Alberta election rivals applaud fiscal blueprint

NDP opposes environmental rule changes

While Ottawa and the province have clashed in the past, the Conservative federal budget released Thursday received a warm reception from Alberta's two main contenders for the premier's office.

The budget's highlights include raising the age for Old Age Security from 65 to 67 for those currently under the age of 54, the elimination of nearly 20,000 civil service jobs over three years and cuts to program spending, though overall expenditures will continue to climb as the government projects being out of deficit in 2015-2016.

The federal Tories are also promising a new shortened environmental review process for major natural resource industrial projects, including the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline to British Columbia, and to put some environmental reviews strictly under the provinces.

With a provincial election underway, both Progressive Conservative Leader Alison Redford and Wildrose Party Leader Danielle Smith linked themselves to the budget's measures.

Redford said her PC government has been working with the federal government to streamline environmental regulations and is similar to measures undertaken already in Alberta.

"We know that industry thinks this is a better way to be competitive. I think we'll see not just on the Gateway project but on other projects, this will be a tremendous improvement," she told reporters in Edmonton.

Redford praised the federal government's plans to balance the budget in three years without tax increases and noted her government's projection of a balanced budget in 2013, with no tax hikes.

In a news release, Smith - who has slammed the PCs for out-of-control spending - compared the federal financial document to Wildrose's budgetary plans.

She applauded the Tory budget for reducing "wasteful government spending and . . . unnecessary levels of bureaucracy."

Ben Brunnen, chief economist of the Calgary Chamber of Commerce, said "this is a good budget for Alberta business."

The changes to OAS include allowing for recipients to defer receiving their payments for up to five years with no penalty.

That's an incentive for those wanting to stay in the workforce to do so, helping to ease the labour shortage that is beginning to bite the province and is expected to get worse.

Raising the eligibility age in 2023 should also have a positive effect in the longer term on the labour pinch, said Brunnen.

While details are lacking, Ottawa has also pledged to make the temporary foreign worker program more aligned with labour market needs and to work with the provinces on improving the recognition of foreign credentials.

"This is just a full-marks budget," said Brunnen.

A spokesman for the Public Service Alliance of Canada said there has been no indication yet where the planned federal job cuts will take place, meaning the impact on Alberta civil servants is uncertain.

Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan said the Conservatives are destroying jobs, cutting services and making life harder for seniors for no good reason given the relatively healthy state of the government's books and the Canadian economy.

"These cuts are particularly galling because they're so unnecessary," he said. "This is a road map to a more conservative future where corporations matter more than citizens."

Redford said the government would review the impact on Alberta seniors of raising the age for OAS.

Ted Menzies, the MP for MacLeod and minister of state for finance, said the budget was designed to ensure there was no downloading to provinces.

The federal government will work with the provinces to ensure that changes to OAS don't affect provincial programs that kick in at age 65.

New Democrat Linda Duncan, Alberta's lone Opposition MP, said the federal promise of "one window" for environmental regulation is full of smoke given issues of federal, provincial and aboriginal jurisdiction.

The claim that major projects are hamstrung by red tape is a fallacy, she said.

"Show me one single project that's been denied. Show me an oilsands project that's been denied," said Duncan.

Calgary Herald, Fri Mar 30 2012
Byline: James Wood

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