Thomson: Redford wants premiers to discuss need to better prepared for natural disasters

By Graham Thomson, Edmonton Journal July 22, 2013

EDMONTON – Premier Alison Redford isn’t waiting until Wednesday to head to Ontario for the opening of the annual premiers’ conference.

She’s already there.

She’s in Toronto to meet, as she regularly does, with leaders in the investment banking community to discuss economic growth in Alberta. But this time she’s making an extra stop to meet with officials of the Insurance Bureau of Canada.

She doesn’t call it an arm-twisting session, but you have to wonder if that’s what it’s all about given how she had to browbeat some foot-dragging insurance companies into honouring sewer backup claims after last month’s disastrous flood.

“I want to make sure that moving forward from sort of an institutional level that Alberta is getting fair treatment with respect to how insurance companies will be dealing with property issues and evaluation of property,” said Redford in a telephone interview from Toronto.

Redford’s post-flood badgering won’t end there. She will discuss the flood at this week’s premiers’ conference not as an item in itself but as something of a cautionary tale about the need for everyone to better prepare for future disasters.

“It’s going to be important for us to come together as provinces and talk about how these sorts of disasters impact us and what we do in terms of long-term mitigation in partnership with each other, and also with the federal government to make sure we’re not only responding to these circumstances, but doing everything we can in terms of infrastructure,” said Redford who wants the federal government to help cover the cost of mitigation projects. As Redford points out, Ottawa has to cover 90 per cent of disaster assistance anyway, so it might as well invest money now to save money later.

It’s not Redford’s intention to come up with a national plan for flood mitigation at this week’s Council of the Federation meeting. That’s not how the council meetings work (when they work at all). Instead, when the conference wraps up on Friday, we’ll probably see a communiqué that begins with the premiers’ eight favourite words: “The premiers called on the federal government to …”

It’ll be relatively easy for the premiers to agree on something as noble as disaster mitigation, especially if they’re asking Ottawa to pay the tab.

Then there are the issues where differences will appear in the premiers’ solidarity even if the cracks are hairline thin, as is the case with their reaction to the federal government’s new Canada Job Grant program designed to help train 130,000 Canadians.

The program will see Ottawa clawing back the $300 million it gives to the provinces and territories each year under the current Labour Market Agreements set to expire in 2014. Many premiers want the power to opt out of the new and potentially problematic system “with full compensation.”

Alberta, though, isn’t dead set against the program that might actually help ease the province’s chronic shortage of skilled labour.

Redford admits she has questions about how the program will be administered, but her criticism is muted. “I think that we’re very supportive of making sure it’s a fair program.”

Redford is not itching for a fight with her colleagues, and, in fact, says she’s not out to grab “sexy headlines,” but to find areas of common interest.

In return, she’s looking for support for a Canadian Energy Strategy. Redford, along with two other premiers, will be submitting a report updating the council on the progress of the strategy that’s designed to co-ordinate each province’s energy plans, whether it’s a national electricity grid for Manitoba’s hydro power or new pipelines to ship Alberta’s bitumen to Asia.

Again, don’t expect anything to be resolved or announced on this issue, but at the very least, Redford is hoping to avoid a repeat of last year’s battle with B.C. Premier Christy Clark over the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline.

That’s not to say there won’t be tension among the premiers. Oddly enough, this week’s meeting might get interesting over a topic that itself is a bit of a snoozer: Senate reform. Or, more accurately, Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall’s support for a national movement to abolish the Upper Chamber.

The two premiers are close allies, but on this issue Redford can’t seem to help herself from scolding Wall.

“Let’s pull back a little bit and understand we actually have a Constitution and we have processes that we do need to follow with respect to Senate reform,” said Redford, sounding a bit like the professor lecturing a naive student. “Simply saying that we don’t like the Senate and it should be abolished is not a constructive contribution to what we want the outcome to be. People may decide that they don’t want a Senate, others may decide that they want it to be equal, elected and effective — not everyone will decide they want it to be equal — but that’s where the conversation has to take place. To simply say we don’t like it and let’s vote on it is not how we do things in Canada.”

A polite dispute between premiers over the constitutionality of Senate reform might not make for the sexiest of headlines — but, hey, it’s the Council of the Federation. That’s about as sexy as it gets.

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