Kenney defends proposed government spending freeze under UCP

United Conservative Party (UCP) leader Jason Kenney defended a proposal to freeze government spending until the budget was balanced, days after Premier Rachel Notley suggested it would lead to Ralph Klein-style cuts.

Kenney referenced the "Alberta advantage" in a speech to the Alberta Council of Technology in Edmonton on Saturday, a callback to the phrase popularized by the former premier in the 1990s.

"The Alberta Advantage was a series of policies that let Alberta lead Canada's economy with the highest levels of employment, the highest incomes, the lowest level of poverty, the strongest fiscal situation in Canada, if not North America," Kenney said following his speech.

"If the NDP think that's a problem that really reflects how off target they are."

Klein's legacy is debated from both ends of the political spectrum. The former premier presided over budgetary surpluses that his supporters say were a result of cutting taxes and privatizing some services. 

But in a speech in Edmonton on Thursday, Notley said Klein cut thousands of public sector jobs, with lasting impacts on health and education services, to eliminate the deficit. Kenney's proposal to freeze government spending would similarly require "reckless cuts", she said. 

Kenney fired back on Saturday.

"I'll tell you what's reckless, driving us towards a $100 billion debt," he said.

Energy meets technology

In his speech Saturday, Kenney said that oil and gas had been a major driver of innovation in the Alberta. He argued that the province's economy has diversified in part because of, not in spite of, the energy industry.

"A lot of the most important innovation and high-tech stuff happening in Alberta is happening in the energy industry," he said. "Like automated drilling rigs and the solidification of bitumen."

He said the energy industry could help bring cryptocurrency technology to Alberta. The computers used in the large-scale mining of cryptocurrencies, such as Bitcoin, require vast amounts of energy.

"Cryptocurrency could well be the backbone of the future digital economy. It depends on low-cost energy and we can provide that with our abundant hydrocarbon energy," he said.

Kenney's speech at the Royal Glenora Club came after a five-day tour of 25 communities in Northern Alberta, as he and other party leaders ramp up for a spring election.

Notley will decide when Albertans head to the polls, but has pledged it will happen between March and May to align with the province's fixed election period legislation.

Scott Neufeld/CBC

Kenney told the crowd that a UCP government would consider changes to the provincial immigration nominee program. He proposed a pilot program to fast track applicants under the program with advanced degrees and proof of venture capital funding.

The United Conservative Party leader also reiterated his proposal to create a "minister of red tape reduction" if elected. The minister would be charged with reducing the provincial government "regulatory burden" by 33 per cent over four years, Kenney said.