Alberta throne speech vows to keep taxes low despite falling oil price

Accountability and transparency were the themes of Monday’s speech from the throne — the first under new Premier Jim Prentice.
Alberta Premier Jim Prentice smiles during the speech from the throne at the Alberta Legislature on Monday. (Jason Franson/Canadian Press)

Accountability and transparency were the themes of Monday’s speech from the throne — the first under new Premier Jim Prentice.

“We will work tirelessly to earn and keep Albertans’ trust,” said the speech read by Lt.-Gov. Donald Ethell. “We will serve Albertans with the honour and respect they deserve.”

The speech affirmed announcements Prentice made during his first few weeks as premier: promises to end the culture of entitlements, introducing new property rights legislation, building 55 new schools and renovating 20 others and creating more continuing care spaces to move seniors out of acute care hospital beds.

The speech also touched on the recent drop in the price of oil to $75 a barrel.

Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith said the throne speech was full of recycled campaign promises. (CBC )

"A budget tied to volatile energy prices imperils our fiscal resilience over the long-term," the speech said.

But the government promised Alberta will continue to have low taxes and will not introduce a sales tax.

The government also pledged to provide more accountability to the public, including report cards on the status of infrastructure programs twice a year and returning to “straightforward" budget presentations. It also wants to develop five- and 25-year capital plans.

Making Alberta an “environmental leader” was another theme of the speech. The government vowed to work on a new climate change framework and continue to find ways to better manage oilsands tailings ponds.

Prentice said after the speech that the government plans to table a climate change framework by the end of this legislature session.

“We want to be a leader in this, our trading partners expect that we will exercise leadership, and my preference is that we do that in a national way and on a continental basis," he said. 

The speech also hinted at broad changes to health-care governance in Alberta, which could see a return to regional health authorities.

“We know there is tremendous local knowledge in our communities and great expertise in our front-line health-care workers. We want to empower health-care providers to have more input into decision-making at the local level.”

The government said it wants to narrow the gap in educational achievement levels between aboriginal and non-aboriginal students.

Other promises included improving and repairing highways and bridges in rural Alberta, and expanding access to markets in the Asia-Pacific area.

Wildrose questions oil price impact 

Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith said nothing she heard in the throne speech struck her as innovative. 

“Talk a lot about new management but what we saw was a lot of recycled campaign promises," she said. "Doesn’t seem to me like there is any clear priority. No real recognition of the real danger that Alberta is in right now with oil approaching $70.”

Smith said she was "astonished" the speech didn't address the issue of dropping oil prices. She thinks the PC government will just keep borrowing until prices go up again. 

“This is a government that couldn’t balance the budget on $100 oil, and there’s some tremendous spending promises that have been put on the table," she said. 

"I don’t really see any good thinking that’s gone around on how they’re going to manage to match revenues with expenditures."

Prentice said the province will have a balanced budget in 2014 because Alberta recorded strong financial results for the first half of the year. 

He said he is opposed to a sales tax but wouldn't discuss anything else the province is considering. 

“There are other solutions to the circumstances that face us, and we’ll deal with those in the days ahead," he said. 

A 'Wildrose' throne speech

NDP Leader Rachel Notley said she believes the government is on the path to making cuts to education and health care. She dismissed the speech as something crafted to appeal to Wildrose supporters. 

"I'm sure the Wildrose couldn't have written a better throne speech," she said. 

“It's clear to me that this premier has decided to act like a wealthy banker and essentially ignore the concerns of regular Alberta families."

Like Notley, Liberal Leader Raj Sherman says Prentice is trying to woo back Wildrose supporters through measures like Bill 1, which is proposed legislation to address property rights in Alberta. 

“Only a minority of the speech focused on building a stronger society or educating our children and caring for the sick and elderly," he said. 

Both Sherman and Notley expressed cynicism about the government's vow to introduce a new climate change framework. Notley says the speech says it would be developed over the next year, which gives the government another excuse for delays.

“What I see in that is more delay and more hedging because they’re not prepared to take the leadership role in that.”