Why there won't be an Alberta sales tax any time soon, and who's to blame for provincial pipeline paralysis
'It’s really about what the economy can handle,' Notley says in year-end interview with CBC News
In a year-end interview with the CBC, Alberta Premier Rachel Notley ruled out the idea of introducing a provincial sales tax (PST), saying it's not a conversation she's interested in having while trying to get the provincial economy back on track.
Notley sat down with CBC Calgary News at 6's Rob Brown and talked about the state of the economy, the impact of carbon pricing, who to blame for the pipeline paralysis and the upcoming 2019 provincial election campaign.
What she didn't talk about was how much fuel consumption has decreased since the implementation of the carbon tax, and whether she regrets putting all her eggs in the Trans-Mountain pipeline basket.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: Albertans are very angry right now. Who do you think they should hold responsible for the fact that construction [on the Trans Mountain pipeline] hasn't started yet?
A: There's a number of different factors. It's been almost 70 years since we've gotten a pipeline built to Canadian tidewater. You probably heard me talk about it when I was at the Canadian first ministers meeting in Montreal a couple weeks ago. It's as if Canadian political leaders both federally and provincially, for the last 10 to 15 years, sat around and watched this car crash happening in slow motion, and they sat back and politely admired the problem without actually digging in to find a fix.
- Watch an extended version of CBC News' interview with Premier Notley above
We know the obvious barrier to getting Trans Mountain built is the decision of the Court of Appeal — and they identified different problems: the direction of the previous federal government to the NEB [National Energy Board] to exclude consideration of marine safety, and the failure of the current federal government to engage in appropriate consultations with Indigenous people.
As the people of Alberta, we just sit by the wayside and pull our hair out, and get increasingly frustrated — particularly now — because we've got the [price] differential blowing out.
Q: You've been focused on the prime minister lately, and used much sharper language in describing him. Any regrets about going all in on the Trudeau/Trans Mountain basket? And giving in on Gateway and Energy East?
A: I wouldn't put it that way. We worked very hard on Line 3, on Keystone, and, as you know, with Trans Mountain.
Gateway was pretty much over by the time we got elected, because the court's review of it was a great deal more scathing and the fix for it much more complicated than what we're dealing with Trans Mountain.
And of course, with Energy East, I'm very frustrated — like all Albertans are — that we can't function more like a country in terms of supplying our product to Canadians. But I do think we need to continue to have that conversation about shipping our products east. That's one of the reasons we've been raising concerns about Bill C-69.
Q: As a province, we're still riding the economic ups and downs of the royalty roller-coaster. You've spoken in the past about how we need to have a conversation about a PST [provincial sales tax].
A: No, no, no — I haven't been talking about that.
Q: Your exact quote is: "In the long term, is this a conversation we need to have? I think it is — but not right now. It needed to happen in the context of a government needing a mandate."
Is this something you want Albertans talking about in the coming campaign?
A: No. Not at all.
Q: Why not?
A: Because we are working really hard to bring Alberta through a recovery and to get our oil and gas industry back on its feet — and to do a lot of other work that we have been doing to promote diversification and economic development.
Now is not the time to bring something like that in.
Instead, what we need to do is carry on with what we have been doing, and on some fronts it has been successful.
Before we got to the point, in August, of the Federal Court of Appeal decision, Alberta was leading the country in economic growth this year. It led the country in economic growth last year, creating well over 100,000 jobs since the depth of the depression.
Q: Introducing a PST could address that. So if not now, when it's so acutely needed, then when?
A: I don't think you take that kind of money out of the economy when the economy is struggling.
Right now, it's just not on my horizon.
My horizon is for our economy to get to a point where it has actually recovered, where people who have lost their jobs have work again, and where they feel confident and secure in that employment. That's absolutely our focus right now.
Q: Are you tax adverse because of the backlash you've seen with the carbon tax?
A: No. It's really about what the economy can handle. For instance, If you look over at Saskatchewan, they took a much different approach. They took a very austerity-based approach to their public services and then they extended their sales tax — which is not insignificant — to construction, out of the blue, and we've seen their growth diminish quite significantly.
That doesn't work to build the economy. And so we're focused on building the economy.
Q: We've had two years with a provincial carbon tax. What kind of decline in fuel consumption have we seen in Alberta in those two years?
A: I would have to get back to you on that. Because, of course, it's related to economic activity as well. So you've got a lot of different things going on at the same time.
Q: Do you know if we've had a decrease in car emissions during that time?
A: I honestly can't tell you right now because I wasn't prepped for that. What I can say is just yesterday, through our CLP [climate leadership plan], we had our second and third auctions for renewable energy. And in doing that, we've now managed to bring in enough renewable energy — electricity — to power 300,000 homes in Alberta, to create 1,000 jobs, and to do so less expensively than anywhere else in North America
In the last 12 months, through our climate leadership plan, and the carbon pricing it generates, we've tripled the amount of renewable energy being used in Alberta in 12 months. As opposed to the amount of renewable energy being used in Alberta over the previous 20 years. So we're doing some good work there.
Q: British Columbia measured fuel decrease — and in the first five years, they saw, I think, a 16% decrease. I can appreciate you don't have those numbers at hand, but wouldn't they be top of mind so you can explain to Albertans, in two years, that we've made this much of a difference in cutting emissions from vehicles? Are you not getting those numbers?
A: We may have been, Rob, but there's other things that have been going on: the economy was picking up, and so that's a factor [with emissions] that you have to take into account.
As you know, our carbon pricing at this point still — as a portion of the fuel cost — is still very very small. But at the same time, what we are doing is we're able to look at other things we're doing — other projects we're funding through it. That's why I'm telling you about the renewable energy piece, which is a very direct, measurable thing.
We've also been able to dedicate funds toward the phasing out of coal. And as you can imagine, going from being the single biggest coal producer in the country — the rest of the country doesn't produce as much coal combined as we do in Alberta — we're well on track to be completely off coal by 2030.
That is going to bring about measurable reductions. There's a lot of things we can look at.
Q: Your party is trailing provincially. You're ahead in Edmonton but behind in Calgary. Do you think you can win the next election without winning Calgary?
A: I think Calgary is absolutely fundamentally important … but we're not into the election campaign yet. We're still focused on doing things like governing the province, which we were elected to do, and that's why we've been focused so much on work around the energy industry, the curtailment, the rail, pushing for more upgrading here in Alberta and more diversification like the announcement I made today.
The fact is, when we get to the campaign — I'm looking forward to it — I think when you get to the actual election, it turns into a choice between two options, and I'm looking forward to that debate.
Q: Your personal approval numbers are higher than your party's. Does that keep you up at night? Do you feel like you're carrying a burden?
A: Not at all. At the end of the day, polls are an interesting snapshot in time. The campaign is where people make their decisions. You get a chance to talk to folks about what your record is, what your vision for the future is, and to present that with as much honesty and integrity as you can — and that's when we'll have those conversations.
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