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Opinion: Values that Transform: The Path Forward for Alberta’s Economy


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Alberta’s economy has suffered more than its share of bumps and bruises. Over the last eight years, we’ve seen floods, fires, two major oil price collapses, two record-setting recessions, an exodus of people, and the deadliest global health pandemic any of us have lived through. To say it has been a challenge is a grievous understatement.

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What can be done to transform our economy?

There’s no shortage of policy recommendations. Cutting business taxes, incentivizing research and development, reducing regulatory burden, lowering operating costs, building transportation infrastructure, offering tax incentives and reducing labour expenses are the most common methods prescribed by economists and business advocacy groups.

While many such recommendations make sense, taken in isolation they are incomplete solutions to achieving a healthy, balanced and prosperous society in the long-run. In a complex system like a provincial economy, a holistic approach to growth and development must take into account all of the side effects that these policy recommendations might have.

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Rather than rattling off another list of pro-growth recommendations, we should ask: What values need to be upheld to secure a healthy and prosperous economy for all, where the well-being of each individual takes priority over simply revving up the GDP? Offered here are four high-level values that should guide businesses, governments and citizens in order to transform Alberta’s economy.

1. Prioritize education: The most effective investment in Alberta’s economy is education. Our K-12 and post-secondary education systems are paramount, and if we don’t get them right, we will fail to transform our economy. But education must also include early childhood education (which ties into affordable and accessible day care), as well as a stronger emphasis on skills development and training of workers.

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Education does not end with the university degree or college diploma; that’s only the beginning. A greater focus on continuous skills training and development for workers of all ages, through both government- and employer-sponsored programs, is crucial.

2. Foster social inclusivity and diversity: Just as the connection between education and the economy are well established, there is a growing recognition that social and cultural diversity is an important economic driver. Yet racial discrimination, misogyny and xenophobic attitudes remain ingrained in our culture.

Businesses benefit from greater cultural, racial and gender diversity because it enriches conversations and enlarges perspectives. And a more diverse and inclusive Alberta will more easily attract newcomers to the province. A more generous spirit of inclusivity and belonging will draw the world’s best and brightest minds to our province.

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3. Uphold our brand and reputation: What attracts people to a region? Good jobs? Low taxes? Affordability? Lifestyle? It’s a combination of all of these things. But in the 2020s, attracting and retaining the most talented people will come down to values: Are the values conveyed by a province aligned with the values of those we wish to attract and retain? This is especially true of young, bright, educated people who can live anywhere in the world they please.

Arguably, Alberta has a branding problem at the moment. We’ve allowed our province to be stereotyped as nothing more than dirty, carbon-spewing industries and unkind, narrow-minded people. This is far from the truth. But as these images and perceptions continue to define the narrative, how can Alberta expect to attract and retain young, talented and globally-minded people? Why would they live in a place that is seemingly incongruous with their own values and priorities?

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4. Look positively toward the future: It’s common to hear people nostalgically say, “We need to get our economy back on track!” But our past was rooted in a different reality. The world has changed in ways that are forcing Alberta to shake loose the nostalgic dreams of a by-gone era.

No one doubts that oil will continue to be produced and sold for decades to come. But a new reality has shocked the province into grappling with this fact: the hydrocarbon industry is the backbone, but no longer the growth engine, of Alberta’s economy. Until Albertans can symbolically let go of nostalgia and stop trying to resuscitate the economy of the past, the province won’t move forward.

Todd Hirsch is the vice-president and chief economist at ATB Financial. This essay is a condensed version of an original contribution to The School of Public Policy’s Alberta’s Future project.

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