Premier Jason Kenney on southern Alberta infrastructure, rural doctors

Click to play video: 'Extended sit-down interview with Alberta Premier Jason Kenney'
Extended sit-down interview with Alberta Premier Jason Kenney
The full interview between Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and Global Lethbridge anchor Liam Nixon – Jul 2, 2020

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney sat down with Global Lethbridge anchor Liam Nixon to talk about a wide range of issues affecting southern Alberta, including new money for infrastructure and agriculture upgrades, rural doctors, the COVID-19 pandemic and the controversy over speechwriter Paul Bunner.

Here is their full interview, edited and condensed for clarity:

Liam Nixon: Very happy to be joined by Premier Jason Kenney, always very generous with his time when he’s in this part of the province. We appreciate it, sir. Good to see you again. Welcome back to Southern Alberta.

Jason Kenney: Great to be back. Even though it’s liquid sunshine today, glad to see some wet for the farmers down here.

Liam Nixon: Yeah, absolutely. They’re certainly enjoying it. Let’s start with, I guess, the big announcement here in Lethbridge this week. Almost $30 million for Exhibition Park for quite the face-lift going on down there. Of all the benefits that this will bring to Lethbridge, what do you think the biggest one is?

Jason Kenney: Putting Lethbridge on the map as a global centre for the agriculture industry — that’s part of the vision. As you know, we’ve seen great growth in agriculture in southern Alberta, around Lethbridge, through irrigation for crops, but also the livestock industry with the feedlots around here. The Lethbridge AG Exhibition has played an important role in trade shows and marketing those products. We really want to put that on hyperdrive. This is the first instalment in the $600-million strategic infrastructure plan that we’re rolling out as part of Alberta’s economic recovery strategy, OK? And this is the first one we announced because we want to get immediate jobs created in construction to help counteract the unemployment from the COVID recession. But we also want those projects to pave the way to the long term economic future through diversification and agriculture — agrifood products is a big part of that. So it’s a great proposal. I want to commend the (exhibition) as well as the City of Lethbridge, the county and everyone for playing a role in bringing this together. Altogether, about a $70 million project. It’s going to create 400 construction jobs, 50 ongoing permanent jobs, once again, really doubling down on Lethbridge as sort of the centre of the agriculture industry in Canada.

READ MORE: Province announces nearly $28 million for Exhibition Park in Lethbridge 

Liam Nixon: You mentioned this is the first of these announcements. Any chance to tip your hand?

Jason Kenney: Well, you’re not broadcast on Canada Day. So I will tell you that later this week, I’ll be announcing a twinning of a large portion of Highway 3 between Taber and close to Medicine Hat. Again, we see that as enhancing productivity with the growth in the (agriculture) sector, letting those trucks and implements move more freely and quickly on the road system in southern Alberta. And we’re also looking at  — we’re not ready for any announcements on this yet — but in our recovery plan, we are going to take a serious look at major potential capital investments in expanding the province’s irrigation network. Here in southern Alberta, there has not been a major provincial investment in that for six decades. We’re working with the Canada investment bank on that. We believe there’s a lot of great farmland down here that could become even more productive, create more jobs, and add to the economy with the support of environmentally responsible irrigation. And that that’s another thing that we’ll be moving forward on.

Click to play video: 'Southern Alberta researchers explore new method of irrigation'
Southern Alberta researchers explore new method of irrigation

Liam Nixon: Two pieces of news that I know a lot of people in this area will be very happy to hear. Obviously, all of that costs money. Let’s talk about $10 billion you announced on Monday for infrastructure spending as well. Recently, Lethbridge city council voted to support AUMA idea to perhaps introduce a one per cent provincial sales tax to pay specifically for capital projects in municipalities across Alberta. They say it would bring in billions of dollars a year and help pay for things like we’re talking about right now. You mentioned not too long ago that Alberta is going to face a fiscal reckoning in the not too distant future. So in your mind, is the time right, to at least start discussing the potential possibility of a PST?

Jason Kenney: Well, I have not heard about that resolution. And obviously, Albertans are always free to talk about tax policy. What our focus right now is on obviously saving lives in the pandemic, context of the COVID-19 pandemic. But secondly, protecting livelihoods. And that’s why we’ve brought forward the economic recovery plan, which, as you’ve mentioned, has the single largest investment in capital building, an infrastructure investment in the history of Alberta, the largest in the country for any provincial government on a per capita basis — $10 billion, and it will likely be more. In the weeks, months to come, there will probably be additional tranches — pieces of capital investment. We estimate that this will create 50,000 jobs this year, not just directly in the construction sector, but those will be workers on highways and overpasses and projects, they’ll be staying in hotels, and patronizing restaurants — it’ll help in other sectors as well. It will also create a more competitive and productive economy. Like I say, transportation infrastructure is part of that. But you’re right, there will be a fiscal reckoning and we’re going to have a very difficult series of choices to make as a province in the future. But right now, our focus is on the immediate economic crisis. And we did commit our platform to have an expert panel look at the tax system in Alberta to see how we could make it more effective, more efficient. We will likely bring that forward, given all of the changes that we’re going through right now, and if people want to have that debate, ultimately, it’s their decision. I have confirmed that we will respect the Taxpayer Protection Act adopted in 1995, which requires a popular referendum before a sales tax can be introduced. If the people — ultimately, they’re the bosses. If that’s what they want to go on tax policy, that will be their decision.

READ MORE: Albertans will have debate on tax reform in the future, Kenney says 

Click to play video: 'Jason Kenney says government will not implement a PST'
Jason Kenney says government will not implement a PST

Liam Nixon: You mentioned a referendum. Another referendum that you have committed to is on equalization sometime next year. In 2017, there was an idea to potentially have a referendum looking at daylight saving time. I believe the price tag that was estimated back then was about in the area of $22 million. So using a similar price tag maybe for an equalization referendum next year, given the current economic climate and knowing it’s probably not going to get significantly better anytime soon, in the immediate future anyway, is a price tag on that equalization referendum good money to spend given the current fiscal situation?

Jason Kenney: Well, first of all, it would happen concurrent with the next municipal elections — it’s a much cheaper and more efficient way of doing it. And there will likely be other votes scheduled for the same day. We committed in our platform to have a vote on the constitutional entrenchment of property rights. And this province requires consulting the people before you move forward on a constitutional amendment. We may decide to have a referendum on changing Daylight Savings Time to join British Columbia and Saskatchewan instead of moving the clock around. There will be a Senate election. So I don’t think that, you know, in a province with a $330 billion economy, a $60 billion provincial budget, that’s spending a few million dollars for Albertans to be in the driver’s seat on big decisions — I don’t think that’s an irresponsible cost. I think it’s just the price of democracy.

Liam Nixon: It has been mentioned by quite a few people that in 2007 with the Stephen Harper government when equalization was formulated you were part of his government at that time. What may be worked well for Alberta when it was formulated back in 2007 that might not work well for Alberta now?

Jason Kenney: Well, first of all, actually, equalization has been around largely in its current shape since the 1960s. It was written into the Constitution as a principle in 1981, the patriation of the charter. And when you talk about 2007, I mean, that was one of many series of small changes to the formula. In that case, slightly reducing Quebec’s equalization entitlement. You remember Premier Danny Williams of Newfoundland was very upset, there have been changes from time to time. What’s different between then and now? The following: back in that period, Alberta was in a sustained boom. Other parts of the country were experiencing economic adversity. Alberta had a huge surplus. Quebec had a huge deficit. The opposite is now true and has been for five years. Alberta’s been going through five years of economic adversity. Quebec and other provinces have been doing much better off relatively. They’re running a large surplus. We have a massive deficit. So those circumstances have changed. Second, and I think the most important thing is this: ten, fifteen years ago, we did not have equalization-receiving provinces trying to block pipelines and our capacity to develop and sell the resources from Alberta that pay the bills in the federation. Unfortunately, in recent years, we’ve seen Quebec try to block Energy East {pipeline] B.C. try to block (Trans Mountain Pipeline), Ottawa cancelled Northern Gateway and has been hostile to the energy sector in many respects. So what Albertans are saying, in my view is this — that we don’t mind sharing some of our good fortune when times are good here and bad elsewhere through programs like equalization. But what we cannot tolerate is other governments across the country benefiting from our resources while trying to inhibit and block that resource development. That’s why what I say is we’re not looking for a complete end to equalization necessarily. What we’re looking for is a fair deal. And here’s the basis of the deal: let us develop the tremendous resources that we have in this province fairly, get them to global markets, get a fair price from them, and then we can share a portion of that wealth with the rest of the country. That’s the fair deal that I’m fighting for.

READ MORE: Alberta premier promises referendum on equalization reform 

Click to play video: 'How does equalization play a role in Western alienation?'
How does equalization play a role in Western alienation?

Liam Nixon: Speaking of fair deals and fighting for, rural medicine has been very much in the headlines lately.

Jason Kenney: Rural medicine?

Liam Nixon: Rural doctors.

Jason Kenney: Oh, I’m sorry, sir.

Liam Nixon: Yes, sir. Doctors in rural parts of the province. Back in 2019, there was a job market forecast that was put out by the province and I want to just quote it word for word here. It said, “when it came to health care workers, challenges filling rural and remote positions could create imbalances in certain parts of Alberta”. So when you combine this 2019 forecast that was already kind of warning about rural area doctors and the recent back and forth between doctors and Health Minister Tyler Shandro, we’ve seen, I believe, no fewer than 20 communities now where the doctors have either said we’re leaving or we’re going to withdraw hospital services or closing the clinics. Between those two things, how do you assure rural Albertans they’ll continue to have access to either in the future or right now, even good health?

Jason Kenney: Well, we’re absolutely committed to that, which is why we recently rolled out an additional $80 million of compensation for the roughly 800 physicians in rural communities that represents an effective increase of about $100,000 for physicians. Now, let’s recall that — but first of all, we value and we need the tremendous work of our physicians and other health care workers. And that’s especially true in rural communities because you can’t sustain a rural community without adequate health services. We totally acknowledge and support that fact. But as you know, in every part of Canada, there are challenges in recruiting and retaining physicians in rural and remote communities for lots of, I think, obvious reasons. So there are incentives and we have very strong incentives in Alberta. It’s important to acknowledge that physicians in Alberta are the best compensated in Canada, bar none. According to both Dr. Janice McKinnon’s report on Alberta’s finances and the report of Ernst and Young on Alberta Health Services, Alberta physicians are on average compensated 20 per cent better than their counterparts in similar provinces like B.C., Quebec and Ontario even though we have a lower cost of living and we have lower taxes. So we have the best compensated physicians. We have a whole suite of incentives for rural and remote physicians. We have just enhanced those with this additional 80 million dollars. Finally, it’s important to remind folks that physician compensation costs have been going up far faster than growth in our population, than inflation or the economy. We were paying physicians about $4 billion a year back in 2015 — we’re now paying them about $5 billion a year. That’s a 25 per cent increase over five years at a time when most workers in the public sector have taken freezes and most people in the private sector have seen their incomes go down by 10 per cent. Here’s our position. We want to compensate our physicians not only fairly, but generously. We want to ensure quality health care and physician services in rural and remote communities. We also need the ability to control health care inflation when it comes to physician compensation. We cannot continue to afford five and six per cent annual increases year after year. So we’ve simply been saying to the physicians who we respect, please work with us to exercise some ability to manage and control the inflation in your compensation. And there are ways we can do that. Like going to alternative compensation plans, which is basically like a per capitation systems and other forms of alternative compensation based on how many patients they serve, for example. So I believe we can get to that and look forward to working constructively with the physicians in that direction.

READ MORE: 8 rural Alberta doctors resign from Sundre hospital, more to follow suit amid dispute with UCP: NDP

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Liam Nixon: Do you see that relationship getting better without a deal being struck?

Jason Kenney: Well, I look, the physicians — they’re basically all entrepreneurs. I mean, they’re professionals — but they run small businesses, they run licenced professional corporations  They are, each of them, typically a family physician — they run their own small corporations, their own small businesses. And so I can’t understand why we would engage with thousands of small businesses as though they were a union. If the Alberta Medical Association wants to come to the government with a reasonable proposal that allows Alberta physicians to continue to be the best compensated in Canada but allows the government to prevent runaway inflation in those costs, we’re absolutely keen to strike that agreement. But so far, we haven’t received such a proposal.

Liam Nixon: OK, let’s stick with health care. Obviously, we’re still very much in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. Your government has done a lot to help Albertans trying to get through, this primarily financially. When it comes to your counterpart in Ottawa — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — your overall thoughts on the federal response to them?

Jason Kenney: Well, I’m of two minds. First of all, I think a huge mistake was made early on when the federal government decided not to close our borders from COVID hotspots like China, Iran and Italy. I was calling on them because as a former minister of immigration, I understand these issues, I think reasonably well. I’d gone through things like the Ebola pandemic coming out of West Africa several years ago. Unfortunately, the World Health Organization, I believe, was repeating misinformation coming from the People’s Republic of China — the Chinese Communist Party — which denied evidence of human-to-human transmission. China blocked Wuhan residents from travelling to the rest of China, even when they allowed Wuhan residents to fly to the rest of the world. They put that city on a quarantine for the rest of China, but they allowed that virus to escape Wuhan and travel to the rest of the world. I believe there was gross, gross negligence in that. Unfortunately, the Government of Canada took a very naive approach, left the borders open and allowed the virus to come here through international travel. The first cases in both Ontario and British Columbia, I believe, came out of Iran, which became the number two hotspot. I think that was a catastrophic mistake. Asian countries that are not naive about the mendacious nature of the Chinese Communist Party — countries like South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore and even Hong Kong, a special administrative zone of China — they closed their borders from mainland China immediately in early January on the on the first reports, and they’ve had very little spread. Taiwan — 23 million people — fewer than 500 infections and I think maybe six deaths. Amazing response. So I think we made a catastrophic error not closing the borders. Now, having said that, I think the provinces have responded very commendably across Canada and the people of Canada, especially the people of Alberta. We had the lightest public health restrictions in North America, amongst the latest in the Western world. We allowed 85 per cent of businesses to continue to operate in Alberta, representing 95 per cent of our economy. And yet we have amongst the lowest per capita levels of infection, hospitalization, ICU admissions and COVID-19 related deaths in the Western world. I think that is a reflection of the culture of personal responsibility that Albertans and care for others that they have demonstrated through the crisis. Dr. Deena Hinshaw has been a great part of it. Finally, I will say this on the federal response. I appreciate that they’ve responded with great ambition in terms of their fiscal and economic response. However, I have some concerns that their spending, in some respects, maybe becoming a little indiscriminate. In the last couple of weeks, I keep hearing from employers in every sector — manufacturing, construction, hotels, tourism, the hospitality industry — telling me that they’re having a hard time recruiting workers as the economy is reopening, in part because the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) payments are acting as a disincentive. So we need income support for people who can’t find work, but we also need to encourage people to re-engage in the economy and we’ll be working with the federal government to get that balance right.

Click to play video: 'State of public health emergency ends in Alberta as 20 new COVID-19 cases confirmed'
State of public health emergency ends in Alberta as 20 new COVID-19 cases confirmed

Liam Nixon: I do have to ask you about a member of your close inner circle who’s been in the headlines this week: your speechwriter, Paul Bunner. He made some comments and some writings some years ago, some as recently as five or six years ago, where he — the narrative around residential schools he called a “bogus genocide story.” He made some comments about abortion, some more recent comments about a strong gay lobby at the federal level. You have stood by him. There has been more that’s just come out this week. Some writings of his, I guess, first and foremost. Is he your speechwriters still moving forward?

Jason Kenney: Yeah. So, as I’ve said — Look, Paul has had a 40-year career as a journalist and as an opinion writer, including for the Alberta Report, which was very provocative Alberta magazine. And as I’ve said, I’m sure that he has written things with which I disagree and that I and others may find offensive. None of that has come up in his work for me. And to the contrary — in virtually every product he’s prepared for me, there is a deliberate effort to recognize the nobility of the First Nations, of our historic debt to our First Nations, of the obligation to ensure full social inclusion and reconciliation with Indigenous people. I was part of a government that — the Harper government — that made an official apology for the gross racist injustice of the Aboriginal residential school system. And I’m proud to be part of a government that is making unprecedented efforts at not just reconciliation, but reconciliation like the billion-dollar Indigenous Opportunities Corporation. I’m working very closely with the Kainai (Blood Tribe) First Nation, the Piikani First Nation, the Siksika and others across the province, the Blackfoot people here in southern Alberta, on a real economic opportunity, breaking down the barriers to full inclusion. So, you know, again, Paul over 40 years will have made comments that I disagree with. This is a man who was also, by the way, the principal chief writer to the prime minister of Canada for several years. And I haven’t found that any of his past opinions — by the way, I’m sure that his views on issues have developed and changed. I think when it comes to issues like Indigenous schools, many of us over the past 15 years have been on a path of learning about that. And I know that Paul is meeting — I think he met today with residential school survivors to listen in humility to their story. My friend, former grand chief Willie Littlechild, has said on this issue that that’s the important thing — is that we walk this walk together, learning from each other. And that’s certainly my intention to do.

READ MORE: Alberta NDP calls on Kenney to fire speechwriter over 2013 essay calling residential schools a ‘bogus genocide story’

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Liam Nixon: You mentioned he had a meeting today. I was going to ask you, you know, all of the work that you’re doing with Indigenous people across the province. There have been a few Indigenous groups who have come out and demanded that he either resign or be fired. When you’re trying to form trust relationships, maybe partnerships with Indigenous people or Indigenous organizations in Alberta, with members of the LGBTQ2S+ community, do you see that presenting any sort of challenges that although it might not creep into the policy of you, there is still someone in your inner circle who has been public about those things? Do you see that as a barrier?

Jason Kenney: Like I say, I am sure that there are things over 40 years as a journalist he’s written that I disagree with it, that I or others might find offensive. At the end of the days, this is professional. I think he’s a good person. Somebody who worked on Indigenous reserves, by the way, serving in Indigenous communities in the past. And so I speak for the Government of Alberta. I was actually clear two weeks ago in a speech in the legislature about the fundamentally racist nature of the Aboriginal residential school system. Most important thing is how we act to knock down barriers of exclusion and social marginalization to create true equality of opportunity. When we talk about all these really challenging issues right now around, for example, race — for me, while we all must condemn racism as a sickness of the soul, we must focus on practical measures that ensure full inclusion in our society, full economic opportunity, full equality of opportunity. And that’s the agenda the government that I lead.

Liam Nixon: We’ll get you out of here on this. There is a fairly big election coming up south of the border and not too long from now as well. Who do you think better represents Alberta’s interests as president of the United States: would that be Donald Trump for another four years or is Joe Biden who would be better for working relationship with our province?

Jason Kenney: As the premier of Alberta, It is not my job to tell Americans how to vote or to act. Nice try.

Liam Nixon: You have an opinion though, you have an opinion!

Jason Kenney: Or to act as a commentator prognosticator. There’s plenty of opinions on all of that. We’ll let Americans decide, we’ll respect the democratic decision that Americans make. I will just say this. We have appointed a very highly respected Albertan: James Rajotte, former chairman of the House of Commons Finance Committee, to be Alberta’s senior representative in Washington, to engage whoever the administration is, whoever is in Congress and the state governments on advancing Alberta’s trade and economic interests in the U.S. and as part of the recently announced Invest Alberta agency — this is part of our economic recovery strategy — we will be opening additional offices in the United States to attract investment to Alberta to fight for pipelines. For example, we’ll be opening an office in Houston, Texas — the global capital of the energy sector. So whoever Americans elect, we’ll work with that administration and with that Congress to get things done to create jobs in this province.

READ MORE: CUSMA taking effect at ‘significant’ time for Alberta’s energy industry: cabinet minister

Liam Nixon: Sounds good, well sir. Thank you again for coming in. As I mentioned off the top, you’re always very gracious with your time.

Jason Kenney: I appreciate the opportunity. Thank you.

[This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.]

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