By David Marsden
It had been expected that Premier Jason Kenney would do more than simply continue to discuss the wisdom of leaving the Canada Pension Plan and starting our own retirement savings system.
Saturday, in Red Deer, the premier appointed a panel to investigate the viability of establishing an Alberta pension fund, a police force and a provincial income tax collection agency. These are areas of jurisdiction that other provinces, Quebec, in particular, have already assumed, so there’s no questioning Alberta’s ability to exert its authority.
The formation of an Alberta pension plan is particularly tempting. The province has the youngest population in Canada, and so the pension contributions of Alberta workers are used to provide benefits in other regions of the country.
Creating our own pension plan would force the federal government to either increase payroll deductions elsewhere in the country or to roll back benefits. It could also provide higher retiree payments to Albertans at lower cost, or so the thinking goes.
It’s important to note that Alberta’s relatively young population is the case today, as it has been in the past. There’s no guarantee that will always be the case, so the research and consultations of the newly formed panel will be invaluable in deciding the proper course of action.
Importantly, Kenney has promised that none of the changes will take place without a vote of the people, which is as it should be, given the seriousness of the subjects being considered.
As weighty as these announcements are, the most important messages in Kenney’s speech were his remarks that addressed the widely held misconception that Alberta believes it’s the first region to suffer economic hardship. He also disproved the idea that somehow, Albertans’ struggles are their own fault.
The auto sector, the West Coast forest industry and Atlantic cod fishing endured economic challenges in the past, the premier recalled.
“When fellow Canadians in those industries, and in those regions, were going through their hard times, Alberta had their back,” said Kenney.
It was a reference to the fact Alberta has traditionally been a destination for those looking to improve their prospects by finding well-paying work.
Added Kenney: “They did not have a federal government that’s going out of its way to make a bad situation worse.”
That much is true. The federal government has taken steps to landlock and shut in the oilsands. During the election, Justin Trudeau went so far as to say in French that it was important to stand up to so-called oil barons.
As Kenney noted, can you imagine a prime minister who would state it was essential to challenge those who control Ontario’s automotive sector, or Quebec’s aviation industry?
Kenney noted Saturday that low oil prices aren’t to blame for Alberta’s economic troubles.
He pointed out there’s an “unprecedented boom, driven by energy investment, not far from here,” citing activity in North Dakota, Colorado and Texas. Tens of billions of dollars of money has fled from Alberta to these American states — cash injections that wouldn’t have been made if financial handlers didn’t expect a return on their investment.
“No, it’s not about prices, it’s about policies,” said Kenney of shrinking energy investment in Canada.
And to those who think Alberta is stubbornly hanging on to a dying industry, Kenney noted the International Energy Agency estimates current global demand for oil will rise from 100 million barrels a day to 110 million barrels in 2040.
If the world were to meet the restrictions of the Paris climate treaty, demand would still only ebb to 80 million barrels a day, said Kenney.
The demand for natural gas, according to the same independent international agency, will nearly double by 2040, Kenney told his audience.
If the world is going to continue to need fossil fuels, it makes sense that Canada should be a preferred provider. The country is home to the third largest oil reserves on the planet, a resource worth an estimated $20 trillion.
“Who will supply that demand in the future,” asked Kenney on Saturday. “We will be — increasingly, we are — the most responsible barrel of oil produced in the world.”
That’s the takeaway from Kenney’s speech in Red Deer: That Alberta is being kneecapped by the federal government, that our environmentally responsibly produced resources are needed and that we deserve a better deal in Confederation.
Alberta, noted Kenney, has contributed $23 billion more to the rest of Canada than it got back in services and transfers in each of the past five years. It has contributed $200 billion more than it got back over the past decade and a whopping $600 billion more since 1960.
Kenney couldn’t resist noting that Quebec recently posted a $4-billion budget surplus; this, while receiving $13 billion in equalization payments, much of it from Alberta taxpayers.
Criticis of Alberta often cite the energy wealth accumulated by Norway, said Kenney, but it’s important to remember the Scandinavian country is a soveriegn nation. Alberta is a province within the Canadian federation, and by necessity, has had to share its resource revenue with the rest of the country.
Kenney’s speech is one of the strongest declarations by an Alberta premier in recent history. It expresses in plain language the frustration of people happy to give more than they take, but determined to earn an honest living.
David Marsden is managing editor of the Red Deer Advocate.