Prairie Post (West Edition)
NDP critic slams UCP’s record on ag production
Signals from new Premier Danielle Smith on boosting irrigation and pursuing knock-on benefits in the agriculture sector don’t make up for a poor record, according to the NDP agriculture critic.
Heather Sweet told the News on Thursday that all parties agree broadening the rural economy and processing more raw farm produce in Alberta is a good idea, but that hasn’t occurred under the UCP government.
She doesn’t see that changing despite statements from the new leader.
“This government has had three-anda-half years do something on agriculture and diversifying the sector, and we haven’t seen major announcements or investments, especially in advanced agri-food processing,” said Sweet, the NDP’s ag critic and MLA for Edmonton-Manning.
In last week’s cabinet reorganization, Nate Horner (Drumheller-Stettler) retained his Ag Minister post, while onetime Brooks MLA Jason Hale was named the deputy minister of the renamed Agriculture and Irrigation portfolio.
Changes also include new roles for current government MLAs as newly created parliamentary secretaries for agri-food processing and economic corridors.
Sweet said “adding more names to the file” doesn’t mean progress, and as for Hale’s unusual path to the top administrative job in the ministry, Sweet said, “I hope it’s not a patronage appointment or being done for political reasons.”
“It’s intended to be a non-partisan position – the (deputy minister) works with all parties – and I hope it will remain collaborative,” she said.
Hale was a Wildrose MLA for Brooks-Strathmore when Smith was leader, and he was one of 14 party MLAs to join Smith in crossing the floor the Progressive Conservatives in late 2014.
Since not running for re-election in 2015, Hale represented Bassano on the Eastern Irrigation District board, eventually becoming chair, and was also a vice chair of the Alberta Beef Producers.
Smith said this week that Hale’s mandate is to provide top-level guidance on moving more water projects forward.
“In southern Alberta, where it is dry, we’ve had tremendous success with irrigation,” Smith told the News. “We need someone focused on developing that.”
The UCP government did broker a major financing deal in 2020 with irrigation districts and the federal Canada Infrastructure Bank, worth $800 million.
Engineering work is now proceeding on storage expansions on Snake Lake, near Bassano in the Eastern Irrigation District, and the Chin Reservoir, while the St. Mary’s Irrigation system will also see $168 million in system upgrades to conserve water that can be used on more cropland.
On the ag processing front, Alberta has promoted some new processing plants and stressed the government’s corporate tax cuts and pro-business environment, but companies in Saskatchewan have announced three new canola crushing plants over several years worth several billion dollars and several hundred jobs.
The growing cluster of agri-food production sites along Highway 3, east of Lethbridge, has gained prominence in the work of several ministries, but Sweet said other economic policies come in conflict with rural development and water security.
Specifically, she would like more funding put toward safeguarding farm supply from invasive species, such as zebra mussels, and for the UCP to put to rest potential of new coal leases on watersheds.
“It’s counter-intuitive to talk about water security and expanding water access when you’re also opening the door to coal mining on the eastern slopes of the Rockies,” she said.