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Rachel Notley sticks to her fiscal guns at 'state of the province speech'

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Rachel Notley

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Alberta NDP Premier Rachel Notley yesterday continued a tradition of "state of the province speeches" to chamber of commerce audiences long beloved by the province's Progressive Conservative premiers.

PC premier Jim Prentice gave the last one to the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce in December 2014 and said the state of the province was not good -- oil prices were sliding and he told the business crowd Alberta has a $6- to $7-billion hole in its budget.

Notley sounded considerably more upbeat yesterday, notwithstanding having the difficult job of dealing with a real $6-billion deficit, the result of Prentice's promised revenue hole. She got plenty of applause and even a half-hearted standing ovation at the end, promising to drive diversification and to keep Albertans working while the province's oil economy languishes.

"Our government will support jobs and we will support families, because that's the Alberta Way," she said, getting a round of applause.

"In my view, this is part of government's role, to act as a shock absorber during difficult economic times," she added, a view for which there is a certain sympathy among chamber types even if it makes hard-core conservatives grind their teeth.

Having taken some mischievous heat in the local media for announcing more health-care infrastructure spending in Calgary than Edmonton in the 2015 budget, the always-polite Notley became a little more forceful in defending her government's approach. She pointed back at the Conservative government for failing to plan properly for big projects in Edmonton.

"I personally can recall the previous government's announcements of funding for hospitals here in Edmonton. Like you, I know that our hospitals in our city need repairs, modernization and more. But upon taking office, our government learned that funding had been promised without any real plan in place. Certainly not the level of planning that multimillion investments require.

"Money was committed quite frankly for the sake of a press release," Ms. Notley stated, which certainly sounds like a fair assessment of the no-plan PCs the blogosphere had come to know and love.

"And that is not the way my government will govern," she went on to more applause. "Capital investment which is so fundamentally important to the path that we take forward must be decided on the basis of carefully considered planning … Previous governments played politics with things that are important to Albertans.

"I fundamentally reject that kind of politics. When public dollars are scarce, Albertans expect money to be supported by a careful value for money analysis of each proposed project," Notley said. "Capital projects will be justified by the evidence, and then announced! It will not happen the other way around."

Premier Notley also usefully assessed the likely impact of the alternative approach to deficit financing now being proposed by the Wildrose and Conservative Opposition parties:

"Now I want to speak clearly," Notley said. "There are some who have called for immediate, massive, reckless cuts. But they aren't being transparent about what cuts of that magnitude would mean for families. And I can tell you right now that it would mean much more than laying off a handful of managers in health care.

"It would mean chaos in our health system; eliminating thousands of front-line health care positions. And it would mean thousands of new students entering the school system without the teachers they need to help them to succeed. And in my view that is not the right way to deal with a fiscal shock of the nature that we are struggling with here in Alberta."

This got even more applause, evidence, perhaps, that Alberta really is changing.

One thing is clear, the Notley Government is stickling to its guns, determined to be a fiscal shock absorber and not the grim messenger of austerity that is the automatic default of all so-called conservative Canadian political parties. It's refreshing, and it's sound economics.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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