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