Alberta’s agriculture and forestry minister leads way in fiscal responsibility in province’s new budget
The United Conservative Party of Alberta is taking getting the provincial government’s fiscal house in order seriously.
Leading the way in fiscal restraint in Alberta is 31-year-old Agriculture and Forestry Minister Devin Dreeshen.
“At agriculture and forestry we’re cutting 38 percent over four years, over half a billion dollars, which again, is just trying to get us to spend within our means and to find efficiencies…” said Dreeshen in a phone interview with The Post Millennial. “[We’re looking] at how the bureaucracy actually functions and how we can streamline processes so those who do have to interact with government are getting it done in a timely manner. So ultimately running government like a business.”
This fiscal year Dreeshen’s ministry is spending $967 million, but by next year the ministry’s operating budget will be down to $879 million.
The former Alberta NDP government under Premier Rachel Notley greatly expanded government spending.
“There was over $30 million–there was a liquor manufacturing program that the previous government brought in, which again, had no real government goals. It wasn’t increasing economic activity, it wasn’t creating more jobs, and so that was a program that we just eliminated right off the bat,” said Dreeshen.
“Overall with this budget, we inherited a mess from the previous NDP government, and they had us on a trajectory for $100 billion in debt. But on top of that, we currently spend $2 billion a year on interest payments,” Dreeshen explained.
Unlike Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s government, which faced severe backlash for initial cuts, including skyrocket disapproval ratings, Premier Jason Kenney’s government is staying steadfast in reducing overall government spending and getting its books in order
“…To me, [the NDP] saddling Alberta’s next generation with debt is something that is irresponsible. And that’s why, I think this is the first provincial government in a couple decades that’s actually cut overall spending totally.”
Even with major cuts in the agriculture and forestry ministry and a few other ministries, the UCP government won’t fully balance the books until 2022-23 with a modest surplus of $600 million. The latest budget will still run a projected $8.7 billion deficit.
Despite the UCP cutting overall spending, both the health ministry and community and social services ministry are increasing their budgets. Education spending is staying at a similar level. In the past, cutting back on these ministries have lead to severe backlash from the general public, unions and press.
“When I went to estimates, and they’re saying ‘look at these cuts you’re making to these programs.’ And so I just countered with, ‘No, that’s a tax cut because Albertans aren’t getting taxed in the first place to have the carbon tax in order to sprinkle out these programs.’ So I think we had four within the department that were completely, specifically tied to the carbon tax, which we eliminated on May 30.”
“We’re looking at how we can reform how the province does ag. research. And so we’re going to be partnering, we’re looking at ways to partner with private sector research, also discussing and consulting with academia to see how the universities can be more involved in ag. research. But at the end of the day we campaigned on farmer-led research, not government-led research. So we want to make sure that farmers are the decision makers on the type of research that the province does fund.”
Consultation with agriculture industry stakeholders will happen in December and Dreesen hopes to have a plan in place by early in the new year.
“It’s big because we have regional research groups, we have commodity organizations that help fund research, we have the life science private companies that are in the space doing a lot of research, we have universities, some of them are doing the research. So we’re trying to piece together the whole research spectrum, to make sure we come up with a new way of doing research that ultimately gets better results for farmers.”
NDP agriculture critic Lorne Dach was no fan of the reduced spending.
“We don’t want to lose these scientists; we need them more than ever,” he said. “We are facing crop pests and clubroot, and we need these scientists to help solve these challenges.”
Dreeshen says part of the problem now with the province’s research grants is there are some projects that are duplicates or redundant to other research projects within Alberta or other parts of the country.
Cuts weren’t across the board, however. The ministry under Dreeshen increased spending by $5 million in combatting the mountain pine beetle, which has devastated some of Alberta’s forests.
“We’re still spending a lot of money in very important, strategic areas.”
The United Conservative Party (UCP) appears to be preparing for a fight for increased autonomy with the Trudeau government.
In their first annual meeting, members voted on through informal straw polls on a series of issues aimed at getting a “fair deal” from the Trudeau government.
From the province’s potential tax collection agency to the police force, trade relationships, pension plan, and firearms watchdog, members voted in large groups to support autonomy and further pull away from Ottawa.
A panel weighing those ideas is to complete its report by March 31.
“We are not seeking a special deal. We are simply seeking a fair deal,” Premier Jason Kenney told party faithful.
While not backing the secession movement, Wexit, the move to fight for autonomy is not surprising. Polls have placed Alberta’s desire to potentially declare independence close to if not higher than the separatist-prone province of Quebec.
The leader of the Parti Quebecois, Pascal Berube, has attacked Jason Kenney and his UCP in an opinion piece in the Calgary Herald.
In the article, Berube declared that Kenney was lying to Albertans about Albertan taxes paying for Quebec’s social infrastructure. Berube claimed that Kenney’s statements were “simply not true.”
Berube also took time to rebut Kenney’s indignation over equalization payments—an issue that Kenney will put to a referendum. Berube said that equalization payments were calculated based on the province’s ability to generate tax revenue, and thus “Albertans should not complain about paying for any of Quebec’s social programs. It simply is not true.”
Berube went on to say that “Alberta is a bigger spender than its leaders would like you to believe … Alberta is not some libertarian’s dream, as some would like you to believe. The province is a perfect example of ‘big government.’”
By saying this, Berube has labeled Kenney and the UCP as hypocritical and manipulative.
What was more piercing, however, was when Berube attacked Kenney directly, suggesting that Kenney was “looking for someone or something to blame for his gigantic fiscal deficit.”
Berube went on to say that “Albertans need to realize that their leaders have let them down … he will seal his place as the proud heir of past leaders who drove Alberta to the brink of the fiscal precipice where it now finds itself.”
Berube’s attack is the latest incident in a war of words between the two provinces. Previously, Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet and CAQ leader Francois Legault had criticized Kenney and the Wexit movement. Blanchet, for example, has also disputed Kenney’s equalization claims, declaring that Alberta doesn’t “send a cheque to Quebec.”
Blanchet has also ridiculed the broad sentiment of alienation in the western province, stating that “the desire to do whatever they want with their oil might not be a sufficient reason to fuel a desire to become a country.”
A Calgary-based natural resource transport company is set to ship off propane to parts of Canada in dire need of propane—namely Quebec—to display solidarity and help their “fellow Canadians.”
The pipeline operator is set to send 105 cars-worth of trains with propane sourced from Canada’s western provinces, said Pembina Pipeline in a statement late Sunday night.
“We believe the provinces can work together in the spirit of unity to secure a safe, reliable and long-term supply of energy from each other, rather than from foreign countries who do not share Canadian values,” it said in a news release. “The best question is: why would we not?” said CEO Michael Dilger.
With CN Rail currently tangled in a strike haulting 3,200 different employees from working, Quebec Premier Francois Legault pointed to the CN Railway strikes as the main reason la Belle Province was left propaneless—this led to his formal request to the federal government to take emergency back-to-work legislation, though it appears that may no longer be necessary.
Pembina’s benevolent action comes as the western province’s secession movement continues to grow, with recent polls finding 62 percent of Albertans believing Alberta “does not get its fair share from Confederation” —up from 45 percent in 1997—with 46 percent feeling “more attached to their province than to their country”
Last week Premier Kenney got into a heated verbal spar with Bloc Quebecois leader Yves-Francois Blanchette.
Kenney responded to Blanchette’s comments that Quebec would not support Alberta’s venture into a separatist movement, one that Blanchette says he had no interest in comparing to Quebec’s previous movements, and one he has little interest in aiding.
“If they were attempting to create a green state in western Canada, I might be tempted to help them,” he said. “If they are trying to create an oil state in western Canada, they cannot expect any help from us.”
Kenney responded by telling the Bloc leader to “pick a lane”
“If you are so opposed to the energy that we produce in Alberta, then why are you so keen on taking the money generated by the oilfield workers in this province and across Western Canada?” said Kenney, the keynote speaker, to a sold-out crowd in Calgary.
“Pick a lane. Either you can say as Quebec that you’re no longer going to take the energy and equalization resources that come from Western Canada’s oil and gas industry … or you can do what we do as Canadians, coming together to support each other, especially in times of adversity,” said Kenney.
The Bloc Quebecois played an integral role in reducing the Trudeau government from the former majority to a now-minority government, as the BQ claimed more than 30 seats across the province.
Jason Kenney was spotted on-field wearing an “I 🖤🍁 OIL & GAS” sweater at the 107th Grey Cup last night, with most of the Calgary crowd in attendance greeting the premier to loud cheers.
Kenney, the leader of the United Conservatives that won the province from the Notley-led New Democrats, has been a vocal supporter of the province’s natural resource industry.
Though not all were pleased with the gesture, as some saw the sweater as a way to divide Canadians during a time in Canada’s culture intended to unite Canadians from all walks of life.
The sweater has been the centre of controversy for months now.
Two months ago, visitors at the Parliament buildings in Ottawa a security guard stopped them from entering a tour because they were wearing pro-oil and pro-gas shirts.
Chris Wollen, of Calgary, said he and his fiance were wearing “I (LOVE) (CANADIAN) OIL AND GAS” shirts when a security official told them that the shirts would prohibit them from entering the tour.
“The security officer mentioned that if we were to come back with our ‘I love Canadian oil and gas’ shirts on, that we wouldn’t be allowed to do the tour because you’re not allowed to wear any shirts that are too political,” Wollin told CTV News Calgary.
According to the Parliament of Canada’s website, “participating in any form of demonstration inside the buildings is prohibited, including wearing items or clothing with visible political messages.”
But the sweater hasn’t always been as controversial as it is now.
In 2016, former premier Rachel Notley wore a hoodie by the same pro-oil group, Oil Sands Action.
According to Oil Sands Action’s website, the group is “an entirely volunteer created grassroots movement encouraging Canadians to take action and work together in support of our vital natural resources sector.”
“We’re strong supporters of Canada’s oil sands and the resource sector generally because we know how important these industries are to Canada’s present and future prosperity,” the site reads.