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Outgoing Alberta Premier conducts ambitious agenda

Stelmach to business: It's your turn

Feb 4, 2011

by Paul Marck

Almost lost amidst the flotsam and jetsam surrounding Premier Ed Stelmach’s announced departure has been his message to business. And rest assured, the premier has  a distinct message  to deliver, along with a challenge — and a warning. Alberta’s corporate sector would do well to pay heed, if our province is to enjoy any degree of economic prosperity.

If you have the impression that the genial premier is content to ride out his final months in leading this increasingly ungovernable province with extended bouts of thumb twiddling through the spring session of the Legislature, you are vastly underestimating the man.  Stelmach has stepped in more than his fair share of cowpies since assuming the office of premier in 2006 — health care and energy royalty debacles may turn out to be his final undoing — but he has accomplishments and makes it abundantly clear the work is not yet done.

Now that the exit door is in plain sight, the farmer from Andrew has a burning desire to see through an ambitious agenda before he leaves office later this year. Stelmach delivered three speeches this past week, to an Edmonton Rotary Club meeting and to luncheon audiences of both the Calgary and Edmonton Chambers of Commerce. There was a common theme, one we are likely to hear more of that is aimed directly at business. Essentially it is this: We as a government are doing our part in setting the stage for economic growth on the heels of the recession — now it’s your turn to deliver.

In defiance to his critics from the extreme right, Stelmach said government will not back away from investing in the infrastructure that is so vital to support a growing population and economic expansion. Eighteen new schools in Calgary and Edmonton, help for the homeless, expansion of hospitals and health facilities, a focus on rural communities and the promise of new cancer-treatment facilities are the result.

“Our province came out of the last downturn with a serious infrastructure debt,” Stelmach told the Calgary chamber on Thursday. “But Albertans learned from that experience. They learned that when you delay infrastructure spending, you just pay more later. But even worse, you don’t have the things you need when you need them.”

Stelmach acknowledges there are those both inside and outside of government who insist the infrastructure investment tap should be turned off and the budget balanced. But it’s not going to happen on his watch. There is an $11-billion sustainability fund to draw on, for now. As the premier pointed out the day before to the Edmonton chamber luncheon, every $1 billion spent on infrastructure translates into 10,000 jobs.

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With government putting this investment in place, the premier said business needs to focus on expanding markets beyond the U.S., our major trading partner. As history shows, reliance on a single large trading partner means a serious downside when that partner has an economic disaster. “It’s in Canada’s social, economic and political interest to become  a real player in North and South Asia, the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East and Africa,” Stelmach said. “We must foster and pursue better relationships with our Asian partners. And expand capabilities to export food, wood fibre and energy to these markets.”

Access to new markets is a gateway of opportunity, but will only be realized if port, rail and pipeline capacity is increased quickly to assure Canada’s position as a global economic leader. That is Stelmach’s challenge to industry: invest, innovate, and build lasting trading relationships.

Stelmach also put a call for action to the federal government as well: give us open skies for better relationships and business interaction with Asia commercial centres and review immigration and labour force policy so the West can expand production.

The warning? Canada and Alberta’s economic leadership does not come with any guarantee. “In the new global marketplace, to maintain the many advantages we enjoy as Albertans, we must make sure we’re competitive and adaptable.”

To me, that means we can’t just wait for rising oil prices and the next energy boom to carry us to prosperity. We have been hearing this since the 1970s when Peter Lougheed talked of the need to diversify our economy. So if we have been hearing the same economic message for the past 40 years, why aren’t we listening?

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