Despite a collapse in oil prices and gloomy economic forecasts, Alberta Premier Rachel Notley is embarking on her first major trip to drum up foreign investment and let investors know her province's economy is open for business.
During the week-long trip, Ms. Notley will speak with business groups in Montreal, New York and Toronto. She will also sit down with Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne on Thursday. Ms. Notley says she will emphasize Alberta's "stability" under her four-month-old NDP government and the province's prospects as a responsible energy producer.
"It's about ensuring that we can assure those investors, either in the U.S. or Eastern Canada, that Alberta remains a good place to invest in terms of return on their investment and the stability of our economy," Ms. Notley told media on Thursday after a speech in Calgary.
The tour comes after Alberta's New Democrats began a review of the province's energy royalties, launched a panel to help craft a new climate strategy, and raised taxes on corporations and those making more than $120,000.
During the week before her departure, the Premier offered Albertans a preview of her sales pitch to investors when she spoke with business groups and municipal leaders about her government's plans. Facing a budget deficit that could be as high as $6.5-billion, she ruled out widespread spending cuts.
"We need to become an insanely great place to start a new business, to build on a new innovation, to get a new idea off the ground," she said in both Edmonton and Calgary. "The circumstances we find ourselves in require us to follow a disciplined and clear plan that allows the government to play its shock-absorber role in the short term, while returning to balance as quickly as is reasonable and possible."
Ms. Notley and her government remain a relatively unknown quantity to investors in major financial centres, said Robert Kavcic, senior economist at Bank of Montreal. She brings with her the favourable debt position that Alberta had going into the oil-price collapse, which has allowed it to maintain triple-A credit ratings, and some prospects of higher revenues in the future, Mr. Kavcic said.
"That's probably one thing for the investment community – just to get those messages, that there is some room to work with," he said. "On a comparable debt basis, despite the fact that the budget has deteriorated, the province is still in good shape relative to its peers."
While she may not mention Conservative Leader Stephen Harper by name, Ms. Notley will need to respond to criticism from Mr. Harper, according to Duane Bratt, chair of policy studies at Calgary's Mount Royal University. During the ongoing federal election campaign, Mr. Harper called her NDP government a "disaster" for Alberta.
"She needs to show that she isn't some Canadian Hugo Chavez," said Prof. Bratt, making reference to the late socialist president of Venezuela. No one in the Premier's office was made available to The Globe to speak about the tour.
"The big thing that's different here is where she's not going. She isn't going to Washington," said Prof. Bratt. "All her predecessors have. That shows a change in direction."
In February, former premier Jim Prentice visited the American capital and spoke with a number of legislators. He also delivered a speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce about the need to build the Keystone XL pipeline, linking Alberta's oil patch with refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast. Prior to Mr. Prentice, a procession of Progressive Conservative premiers going back to Ralph Klein visited Washington.
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton drew the ire of Alberta's energy industry when she ended her silence on the Keystone XL project last Tuesday, opposing the pipeline and calling the province's oil sands the dirtiest fuel in North America. Ms. Notley does not support the Keystone XL pipeline.
Whether addressing the Empire Club in Toronto or RBC Capital Markets in New York, Ms. Notley will need to speak about her province's dominant industry: oil and gas. Energy investors have lamented the uncertainty brought about by the prospect of royalty change. The panel studying royalties has promised no change at least through 2016.
"I can say without reservation that markets don't like uncertainty and now that we have the spectre of potential changes hanging over [them], it's just not a positive," said Mason Granger, fund manager at Sentry Investments in Toronto.