Monday, March 10, 2008

Memo to Premier Stelmach - Alberta's International and Intergovernmental Department Needs a Very Strong Minister

As Premier Stelmach get out the shop tools and builds his first Cabinet with his own team and mandate there is one key department that needs to be elevated and have a much stronger Minister to head it. That department is International, Intergovernmental and Aboriginal Affairs.

In the constitutional wars of the 70’s this department was the intellectual powerhouse of the Lougheed government…and it had to be, given the constitutional and other challenges Alberta was facing then with Ottawa. It was an impressive group of minds and focused motivations in those days and the depth of ability is still there notwithstanding the budget cuts of the mid 90s.

The challenges Alberta is facing now on the intergovernmental front are even more complex and critical. That is why this Ministry needs the political leadership from the best and brightest talent available to Stelmach. It has the right stuff in the staffing and administrative leadership. It needs the political leadership to be beefed up significantly. It is not an entry level Cabinet position or a holding tank for under performing Ministers. Nor can it be merely a transition appointment pending retirement anymore.

Alberta has lots of complex issues do deal with on many fronts and with many different influences and influencers. The Alberta-Ottawa dynamics will be heating up significantly over the environment, climate change, transfer payment fairness, immigration and US trade relations, to name a few. There will be uncertainty caused over what appears to be an inevitable NAFTA review by President Obama or Clinton. Alberta will be one of the victims of the enormous desire for much tighter border control and homeland security measures that will undoubtedly be pursued under President McCain, if that is the Presidential election result this November. There is a raft of legislative initiatives in the US Congress that all impact the future of our so-called “dirty oil” from the oil sands development that need to be handled properly.

Then there will be the growing American demand on our oil sands sector to provide secure, reliable and relatively less expensive continental energy supply that will put even more growth pressures on Alberta socially and environmentally. Local upgrading versus shipping raw bitumen into new pipelines that have just been approved into the US refiners will be a friction point. The impact of more foreign direct investment in the oil sands, particularly from China will be a hot international and intergovernmental issues too.

The reconciliation of these different interests the between the integrated energy sector players, American political and economic interests and Ottawa policy approaches will impact Alberta’s control over its own future. These are powerful geopolitical forces and they put Alberta right in the cross hairs and a target in so many ways and at so many levels.

And then there will be the domestic intergovernmental pressures resulting from the growing central Canada angst over the power and influence shift to Alberta and BC from Ontario and Quebec. Alberta has half the population of Quebec and a much larger rate of growth and investment, that along with BC is rivaling Ontario. That power shift to the Canadian west will have to be handled adeptly as well.

The TILMA agreement with BC will be a dynamic intergovernmental situation for Alberta as BC’s Premier Campbell takes over the national leadership stage on the environment on carbon tax and other green alternative initiatives. That effort by BC will put pressure Alberta to match them under TILMA provisions sooner than later. There will intergovernmental issues with BC and Ottawa on how to deal with the Mountain Pine Beetle as it threatens to devour the boreal forest.

I have not even touched on the aboriginal aspect of the department which has its own challenges and urgency's. I could go on but I am sure you get my drift. Premier Stelmach held this portfolio and enjoyed it. Ron Hicks, the Deputy Minister of Executive Council served as Deputy Minister in this department too. They know it and no doubt see its emerging importance in the future of Alberta. I look forward to the Cabinet appointments this week – and the IIA Ministerial appointment with particular interest.