EDMONTON — The Alberta government says if the province is to flourish in a quicksilver global economy, it must look past Uncle Sam and feed the Asian Tiger.
In the speech from the throne read in the legislature Tuesday, Lt.-Gov. Don Ethell announced that Alberta will ramp up plans to expand its markets for food, oil, and technology in Asia.
“Over the next two decades hundreds of millions of people in the emerging markets of China and India will rise out of poverty and demand a quality of life that comes closer to what we enjoy here in Canada,” Ethell said.
“A major opportunity exists to expand trade and investment with Asia.”
To that end, Premier Ed Stelmach’s government plans to introduce as its flagship piece of legislation the Asia Council Advisory Act.
When passed and proclaimed, it will create a council to suggest ways to expand business, education, and cultural relationships between Alberta and countries such as Japan, China and India.
Ethell said the United States currently buys 85 per cent of Alberta’s exports, but noted there’s a risk of becoming too dependent.
“If Alberta is to grow to its greatest potential, we need to diversify our product development through technology and take advantage of other markets.”
The spring session begins against a backdrop of political flux in the province.
With his party being challenged by a new rival on the right, the Wildrose Alliance, Stelmach has already indicated that he will step down in the fall. Three of his cabinet ministers recently quit to run for his job as premier and Tory leader.
The Tories are not the only party holding a race.
Opposition Alberta Liberal Leader David Swann has also announced he is quitting after the spring sitting. So far there is only one candidate, Laurie Blakeman, to replace him as head of the Alberta Liberals.
The centrist Alberta Party is in a leadership race of its own and recently got its first sitting member in Calgary MLA Dave Taylor, who was elected as a Liberal.
The Wildrose Alliance has a leader, Danielle Smith, but she doesn’t have a seat in the legislature.
That leaves Brian Mason of the NDP as the only party leader who is in the house and not on his way out.
While Tuesday’s speech signalled a session light on legislation, it won’t lack for controversy.
The government plans to bring back the master land-planning document it passed two years ago. The Alberta Land Stewardship Act has brought widespread criticism from landowners and opposition politicians.
The act gives cabinet the authority to create regional land plans that can supersede and, if necessary, eliminate competing local legislation. Opposition politicians, led by the Wildrose Alliance, call that a direct threat to landowner rights.
But Ethell said a makeover to the bill will fix that.
“Government is taking steps to ensure that legislation to support the development of regional plans fully respects landowner rights,” he said.
The land-use framework “is not intended to stop growth, but to provide for co-ordinated planning and protect the environment.”
Wildrose leader Smith said with hundreds of angry landowners coming out to public meetings to complain, the government was forced to act.
“They absolutely have to make these amendments to provide some certainty to landholders and leaseholders that their investment is not going to be vaporized by aggressive government action,” said Smith.
Liberal leader Swann says Bill One shows the government is out of ideas.
“I’m not sure why a bill is necessary to improve our market ability across the world, but we don’t have very high expectations of this session,” he said.
“There is a lot of distractions, disunity and dysfunction in the Tory caucus.”
The NDP’s Mason labelled the speech a laundry list of broken and stalled promises.
He noted a police college, a cancer strategy, and improved environmental monitoring initiatives have all been recycled.
“This is an indictment of the government’s failure to do the things it promised the people it would do,” he said.
The throne speech will be followed by the provincial budget on Thursday. Stelmach has signalled the spending document will run a deficit for the third consecutive year so that work can continue on critical road, hospital and school projects.