Ken­ney wants busi­ness growth in ru­ral Al­berta; health, ed­u­ca­tion civil ser­vice need to ad­just

Prairie Post (East Edition) - - NEWS - By Ryan Dahlman

rdahlman@prairiepos­t.com

Be­sides the over 45-km stretch of High­way and the $27.8 mil­lion in­vest­ment in the Leth­bridge’s Ex­hi­bi­tion Park into an agri-food hub with a 22 per cent in­crease in event ca­pac­ity and food pro­duc­tion ca­pac­ity in­crease of more than 10 times the cur­rent amount, Premier Ja­son Ken­ney says that ru­ral Southern Al­berta is poised for bet­ter times ahead. He is from a small town Sask. and is sym­pa­thetic to the chal­lenges but says he also knows the im­por­tance.

He feels busi­ness must get a jump­start and be­lieves he has the right plan in place. For ex­am­ple, the gov­ern­ment has ini­ti­ated In­vest Al­berta.

“For the first time ever, we will have a des­ig­nated pro­vin­cial in­vest­ment pro­mo­tion agency. The big­gest prob­lem Al­berta’s econ­omy has had in the last five years the mas­sive flight of cap­i­tal of tens of bil­lions of dol­lars to other ju­ris­dic­tions. We need to bring some of that money back and we need to bring it back to ru­ral Al­berta where most of the wealth of this province is cre­ated and most re­sources are ex­ploited,” Ken­ney ex­plained in a July 2 in­ter­view. “We are tak­ing these 16 Al­berta of­fices around the world that have typ­i­cally been fo­cused on ex­port mar­ket de­vel­op­ment. We are go­ing to re­fo­cus them on in­bound in­vest­ment pro­mo­tion. They are go­ing to con­tinue to help for ag ex­porters, we think the Cana­dian Trade Com­mis­sion net­work does a very good job of that. They have a much big­ger foot­print in Al­berta. What they do not do at the fed­eral level is sup­port in­bound in­vest­ment. So we are go­ing to cre­ate a concierge ser­vice for per­spec­tive in­vestors whether it is just com­ing in here to buy­ing a small busi­ness all the way to mega projects and also what we are do­ing as part of our re­cov­ery strat­egy is a se­ries of sec­toral strate­gies and the very first one we are fo­cused on is agri-food and agri-busi­ness. We see that, not as an in­dus­try of the past, which it is but still rather as an in­dus­try of the fu­ture.”

With the in­vest­ment in Leth­bridge’s Ex­hi­bi­tion Park and the Park’s part­ner­ship with the Leth­bridge Col­lege, Ken­ney wants the area to be a world leader in agri-food and agri-busi­ness. He says di­rect busi­ness in­vest­ment is one ob­vi­ous way but also the Cham­pi­ons of Agri­cul­ture and its $3 mil­lion of gov­ern­ment sup­port will help sell agri­cul­ture.

“This is to help the ag peo­ple de­fend it­self more ef­fec­tively from the grow­ing at­tacks against mod­ern agri­cul­tural prac­tices. 15 years ago rad­i­cal green or­ga­ni­za­tion started to de­fame the oil and gas sec­tor. The pro­duc­ers kinda ig­nored it. Every­one un­der­stands we need en­ergy. They saw the crit­i­cisms as be­ing un­founded and un­per­sua­sive. But guess what? They cre­ated a pub­lic opin­ion vac­uum that was filled with mis­in­for­ma­tion. To the point where we are in this fight for our lives for mar­ket ac­cess for oil and gas. A lot of us see a sim­i­lar pat­tern fol­low­ing with agri­cul­ture. These groups that are try­ing to at­tack seed tech­nol­ogy, the re­spon­si­ble use of fer­til­iz­ers and pes­ti­cides, the en­tire live­stock in­dus­try… I think this is a po­ten­tial ex­is­ten­tial threat to the fu­ture of mod­ern agri­cul­ture and I think we need to fight back so that is a keep part off this,” ex­plains Ken­ney. “Sec­ond, agribusi­ness needs in­fra­struc­ture. That’s where the High­way 3 twin­ning comes in. That’s where the mas­sive new fa­cil­i­ties at the Leth­bridge AG ex­hi­bi­tion will come into play. We fore­see that as be­com­ing the sin­gle most im­por­tant show­case for agri­cul­tural prod­ucts. We are pleased to see the City of Leth­bridge agrees with us there. They are work­ing very hard in bring food pro­cess­ing. Cavendish Farms (in Leth­bridge) is look­ing po­ten­tially at dou­bling the size of their pro­cess­ing plant and we said in our eco­nomic re­cov­ery plan that we re­leased (June 29) we are look­ing very se­ri­ously at po­ten­tial large scale, cap­i­tal in­vest­ments in ir­ri­ga­tion in­fra­struc­ture. The Gov­ern­ment of Al­berta has not done that for six decades.”

Ken­ney added they in dis­cus­sions with the Cana­dian In­vest­ment Bank. The Bank which has a $30 bil­lion port­fo­lio to sup­port pub­lic/pri­vate part­ner­ships for in­fra­struc­ture that grows the econ­omy. The gov­ern­ment wants to pitch to them an ex­pan­sion of the ir­ri­ga­tion sys­tem in Al­berta to mas­sively im­prove pro­duc­tiv­ity in the farm­land in the south.

The premier in­tends to keep the Al­berta re­stric­tions on for­eign own­er­ship of farm land be­cause he doesn’t want land prices to in­flate to the ex­tent fam­ily farms will go ex­tinct. He wants to pro­vide pop­u­la­tion growth in ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties.

“That’s why our gov­ern­ment ran on a pledge for a ru­ral re­newal im­mi­gra­tion strat­egy. You’ve got that in Brooks in spades for ob­vi­ous rea­sons (JBS meat pro­cess­ing plant, agri­cul­ture) but a lot of the com­mu­ni­ties, in or­der to keep that hard­ware store open, the con­ve­nience store, that gas sta­tion open, that de­pends on some­body com­ing in and buy­ing those busi­nesses too, right? And so we are go­ing to set up a ru­ral en­trepreneur­i­al­ship pro­gram that matches im­mi­grants who are start/buy a busi­ness and run it there to main­tain those ser­vices, to main­tain those ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties to partly sup­port those fam­ily farms (as well). So, to me it is about the whole com­mu­nity and about the ser­vices avail­able to it.”

There has been ob­vi­ous grow­ing ten­sion and dis­sent within ru­ral ar­eas con­cerned about cuts to health care and the bud­gets in ed­u­ca­tion. Smaller com­mu­ni­ties are des­per­ately con­cerned about the state of the pil­lars of the com­mu­nity namely the hos­pi­tal and school. Doc­tors in 44 Al­berta ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties have de­cided to not pro­vide ser­vices due to the can­cel­la­tion of the Ru­ral and Re­mote North­ern Pro­gram. Teach­ing as­sis­tants and other school staff have been laid off and there is a lot of con­cerns for the level of ed­u­ca­tion in the fu­ture.

Ken­ney says it is a pe­riod of ad­just­ment but the civil ser­vice has to ad­just and most of the is­sues are caused by spe­cial in­ter­ests. He was adamant that he will not bend to pres­sure from “spe­cial in­ter­est groups.”

“A lot of the angst is the re­sult of, to be blunt, spe­cial in­ter­est po­lit­i­cal noise. It is not based on re­al­ity,” says Ken­ney. “We are in­creas­ing the health care bud­get, ob­vi­ously mas­sively through COVID, but pre-COVID we were in­creas­ing the bud­get. Not hugely but by a cou­ple hun­dred mil­lion dol­lars and the ed­u­ca­tion bud­get was flat. Al­berta has the most ex­pen­sive health and ed­u­ca­tion sys­tems in Canada, bar none. We also have the best com­pen­sa­tion nurses, doc­tors and teach­ers in Canada bar none. By the way, we also now have a $20 bil­lion deficit so there will be a great fis­cal reck­on­ing and we have to come to terms with that. We will have to chal­lenge the won­der­ful folks in our pub­lic ser­vices in­clud­ing in schools and hos­pi­tals to adapt so they can de­liver them at least as ef­fi­ciently as Saskatchew­an, Bri­tish Columbia, On­tario and Que­bec. We spent 20 per cent more per per­son ef­fec­tively on the same range of pub­lic ser­vices as those prov­inces do. Yet we do not get bet­ter out­comes and this is not my opin­ion this was val­i­dated by Dr. Jan­ice MacK­in­non’s ex­pert panel on Al­berta’s fi­nances on health (2019). We get lower life ex­pectancy, higher in­fant mor­tal­ity and gen­er­ally longer sur­gi­cal wait times than those prov­inces for a 20 per cent cost pre­mium and the youngest pop­u­la­tion in the coun­try. So, this is not about jeop­ar­diz­ing the fu­ture of ru­ral health care for ex­am­ple, we are go­ing to keep every ru­ral hos­pi­tal open, un­like the NDP in Saskatchew­an shut down 55 hos­pi­tals, but we are go­ing to chal­lenge the whole sys­tem and maybe that means dif­fer­ent mod­els of com­pen­sa­tion for physi­cians based more like a salary ap­proach like per cap­i­ta­tion so yeah we have to find more more ef­fi­cient ways of do­ing things and there have to be some changes. Be­cause I don’t know… we can’t run $20 bil­lion deficits for­ever. So I guess I would say we should be able to pro­vide, not just the same, but in prin­ci­pal even bet­ter ser­vices more ef­fi­ciently. The no­tion we have to have by far the most ex­pen­sive ser­vices in the coun­try for less than av­er­age out­comes makes no sense to me. What the tax­payer is look­ing for is they don’t want to mea­sure suc­cess by spend­ing more but by get­ting more so that is our fo­cus.

When it comes to ru­ral schools I get that ru­ral schools are es­sen­tial to the life of many towns for the rea­sons com­ing to what I said ear­lier about re­tain­ing peo­ple right? But ul­ti­mately, that is up to school boards and they are get­ting sta­ble fund­ing, there is no re­duc­tion to their fund­ing.

“It is not com­pli­cated. Gov­ern­ment unions al­ways want the gov­ern­ment to spend more. We’re broke. We have to spend a bit less, and so ob­vi­ously they are go­ing to fight that…and some­times I be­lieve some of those unions do it dis­hon­estly. I am not fussed by it. We were elected to fo­cus pri­vate sec­tor growth, get­ting more bang for the taxpayers’ buck and our de­liv­ery of pub­lic ser­vices and even­tu­ally get­ting to a bal­anced bud­get. We are not go­ing to be able to do that in this term be­cause of the COVIS cri­sis has moved us from a $7 to a $20 bil­lion deficit. But let me tell you this, can I just talk turkey here for just a mo­ment here… the av­er­age pri­vate sec­tor fam­ily in Al­berta is bring­ing home ten per cent less than they did five years ago. The av­er­age pri­vate sec­tor fam­ily has seen their in­comes go up cause even if there has been an over­all freeze they typ­i­cally un­der their col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agree­ments get paid more with se­nior­ity and that is fine, we value those peo­ple, we value our teach­ers, our nurses, our doc­tors, but at the end of the day, we have to all be in this to­gether. We can’t ex­pect the two thirds of the econ­omy that is in the pri­vate sec­tor pay­ing taxes to con­tinue to go through a pe­riod of ad­ver­sity that is not… we need some so­cial sol­i­dar­ity. That is why the chal­lenge is out to those who work on the gov­ern­ment side to help us de­liver those more ef­fi­ciently. I don’t think that is un­rea­son­able.”

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