Alberta Federation of Labour to call for inquiry in light of growing evidence of fraud
Edmonton – A list of fast-tracked temporary foreign worker applications shows that scandals at Royal Bank and HD Mining are just the tip of the iceberg.
The document, which the Alberta Federation of Labour will release at a press conference on Tuesday, April 9, lists all approved TFW applications in the first eight months of the new Accelerated Labour Market Opinion (ALMO) process. Thousands of ALMO guest worker permits – which are supposed to be reserved for highly-skilled employment – have been granted to fast-food restaurants, convenience stores and gas stations.
"You look down this list, and it's McDonalds, Tim Hortons, A&W, Subway sandwiches. Are we supposed to believe that these are 'high-skill' employment opportunities?" Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan said. "These permits are being used to replace Canadian workers with people who will have reduced bargaining power."
What: Alberta Federation of Labour to release list of Temporary Foreign Worker program "high-skilled" employer list
Where: Crowne Plaza Chateau Lacombe Hotel
River Valley Room, Lobby Level
10111 Bellamy Hill Rd NW, Edmonton
When: 1:30 PM, Tuesday, April 9
Who: Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan
Olav Rokne, AFL Communications Director at 780-289-6528 (cell) or via email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The latest federal budget is "an insult to Canadians," says Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan, who says the government's promise to promote Canadians over the Temporary Foreign Worker program will not encourage the private sector to hire more Canadians.
"It has become far too easy for companies, especially construction companies like in Fort McMurray, to choose foreign workers over the next generation of Canadian workers," says McGowan. "In its current form, it's way too easy for employers to fill positions with foreign workers as opposed to taking on apprentices."
Thursday's budget primarily shifts Ottawa's support behind trades programs to drive Canada's economy, encouraging the private sector to play a bigger role in recruiting workers and training unemployed workers for in-demand jobs.
The goal is to fill nearly 220,000 job vacancies across Canada by reaching out to the disabled, youth and aboriginals.
"Training Canadians for Canadian jobs is clearly the message we have," said Fort McMurray-Athabasca MP Brian Jean on Thursday. "You can see it's a growth economy budget."
However, a recent report from the AFL says companies are still turning to the Temporary Foreign Worker program.
"It's clear that the Harper government is sucking and blowing when it comes to foreign workers," says McGowan. "On one hand, they claim the budget is all about training Canadians to fill job vacancies. On the other hand, they are still going to promote the expansion of the Temporary Foreign Worker program."
A record of 213,516 temporary workers came to Canada in 2012, up from 190,575 in 2011. In Alberta, McGowan says there are now more temporary workers than immigrants.
"There are enough Canadians to fill these jobs if employers and government gets serious about training the next generation of Canadians," he says. "Even with this budget, I'm not convinced they've gotten serious about that."
McGowan singled out the province's non-unionized construction industry as being one of the worst abusers of the program, because it's cheaper to bring in skilled workers than to train new apprentices. He also says these workers are paid, on average, 15% less than their Canadian counterparts.
As a result, non-unionized construction firms are able to outbid unionized firms for contracts with the money saved. McGowan says he would feel better about the program if employers who hired a certain number of Canadians, particularly apprentices, were the only ones getting access to foreign workers.
"Keep in mind that we are not against immigration. Canada was built on the backs of hard working immigrants," says McGowan. "This is not immigration. This is a program that uses foreign workers the way we use post-it notes, something we just throw away when we're done."
He also says the program is unfair to the workers, because many are under the impression they can become citizens once their work permits expire. Instead, most are forced to leave.
"I'd say 80% to 90% want to stay, bring their families over. But for most, especially the lower skilled workers, that won't happen," he says. "The ones working in the very low-skilled jobs, like behind the counter at McDonald's or Tim Hortons, they have no hope of ever becoming citizens."
Fort McMurray Today, Monday, Mar. 25, 2013
Byline: Vincent McDermott
Significant numbers of temporary foreign workers continued to move to Alberta even as the economy shed jobs during the recession, says a new report from the province's largest labour group.
The draft report from the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) found that although overall Alberta employment numbers dropped in 2009 and 2010, companies continued to bring in new temporary foreign workers in a hiring spree that first ramped up during the province's boom years. While the umbrella union group agreed there are true shortages of workers in a few trades and skills, the numbers show the real scarcity is in the "people willing to work for less," the group said
The issue of temporary foreign workers is of special concern in Alberta. In recent years, Alberta employers have been granted more than half of Human Resources and Skills Development Canada's approvals (called Labour Market Opinions) to bring in low-skilled temporary foreign workers, many of them destined for service jobs.
Unions and other critics say the temporary workers are more likely to be exploited by employers and the federal program drives down wages, while firms with an eye on expansion say they have no choice but to look overseas for employees.
"It's really very tough to hire," said Bobby Maglalang, human resources manager at Calgary-based Hi-Flyer Food (Canada) Inc., which owns KFC, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut franchises in Alberta, Manitoba and Quebec.
In Alberta, Hi-Flyer Food has 110 temporary foreign workers – more than a quarter of its current staff – on its payroll, and is short more than 200 workers across the province. Mr. Maglalang said even the lowest-paid "team member" makes more than minimum wage, and it's not a matter of paying temporary foreign workers less than Canadians or permanent residents. The real issue is that restaurant owners can't match salaries paid by the oil and gas industry. "We need more workers. If only we could avoid hiring foreign workers."
Richard Truscott, Alberta director for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, said given the amount of red tape and cost involved in hiring foreign workers, most businesses would rather forgo the process. But he said there are just not enough Canadians willing to do some jobs. Mr. Truscott said the numbers compiled by the AFL might be explained by the cyclical nature of the economy and the "lag effect" in the federal program. Many business owners were caught off guard by the downturn that followed the boom years of 2006-2008, he said. "By the time those individuals arrived and were being integrated into the business, the economy had gone sour," Mr. Truscott said.
The draft report from the AFL said in 2009, while unemployment rose and a net 28,500 jobs were lost, Ottawa still allowed provincial employers to bring in 28,545 new temporary foreign workers. In 2010, 8,600 Alberta jobs were lost but 22,992 new temporary workers came in.
In the same three years and up to 2011 as the economy began to improve, the number of temporary foreign workers living in the province stayed between 58,000 and 66,000.
Speaking during a visit to Fort McMurray, AFL president Gil McGowan said while the Harper government says it wants Thursday's federal budget to breathe new life into trades and skills training, it is not really pushing companies to take apprenticeship programs seriously. He noted under new rules brought in last April, some employers can now pay temporary workers 5- to 15-per-cent less than the prevailing wage for Canadians.
"Through the temporary foreign worker program, they're actually distorting the labour market," Mr. McGowan said.
The Globe and Mail, Wednesday, Mar. 20, 2013
Byline: Kelly Cryderman
Seeds of reform fail to germinate when report omits update to Occupational Health and Safety Act
Edmonton – Workers in Alberta's agriculture sector deserve better says the Alberta Federation of Labour.
The Alberta Farm Safety Advisory (AFSA) Council report, which was released by the government this week, failed to recommend the inclusion of farm workers in Alberta's Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA). Farm workers are the only workers in Alberta who are excluded from the Act.
“Alison Redford promised change to Alberta's agricultural workers, but she's letting those promises go fallow.” Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan said. “More than 300 farm workers are seriously injured every year. Seventeen die each year. The results of this report will do little to change that.”
The AFSA Council had representatives from industry and government, but only one labour representative. Recommendations included:
Strategic, Province-wide Coordination and Awareness; Enhanced Educational Resources, Training and Certification; Farm-Related Policies and Guidelines; and Strengthening the agriculture workers component of the current Temporary Foreign Worker Advisory Office.
“Many farms in Alberta are already well run. These are the kinds of farms that will follow all the new guidelines, and all the new policies that come out of this report,” McGowan said. “The problem is that there are farms where you see the appalling labour practices. Those are the ones that won't improve their behaviour unless there is regulatory change.”
The report, which began almost two years ago, has been complete for more than a year, but the Alberta Government had been sitting on it. It was only made public on Tuesday. During the lead-up to her selection as Premier, Alison Redford promised to provide OHSA protection for farm workers.
“Alberta's agricultural workers deserve the same protections, same health and safety regulation that every other Albertan enjoys,” McGowan said. “Until the government acts, there will continue to be too many workplace accidents on Alberta's farms and agricultural operations.”-30-
Gil McGowan, President, Alberta Federation of Labour at 780-218-9888 (cell)
Olav Rokne, AFL Communications Director at 780-289-6528 (cell) or via email email@example.com.
So-called ‘studies’ on public sector workers really an attack on women’s pay
Edmonton – On International Women’s Day, the Alberta Federation of Labour released a new study of women in Alberta’s public sector.
The study showed Alberta women in the public sector have earnings virtually identical to women in the private sector, putting a lie to the claim that Alberta’s public sector workers are overpaid.
Only low-wage occupations in Alberta showed a significant pay advantage in the public sector, and even then, only for women.
The data shows Alberta women are better off in the public sector because they benefit from pay equity, or equal pay for work of equal value.
The majority of public sector workers in Alberta are women. Attempts to roll back public sector wages are attempts to roll back women’s wages. Women in both the private and public sector, regardless of occupation category, earn less than men.
“What this study shows is that the struggles of unions and the women’s movement have paid off for Alberta women,” AFL Secretary-Treasurer Nancy Furlong says. “If women have the protection of a union and a public sector job, they have a shot at pay equity, and that’s good news for all Albertans.”
Alberta men earn significantly more in the private sector than they do in public sector jobs. The private sector advantage for men across all occupations was seven per cent, suggesting Alberta’s public service is underpaid relative to their private sector counterparts.
Alberta has the highest pay gap in Canada. Alberta women working full year and full time earn a median 68 per cent of what men earn.The pay gap is reduced for women in unions – to about 85 per cent of what men earn.
The latest AFL analysis of women’s wages in the public and private sectors is the first of a series of studies on wages in Alberta.
The AFL’s research is particularly important in light of the all-out war that right-wing front groups have been waging against the public sector in Alberta. Groups such as the Fraser Institute, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, and the University of Calgary School of Public Policy have all stepped up their attempts to undermine Alberta’s health care, education, and social services sectors, open up these services to privatization, and undermine wage gains economy-wide.
“The Fraser Institute, the Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation, and the old boys club over at the University of Calgary School of Public Policy would like to rewind us back to the 1950s before women started joining unions and winning victories for equal pay,” Furlong says.
Furlong notes that women in the private sector who are not unionized should look into joining a union if they want to work toward equal pay for women.
“If right-wing lobbyists had their way, we’d go back to a time when women did comparable work to men but earned significantly less,” Furlong says. “All of these Tea-Party-style groups are targeting women’s paycheques. This International Women’s Day, the Alberta labour movement is saying ‘enough is enough.’ We’re proud of women have struggled for and won and enough is enough.”
AFL Backgrounder: Study: Attacks on Public Sector Workers Target Women’s Wages
Nancy Furlong, AFL Secretary Treasurer at 780-720-8945 (cell) or via email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Days ahead of the provincial budget, Alberta's largest unions are calling on Premier Alison Redford to avoid Ralph Klein-like cuts to the public service in a bid to balance the books.
Speaking jointly in Edmonton Monday, Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) president Gil McGowan said Ms. Redford's warnings of "tough choices" in Thursday's budget – which is expected to cut some services, abandon other earlier promises of increases and still deliver a deficit – amounts to "something close to a betrayal" for a premier who campaigned on preserving services and social programs.
"There's absolutely no doubt we're disappointed with Alison Redford, and frankly we think most Albertans should be disappointed as well," Mr. McGowan said, adding the premier's "promises and reassurances are starting to ring hollow."
Mr. McGowan was joined Monday by leaders from the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE), the Alberta Teachers' Association (ATA), the United Nurses of Alberta (UNA) and the Health Sciences Association of Alberta (HSAA). Altogether, they represent over 160,000 public employees in the province.
Under Mr. Klein, who famously slashed public services two decades ago to balance Alberta's budget, union uproar would hardly be surprising. But Ms. Redford has relied on union support in both her campaign for her party's leadership and last year's provincial election. She's since had to backtrack on funding promises and has been locked in bitter contract battles with doctors and teachers.
Debt-free Alberta is poised to table what's expected to be its sixth consecutive deficit budget on Thursday, despite a strong economy, steady growth and low unemployment. In explaining Alberta's inability to balance its budget during a boom, Ms. Redford has pointed to what she's called a "bitumen bubble," referring to the "differential" between global benchmark oil prices and the lower price Alberta's oil sands bitumen fetches. The differential customarily fluctuates, but has widened lately.
Ms. Redford has said the "bitumen bubble" crisis was unforeseen, though industry had warned about it for years and the province's past budget documents predicted the discount would be, in fact, larger than it is now. The labour leaders, as such, dismissed the "bubble" as a misnomer.
"I think that's part of the whole game, to create that sense of panic," said AUPE President Guy Smith, adding: "Those of us who were around in the Klein years, the early 90s, are beginning to smell it in the air again a little bit."
Even if funding for a program holds steady, it's a de facto cut in the fast-growing province, ATA vice-president Mark Ramsankar said. Without previously promised education increases of 2 per cent, which are now in doubt, "we'll see 12,000 students wedged into classrooms [next year] with no funding or services to support them," he said.
Ms. Redford has said Alberta needs to totally overhaul its fiscal formula, but has been vague in how she plans to do that. "I think we have the opportunity to change the parameters of the discussion about what the future of this province looks like," she said in a speech last week.
That means cuts, tax hikes, borrowing or some combination thereof. Ms. Redford already plans to take on billions in debt to pay for infrastructure, but has ruled out borrowing for operating expenses. The province has frozen salaries of its managers and said it will cut about 10 per cent of those positions over three years. Raising taxes in this particular budget, she has said, "is taking the easy way out."
But Albertans have little appetite for cuts, according to an Environics Research Group poll commissioned by the AFL and released Monday. Of 1,014 respondents, 73 per cent saw no need for public service cuts.
Instead, to make ends meet, 77 per cent favoured higher taxes for corporations and the rich, while 72 per cent feel Alberta should reintroduce a progressive income tax, where the rate increases for higher earners, and that the province should hike oil royalties.
Alberta is the only province without a provincial sales tax, and the poll shows little appetite for that to change: 82 per cent were somewhat or strongly oppose introducing a PST. The poll is considered accurate within 3.1 per cent, 19 times out of 20.
All told, it means voters aren't buying into the crisis the Redford government is trying to raise the alarm on, argued Elisabeth Ballermann, president of the HSAA, which represents a total of 23,000 health care workers. "Albertans aren't buying it. Albertans are saying we should be able to afford this," she said.
Ms. Redford won a majority in last year's spring election by steering her party to the centre and fending off the right-wing Wildrose Party, which she argued would hurt Alberta by cutting spending on social programs and infrastructure. Now she finds herself considering similar moves.
"Albertans who elected this government believed they were not electing a Wildrose policy government," UNA President Heather Smith said. "In fact, I've heard people say, if what we're going to get is Wildrose policy, maybe we should have just voted for them, right? [Ms. Redford's Progressive Conservatives] weren't elected to do the kinds of slash-and-burn to social programs," that labour leaders now fear.
The legislature is scheduled to resume its session on Tuesday, with the budget coming two days later. Ms. Redford's government has signalled it will split the budget into an operational plan, capital plan and spending plan. It will borrow for capital project to avoid what the premier calls a "social infrastructure deficit," or a shortage of schools and hospitals as new residents flock to her province.
The Globe and Mail, Monday, Mar. 04, 2013
Byline: Josh Wingrove
EDMONTON - In a show of unity, nurses, teachers and labour groups joined Monday to condemn "Klein-style cuts" they say are coming to public services in Thursday's provincial budget.
Premier Alison Redford was elected for her "progressive" Conservative agenda, but she is betraying those promises with a "slash and burn" budget rather than moving ahead with tax reforms to cover the deficit, Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour. told a news conference.
"The (budget) will be Klein light and this is not what Albertans thought they were getting when they voted for Alison Redford as opposed to the Wildrose party,'' McGowan said.
Five of the biggest public sector unions — the Alberta Teachers' Association, Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, United Nurses of Alberta, the Health Sciences Association and the Canadian Union of Public Employees — also released polling data showing that most people do not want to see public service cuts and instead favour some kind of tax reform — higher royalties or a return to progressive income tax — to reduce the red ink in the budget.
A deficit of $4 billion is expected at the end of this fiscal year as energy revenues plunged by an estimated $6 billion due to low bitumen prices.
The unions also took aim at the comments from conservative lobby groups like the Fraser Institute that Alberta has the highest per capita spending of all provinces and that spending is out of control.
Alberta is the middle of the pack, spending about $10,623 per person while Newfoundland is at the top with spending of $12,029 per person, and Ontario and Quebec are lowest at $9,359 and $8,800 respectively, McGowan said. The AFL research is based on provincial budget documents across the country.
Alberta also has the second lowest number of government workers per capita, he. Ontario has the lowest and Prince Edward Island has the highest number of civil servants per capita.
"So we are wealthy like Saudi Arabia and spending like New Brunswick," McGowan said.
Late last month, Redford announced a three-year wage freeze for managers in the civil service and plans to cut their ranks by 10 per cent — more than 400 jobs — as she struggles to rein in spending.
For education, even a freeze in funding would amount to a cut because 12,000 more students are expected to enter the school system this year and have to be accommodated, ATA vice-president Mark Ramsankar said.
"Redford promised stable, long-term funding and full day kindergarten, but it's not clear either of those promises will be delivered," Ramsankar said.
The union, which is currently in bargaining, also fears the province will axe the professional development fund.
Former premier Ralph Klein used a strategy of creating a climate of crisis around government deficits and unions vowed not to succumb to that again.
"My message to Redford is don't panic," said Heather Smith, president of UNA. "This is a revenue problem, not a spending problem, and you are prescribing the wrong treatment."
"Albertans believed they were not electing a Wildrose-policy government. If that's what they are going to get, I've heard many are wondering if should vote for them."
UNA's contract ends at the end of March. AUPE also begins bargaining this spring.
The poll done by Environics Research Group in February shows that 72 per cent of Albertans favour going back to progressive income tax, and 78 per cent supported increasing taxes paid by corporations and high income earners.
In the poll, 71 per cent agreed with the statement that Albertans are not getting their fair share of royalty revenue — though the number fell to 64 per cent in Calgary Calgary.
The poll of 1,014 people is accurate to plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.
McGowan said Redford is blaming the "bitumen bubble" though the real problem is the government does not raise enough revenue to pay for services.
"Redford should fix the revenue hole. That's what she was elected to do. If it is not betrayal (of promises), it is close to betrayal."
The Edmonton Journal, Monday, Mar. 04, 2013
Byline: Sheila Pratt
Ignores recommendation from freedom of information commissioner
Alberta Human Services refuses to release information that would identify the province's most unsafe, "high-risk employers," effectively brushing off a ruling by the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner.
"I think it's frightening," said Linda McKay-Panos of the Alberta Civil Liberties Research Centre at the University of Calgary.
"It could be interpreted to mean that they don't want people to know about certain activities, and that is troubling because the information that is held by the government is our information. It belongs to the public and we have a right to know it."
CBC News filed a freedom of information request to Alberta Human Services in July 2012 seeking all records related to a database containing the workplace safety records of more than 150,000 employers.
The department maintains a searchable online database but it does not allow comparative searches to determine the worst employers.
The department refused to release any information citing several exemptions contained in the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FOIP).
University of Alberta political scientist Jim Lightbody is questioning the government's commitment to transparency in light of this case. University of Alberta political scientist Jim Lightbody is questioning the government's commitment to transparency in light of this case. (CBC )
The department claimed, for example, that release of the information would harm business interests. It further claimed release of the information could "harm a law-enforcement matter" and it also claimed the information constituted "advice" under the act and was therefore exempt.
Catherine Taylor, a senior portfolio officer with the FOIP commissioner's office, reviewed the department's refusal at the request of CBC.
But even before Taylor began the review, the department told her it would not "change its decision regardless of (her) findings."
Taylor subsequently ruled none of the exemptions cited by Human Services was valid.
"I would recommend that (Alberta Human Services) release the records," Taylor wrote. "However, as I mentioned above I have already been informed that a decision change will not occur."
CBC News has been granted an inquiry by the FOIP commissioner into the department's refusal to provide the information.
But even if the commissioner orders the department to release the information, it could refuse.
CBC News would then have no option but to seek the release of the records through the courts, a process that could take years.
Professor questions commitment to transparency
Alison Redford ran for the leadership of the provincial Progressive Conservative Party, and in the subsequent election, on a reform platform, including increased transparency and accountability.
To that end, Redford even created a junior ministry of transparency, accountability and reform which is now reviewing the current FOIP Act for the stated purpose of improving public access to information.
University of Alberta political scientist Jim Lightbody said this case "speaks volumes about the Redford government's commitment to freedom of information and transparency in governing.
"I think what we are learning is that, as we move on in the Redford years, transparency is a very fluid commodity," Lightbody said.
"(We're learning) that transparency works when it shows the government in a good light; transparency works when it can promote the government's agenda on tax reform and budget accountability; transparency evaporates when it concerns some things that may reflect negatively on specific Alberta businesses."
Auditor general criticized Alberta Human Services
Nearly 51,000 workers were injured, and another 123 were killed in Alberta in 2011, according to Workers Compensation Board statistics.
In 2010, Alberta Auditor General, Merwan Saher conducted an audit of the department.
Saher reported the department not only did not adequately identify high-risk employers and workers, it also did not apply adequate enforcement to deter them from breaking the law.
Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan believes the government is putting workers at risk by refusing to release the information. Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan believes the government is putting workers at risk by refusing to release the information. (CBC)
Saher recommended the department develop criteria to identify high-risk employers and workers, and step up enforcement.
By 2012, the department still had not responded to his recommendations so he repeated them.
"The department still has not sufficiently defined high-risk employers and workers," Saher's 2012 report stated.
"It also does not have processes that will comprehensively identify high-risk employers and workers and apply enforcement actions that will deter them from breaking the law.
"Although the department has various enforcement tools to motivate employers to improve workplace safety, it has limited enforcement actions for the few high-risk employers and workers who fail to comply with the law."
Over the past week, neither Human Services Minister Dave Hancock nor his press secretary, Craig Loewen, have responded to repeated interview requests made by CBC through the department.
But in an email last week, department spokeswoman Kathy Telfer said it is still working on the high-risk criteria.
CBC News told Telfer it wanted to ask Hancock how his department justified withholding records that the FOI commissioner had ruled should be released. The email from Telfer provided information about department safety initiatives but did not answer that question.
Alberta Federation of Labour also failed to get records
Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan said the federation tried for years to obtain the high-risk employer records through FOIP, but finally gave up.
"This bad-boss list is not just a list of a handful of employers who once in a while ignore the health and safety of their workers," McGowan said.
"These are repeat offenders who have been on the government's radar for years, and who continue to be a problem and continue to put their employees at risk of injury, and perhaps even death.
"So this is information that working Albertans deserve to know, and it's what people need to know about their bosses, and about their prospective bosses.
"And by withholding this information from the public, we feel very strongly that the government is actually putting Albertans at risk, and they're doing that unnecessarily.
"And to have them continue to hide this information, even though the information commissioner has ordered them very explicitly to disclose it, is just adding insult to injury. "
CBC News, Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013
CALGARY - Premier Alison Redford's first economic summit primed Albertans for a consumption tax, foreshadowed coming service cuts and reiterated the need to access new markets for oilsands products.
Virtually all of the economists at the Saturday summit in Calgary agreed a sales tax makes financial sense for Alberta, either because it will lower personal and corporate taxes, or because it will underwrite government spending.
That led critics to conclude the panels were "stacked" in favour of the government's existing agenda, but Redford said only that she will continue to engage with Albertans on the issue.
"I think it's really important to talk to Albertans about (the idea of a sales tax)," Redford said. "One of the other things a lot of people in the room said was that even before you start having a conversation about this, you have to understand what the fundamentals are."
Under Alberta law, a referendum would be required before the government could implement a tax. Asked if it's time for a referendum, Redford said: "I don't think we're anywhere near that at all. I think the fact that people are beginning to think about it and talk about it as an idea is a really important thing. ... No need to jump the gun."
Redford said more than 70,000 people engaged in the discussion through the online social media network Twitter. Roughly 300 people attended the summit in person, including most Tory MLAs and members of Redford's inner circle.
Redford listened to all the panels and said afterward she took particular interest in discussions about increased use of public-private partnerships and the notion that assuming low-interest debt is a worthwhile risk to build public infrastructure.
"This isn't about incurring debt, this is about assuming risk," Redford said. "These are still assets that continue to be publicly owned, but they allow us to build them in an effective way."
Redford also took note of the role not-for-profit agencies play in the service delivery, and touted her Canadian Energy Strategy.
Opposition parties said Redford is laying the groundwork for a sales tax.
Wildrose opposition leader Danielle Smith said she was disappointed the conversation turned so often to the idea that Alberta has a revenue problem and should either take out debt or raise taxes.
"I'm very worried that what we're going to see is that this is laying the table to try to soften the ground for tax increases in future years, and I don't think that's what Albertans want."
Smith said a sales tax will hit low-income Albertans hardest.
Alberta NDP Leader Brian Mason was disappointed nobody talked about the need to upgrade bitumen in Alberta and that economists talked almost exclusively about a sales tax, not about increasing taxes on corporations and wealthy Albertans.
"My sense from this is that those panels were stacked with people who wanted to have a sales tax," Mason said. "It was not unanimous, but it was pretty close. And nobody talked about a progressive income tax, nobody talked about making sure the wealthiest in our society pay their fair share.
"I think the government ... is trying to set the stage for a sales tax, and that's not something we support, because it is a more regressive tax, because it doesn't tap into the wealth that is there."
Several prominent Alberta economists and business leaders called for a sales tax, including the University of Alberta's Joseph Doucet, AIMCO's Leo de Beaver and AltaCorp CEO George Gosbee, who advocated a five-per-cent sales tax.
Jack Mintz, chair of the University of Calgary's public policy school, said the province should levy an eight-per-cent consumption tax and the money collected should be used to offset personal income and corporate taxes.
"The art of taxation is plucking the goose with the least amount of hissing," Mintz said, adding the case for a sales tax is a "slam dunk."
In the final session, panellists discussed Albertans' expectations, and talk turned to cuts.
University of Calgary professor and Wildrose strategist Tom Flanagan said the best solution is Ralph Klein-style budget cuts.
"Politically, the only thing that works is virtually across the board," Flanagan said. "I'm talking about fairly drastic action ... what you have to do to bring your budget back into line."
Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan objected.
"We've seen this movie, and it was a horror story," McGowan said. "It vaporized an entire generation of nurses and teachers ... and created an infrastructure deficit that undermined the productivity of our private sector.
"Haven't we learned anything?"
Calgary Herald, Sunday, Feb. 10, 2013
Byline: Karen Kleiss, Edmonton Journal