PC government has relied on a large number of municipal grant programs to help fund municipal capital and operating costs. Two of the most notable examples are the Municipal Sustainability Initiative (MSI), and the Green Trip Fund (GTF). The MSI was introduced in 2007, and received $11.3 billion to help fund municipal infrastructure. The $2 billion GTF is aimed specifically at public transit projects. The PCs have committed an additional $1.8 billion to the MSI, and Premier Redford has stated that she won't rule out a follow up to the GTF.

The Wildrose Alliance, on the other hand, wants to scrap the MSI, the GTF, and other municipal grant programs. They would replace the lost revenue through their 10-10 plan, which would give 10% of provincial government revenue and 10% of surplus revenues to municipalities. The most obvious justification for this shift is administrative savings to municipalities. Many small municipalities have staff dedicated solely to grant applications. It will also make municipal funding predictable. It is the principle of subsidiarity that drives this approach. It would remove political meddling from the province, and allow for municipalities to use the funding as they see fit. Though the ideal situation from a subsidiarity perspective would be to expand taxation powers at the municipal level and require them to fund municipal functions without provincial involvement, the Wildrose approach would move decision making over spending to the lowest level of government practical.

Education is the next most obvious policy area to contrast the two approaches. Premier Redford is very much in favour of the traditional public education model. Recall that Redford's ascendency to the Premiership was largely the result of a commitment to restore $107 million in education funding cuts to teachers. The PCs have also put a moratorium on charter schools (Charter school teachers do not have to belong to the ATA). PCs plan to build 50 new government run schools, and renovate 70 others.

The Wildrose Alliance, on the other hand, favours more charter schools. The party hopes to go one step further and make school funding follow students. Instead of transferring block of money to schools, schools would receive payment for each student that enrolls. Combined with more flexibility in choosing public or charter school in which to enrol students would give parents a greater degree of school choice. The PCs would argue that the centralized approach would ensure more uniform quality; that no child should be left behind. Wildrose would counter that the current system provides little incentive for schools to innovate and to provide the best possible education for students. Creating more choice and competition would lead to better outcomes for the majority of students.

There are reasonable arguments on both sides of the subsidiarity versus centralization debate. In some cases, centralization is good. In others, it's not. It's also important to realize that neither party is at the extreme on this issue. The Liberals and NDP are much further toward the centralization pole. The next legislature will have to make decisions on plenty of issues that have not come up during the election, or that haven't been given much attention. Understanding the approaches of the two major parties is therefore helpful. More centralization or more subsidiarity? That is the choice facing Albertans today.