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UCP explains away Jason Kenney's lost $1.3-billion pipeline gamble

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Jason Kenney, dressed up in his construction worker duds, at his news conference Monday. Image: Screenshot of Alberta government video

If you've been wondering how the United Conservative Party government would explain that $1.3 billion gifted for nothing to TC Energy Corp. as a result of Premier Jason Kenney's foolish bet Donald Trump would win last November's U.S. presidential election, you need wonder no more.

They've lumped it into the "the largest infrastructure budget to build things in the history of Alberta" mostly re-announced by Kenney, dressed up as a construction worker, at the government's all-male news conference at an Edmonton construction site on International Women's Day.

Finance Minister Travis Toews admitted this interesting tidbit about the money gambled away on the Keystone XL pipeline that was cancelled by U.S. President Joe Biden in January at the legislature's Standing Committee on Resource Stewardship yesterday. He was being pressed hard by a feisty Shannon Phillips, who is the NDP's finance critic when she's not being stalked by the Lethbridge cops.

Notwithstanding Kenney's hyperbolic claim on Monday that his government spent $10 billion on capital projects in 2020, Phillips observed that the year's infrastructure spending was in fact $8.2 billion, and pointed out that Rachel Notley's NDP government spent $9 billion in 2017-2018.

So where did the extra money come from to provide verisimilitude to Kenney's $10-billion yarn?

"We have to recognize that in the summer of 2020, there was a significant effort in the construction of KXL in the province of Alberta," the finance minister conceded. "That put many, many Albertans to work in the southeast corner of the province and it was a very significant infrastructure investment in play that created well over a thousand jobs."

Sure. It's not clear how many of those jobs, however, were in Canada.

Toews promised "additional clarity" later on the money lost on Kenney's bet on the U.S. election, and insisted he is being "fully transparent" about the deal.

Meanwhile, also yesterday, Health Minister Tyler Shandro was trying to have it both ways over at the Standing Committee on Families and Communities about the government's previously announced plan to lay off about 11,000 health-care workers, including at least 750 nurses.

The plan is going ahead, said Shandro, who was being grilled by NDP Health Critic David Shepherd. "There are no layoffs," Shandro also said.

You can't square that circle, but you can engage in verbal gymnastics, which appears to be what the health minister is doing.

He's doubtless pretending, for example, that an employee isn't losing her job if it's privatized to a low-wage, low-benefits contractor. He's probably also playing games with the meaning of "front line," since the government often insists that no front-line jobs will be lost without acknowledging that all jobs in a relatively lean organization like Alberta Health Services are pretty close to the front lines.

According to the CBC's report, Shandro said one of the cost savings he expects to implement to find some of the $600 million the government promises its layoff and privatization plan will save will come from "new virtual care options."

This doubtless means Babylon Health, the U.K. medical triage chatbot run in Canada by Telus Corp., whose "dangerously flawed" artificial-intelligence-driven diagnostic tool is reported to have never been properly approved by the U.K.'s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency.

One year ago, days after the first COVID-19 case was recorded in Alberta, the government announced in a news release that "the service is being delivered to Albertans through an alternative relationship plan between the Alberta government and Telus."

"Using this app is an alternative to visiting physicians face-to-face when you're not sure if your symptoms are related to the novel coronavirus or at any other time," Shandro chirped in the news release.

Say what you will about Jason Kenney's UCP government, as yesterday's goings on illustrate, Alberta has never had a better opposition than the NDP led by Rachel Notley.

Well prepared, well informed, gritty and scrappy, the NDP caucus is holding the UCP to account to a degree never before experienced by an Alberta government.

As the unfortunate Thomas Mulcair, federal NDP opposition leader between 2012 and 2015 proved in Ottawa, that is not guaranteed to be a route to government. Surely it should be, though.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald.

Image: Screenshot of Alberta government video

Editor's note, March 10, 2021: A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to Health Minister Travis Toews. Alberta's health minister is Tyler Shandro. The story has been corrected.

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