Woe Canada: Prentice says Alberta oil crunch will hurt economies across country

EDMONTON – The aftershocks of Alberta’s collapsing petro-economy will shake up homes and businesses from coast to coast to coast, Premier Jim Prentice said Wednesday.

“We’re all in this together,” Prentice told reporters on a conference call from Toronto.

“It has been the Alberta economy that has been driving the national economy in this country for more than a decade.

“Alberta has accounted for more than 50 per cent of the jobs that have been created in Canada (in that time).”

Prentice said Alberta is facing some difficult choices given the benchmark price of oil has fallen from US$100 a barrel last summer to less than US$50 a barrel this week, siphoning billions of dollars from Alberta’s treasury.

Alberta’s projected budget surplus this year will now be a $500-million deficit.

Prentice noted that oil giant Suncor (TSX:SU) announced this week that it will lay off 1,000 oilsands workers.

“There’s a very large number of people, for example, from Atlantic Canada, from Ontario, who commute to Alberta and work in the energy industry,” he said.

“Most of those people pay their personal income taxes in the provinces in which they reside.”

Prentice said if low oil persists, other dominoes will fall, hurting the federal government’s corporate and personal income tax take.

“The energy industry is responsible for a third of the capital investment that is made across this country,” he said.

“Much of the capital investment that is deployed in the energy industry is actually fabricated in places like Ontario.

“The projects are financed by banks that are headquartered in Ontario.”

Prentice has said Alberta will likely remain in deficit until 2018, about the time his advisers predict oil prices will have slowly rebounded to about US$75 a barrel.

Until then, the province expects to lose $11 billion or more in revenue.

Prentice said members of his cabinet and caucus will soon fan out to talk to Albertans about how to make up that massive shortfall, including discussions on tax hikes and bringing in a sales tax.

He is promising fundamental change to Alberta’s books, saying it’s time to get day-to-day spending off the roller-coaster of volatile oil revenues.

Prentice also said that public sector workers need to come to the table to help find a solution.

He declined to say if that involves wage rollbacks or job cuts, but noted that Alberta’s public sector makes on average more than their counterparts across Canada.

Labour leaders said that while they are all in favour of revenue reform, Prentice is cherry picking the labour issue.

They said Alberta’s red hot economy and inflation have translated into public sector wages that are on average five per cent higher than other jurisdictions, but also private sector wages that are around 25 per cent higher.

“You can pick any sector, any place, any job description and we’re getting paid better than anywhere else in the country,” said Mark Ramsankar, head of the Alberta Teachers’ Association.

“I’m not apologizing for where Alberta teachers are sitting.”

Heather Smith, president of the United Nurses of Alberta, said she wants to discuss revenue reform with Prentice, but said further job cuts would put patients at risk.

“Patient safety trumps bad financing on the part of the government,” said Smith.

Guy Smith of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees noted that Prentice has already acknowledged he wants to improve morale and productivity in the public service.

“The pressure on the front lines of the public service are immense — very low morale, high turnover,” said Smith.

“(Prentice’s) goal is to try to make sure that the public service is running efficiently and professionally, and you don’t do that by coming after those workers for their wages and their benefits, and making cuts.”

Gil McGowan, head of the Alberta Federation of Labour, said they’ve seen this scenario before and are prepared to fight it.

“Why (is it) whenever the price of oil drops politicians think public sector workers are the ones to shoulder the largest share of the burden,” he said.