Our province has entered the first stage of its Relaunch Strategy much to everyone’s relief. This careful and responsible approach appears to be paying off and I could not be more proud of everyone in our community for banding together to ensure that we all stay safe and healthy. Thank you for all your efforts and sacrifice. Continuing to follow the advice of Dr. Hinshaw and looking out for one another is the best recipe for us to advance through the stages of Alberta’s Relaunch Strategy.
As our province gets better at managing the health effects of this pandemic, and we look to relaxing more health restrictions, it is incumbent upon us to look toward the economic effects of this crisis. At the outset of this pandemic, our Premier committed to spare no expense in fighting the effects of COVID-19. Government immediately added an additional $500 million to our Health Budget with the understanding that this was just a start.
Seeing the impact that self-isolating measures could take on Albertans’ finances I felt it was important as Associate Minister of Natural Gas and Electricity to ensure people would be insulated from utility costs. I was pleased to announce the Utility Deferral Program on March 18 so that individuals, farms, and small businesses would have cash-on-hand for essentials and wouldn’t have to worry about their utilities being cut off. More spending was announced to support Albertans as more needs were identified. Nearly $100 million for Emergency Isolation Support, $60 million for charities, non-profits, and civil societies to help the province’s most vulnerable, $53 million in mental health supports, $1 billion in infrastructure projects to get Albertans back to work, $350 million to cover WCB premiums for small to medium-sized businesses. The list goes on with many more supports in the form of deferrals and subsidies.
To date, nearly $15 billion has been spent to address the immediate health and economic needs of all Albertans. In conjunction with a worldwide health crisis, a major crash in global energy prices coupled with a global recession has left our province in a financial position not seen since the 1930s. Budget 2020 projected a deficit of just over $6 billion but now we are looking at a deficit of $21 billion or more.
It is important for government to strike a balance between addressing today’s needs and insulating our future from a debt trap we may not be able to recover from. Premier Kenney has stated that Albertans need to think long and hard about the choices that are before us as we stare down the approaching fiscal reckoning that is upon us.
Alberta is experiencing a reduction in employment twice that of the worst month of the Great Depression. After losing 243,000 jobs in April, our current unemployment rate is in the double digits and when those who have stopped looking for work, or are working no hours at all, are factored in unemployment is at just under 30%.
According to a recent Fraser Institute Report Alberta’s debt to GDP ratio was at 9.9% before the pandemic. Under normal circumstances this is a very manageable figure but with a 2% increase of debt to GDP year-over-year for the last five years coupled with an estimated 8% increase this year, Alberta’s finances are considered to be the least sustainable of the four large provinces.
Experts have indicated that this economic downturn will be deeper and recovery will be slower compared to other large provinces. A shrinking GDP and an increasing unemployment rate means not only that more Albertans will need more supports to get them through as we rebuild our economy, it also means that our province will experience shrinking revenues needed to pay for programs and services.
In a situation like this, one would expect the federal government to provide some relief. Historically, however, Ottawa has basically ignored Alberta in times of need. This has been acutely demonstrated by the fact that nearly two months ago, the federal finance minister declared help was on the way in ‘hours or days’ for the energy industry- an industry responsible for 20% of Canadian exports, over 500,00 Canadian jobs and the economic driver of our province- and all that was offered 50 days later was a subsidy with ideological and virtue-signalling strings attached.
As has been demonstrated throughout this pandemic, and at many other times throughout our province’s history, Albertans have an incredible aptitude to come together and face any storm head-on. Our province’s greatest asset is that it is filled with exceptional people who are ambitious risk-takers and entrepreneurs.
Thus far, our handling of this pandemic has shown that we are leaders in risk management as opposed to being risk-averse. Instead of shutting down our province completely, as have other jurisdictions in the developed world, Alberta maintained over 80% of its labour force and kept over 90% of our economy going. Our forward-thinking health experts saw this novel virus emerging in China back in December and took immediate steps to ensure a stockpile of medical and laboratory-testing supplies. Alberta opted more often for freedom and personal responsibility by making recommendations as opposed to more extraordinary measures.
The result is that compared to the rest of the developed world we have the lowest per-capita ICU and hospital admissions, the lowest per-capita cases and deaths and we have the highest per-capita testing rates. This is a testament to Albertans’ sense of innate personal responsibility and determination. I truly believe that Albertans will continue to embrace their inherent resiliency and deep-rooted sense of community to face the challenges ahead.
Dale Nally, MLA
Morinville – St. Albert