Earlier this month Alberta Finance Minister Ron Liepert introduced a big-spending provincial budget that pours more money into education, health care and family services. It was quite a contrast to the belt-tightening in other provinces, and drew criticism for running a deficit and for its optimistic forecasts for oil revenue in coming years.
This will be the last budget that Mr. Liepert – a former energy minister – tables in Alberta, as he plans to retire from government after the provincial election that’s expected in the spring.
Alberta has a reputation for being fiscally conservative, but your spending has gone up sharply in this budget. Aren’t you going to have to put on the brakes like everyone else?
We have been accused of spending too much, but we are also growing. You saw the census. When you are growing at that rate you need more schools and more hospitals and more teachers and more nurses.
Still, I’m a big believer that in every budget there are savings to be found. Every department is going to do a thorough review from the ground up.
Is there room for restraint in Alberta?
We spend 80 per cent of our budget on health care, education and social services. You’ve got to find some better, efficient, less costly ways of doing things in those departments, or you are never going to achieve your [cost-saving]goals. I don’t care how much savings you find in the other 20 per cent, it’s not going to make that big a [difference]overall.
Will you take some ideas from the Drummond report in Ontario?
I hope so. Surely to goodness there are a lot of things that Ontario and Alberta are doing in a similar way. We would be foolish not to have a look at it.
How do you convince the rest of Canada – where there is considerable envy – that a financially healthy Alberta is good for other Canadians?
It is a lot harder than you would think. If we start to run large surpluses again – and unless there is a worldwide recession again I don’t see us doing anything but – we have to start to look at ways that Albertans can show that the large surplus is good for Canada, not just for Alberta.
We have to have a more comprehensive communications plan – and not just a short-term campaign. It is [going to be]a lot of work in the trenches.
Given some of the negative reaction to the budget, will you make any adjustments?
None. The only criticism I’ve heard is that we are being too optimistic in our revenue projections. I say: Call me an optimist, I don’t care. I felt really good about it.
How do you get out the message that many jobs in the rest of the country exist because of Alberta’s energy industry?
If someone working in a facility in Ontario hears the message from their respected superior, or their neighbour, or their relative, that has more impact than hearing it from some Alberta guy. We have to provide the tools to folks who understand there are direct benefits to Ontario, and let them start to spread the message. That’s much more effective.
You said recently that other provinces need to be more accountable for the way they spend equalization payments. Isn’t that just rubbing salt into the wounds of “have-not” provinces?
I may have been taken a little bit out of context. What I said was that as the percentage of equalization grows, Albertans see other provinces implementing social programs that we at home don’t have. Questions are starting to be asked.
Maybe [we need to]discuss the goals and objectives that we collectively want to see equalization accomplish. I think we’ve got to start having those discussions, because I’m hearing it at home.
Why is it taking so long to diversify Alberta’s economy?
I believe that diversification means taking your core strengths – in our case agriculture and energy – and building off them. We have developed world-leading technology for oil and gas extraction. To me that is diversification. We are embarking on some tremendous research around carbon capture and storage.
We need to diversify off our strengths, from upgrading to processing to adding value to the basic product.
How can you sell the rest of Canada on new pipeline projects?
We need to do a better job of ensuring that Canadians understand that Alberta’s prosperity – Western Canada’s prosperity – is Canada’s prosperity. Once we get them to understand that, [we can explain what will happen]if that continued prosperity is no longer there.
There is no sense in producing all of this oil if we are going to store it in big tanks in northern Alberta. It’s got to go somewhere. Right now we are probably okay, from a [pipeline]capacity standpoint, for three to five years. Beyond that we need increased capacity, and we have to start construction of those projects in the next year or two.
That’s why Keystone is so important. That’s why the decision around Northern Gateway is important. And [we need]to start the discussion on additional projects down the road.
Why do you, and federal politicians, keep talking about “environmental extremists,” thus alienating more moderate pipeline opponents?
With Keystone, I believe people in Nebraska were unduly influenced by extremists, and therefore got worried. The extremists don’t portray a fair picture of what is actually taking place. We have to do a better job of influencing people than the extremists are doing. I won’t deny that we have got a lot of work to do.
Isn’t name-calling muddying the issue rather than clarifying it?
I don’t know how else you are going to describe [the extremists] Rational-thinking people? They are not. Give me a better name and I will use it.
You’re the Finance Minister, but all the key issues seem to relate to your old portfolio, energy.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what portfolio you hold in Alberta. If it’s an economic portfolio, it comes back to energy.
What are you going to do when you retire from government in the spring?
The grass is getting pretty green by the middle of May, and I like to golf. I’ll do a bit of travelling over the summer. Then my one-year cooling-off period from the energy [ministry]expires in October, and I will start to get serious about looking for work. I will see what’s out there. I think that if you can’t do well in Alberta these days, then you need to look in the mirror.
Minister of Finance, Government of Alberta
Born in Saltcoats, Sask.; 62 years old
Correspondence course from the Columbia School of Broadcasting.
Worked as a broadcast journalist from 1972 to 1980
Peter Lougheed’s press secretary from 1980 to 1985
Worked in Alberta’s economic development department from 1986 to 1991
Joined Telus in 1991, then ran his own communications firm from 2000 to 2004
Became an MLA for the riding of Calgary West in 2004
Served as minister of energy, minister of education, and minister of health and wellness before taking the finance portfolio in October, 2011