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Chamber of Commerce president calls out government

By Josh Aldrich, Camrose Canadian

Alberta Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Ken Kobly talks about the current business climate in Alberta during the Camrose Chamber of Commerce monthly luncheon on April 4, at the Camrose Regional Exhibition. Josh Aldrich/Camrose Canadian

Alberta Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Ken Kobly talks about the current business climate in Alberta during the Camrose Chamber of Commerce monthly luncheon on April 4, at the Camrose Regional Exhibition. Josh Aldrich/Camrose Canadian

All Ken Kobly wants is a seat at the table.

The Alberta Chamber of Commerce president and CEO delivered the key note speech for April's monthly Camrose Chamber of Commerce luncheon and he called out both the federal and provincial governments for failing to talk with small and medium business owners on policy that effects them.

He said the result of being continually ignored is a deck that is stacked against local business owners, and it is getting increasingly difficult to make the numbers work.

"I think it's time that all levels of government to take a look, that if they are making a change — no matter how small it may appear to government — maybe you need to consult with businesses to recognize what the impact is," he said. "Businesses are still out there, they're still confident … but it's getting tough to be confident and getting tough to continue to operate."

Looming large on the horizon is the minimum wage increase that is set to go up to $15 an hour in October. For during his discussion he said there are studies that show this will be the end of capitalism as we know while other studies point to this being the best thing that can happen to the economy. I acknowledged the reality is probably somewhere in the middle.

One thing he noted is that the government did not have discussions with small businesses. The ACC conducted their own three-stage study and the results, of which they received more than 1,600 responses in the the first couple of weeks of the first stage. The responses were clear that business owners would cut staff, cut hours, cut benefits, and cut back in many other places to make it work. And through the first few phases of the increase of minimum wage, they have done just this.

"That has sort of been ignored by government that business will do what businesses needs to do to survive, and there has certainly been some unintended consequences from that," said Kobly. "To be honest, I'm not sure when minimum wage legislation was first announced, that we were getting to $15 by 2018, I'm not really sure that government at that point of time could have been influenced or swayed at that point in time anyway."

One of the other major issues has been the carbon tax. While it may not be a financial anchor for the individual, they have had a major effect on businesses, especially those that have a large square footage or rely on the transport industry to bring goods in or to distribute them.

"I would suggest though if the government would like to hear the impact from business, perhaps they should survey them and find out what the impact of their natural gas bills has been on a monthly business," said Kobly.

He said the business community showed the type of influence they can wield when they forced federal finance minister Bill Morneau to back down from his tax reform plan that he says maligned the business owners as tax cheats.

One area where he has been encouraged is with the diversification efforts of the provincial government, particularly in the petrochemical diversification program.

"It's moving to where we are adding value to products that we can ship and export fairly easily," he said.

It was far more than what Kobly could say for the federal government's recently released budget, which was heavy on platitudes but light on any real long-term economic diversification plan.

"When you look at their budget, even when you look at the capital spent, the majority of what they're spending money on is not going to diversify the economy."

One of the big issues with the provincial budget is its dependence of the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion going through. It is reminiscent of the Conservatives who routinely built their budgets based on forecasts of a barrel of oil in the $100. The NDP's budget was dealt a major blow on Monday when Kinder Morgan announced it was going to freeze its efforts in continuing to push forward with its efforts due to the lack of political will.

"Anyone who knows me knows I'm an optimist," said Kobly. "The reality is, however, this even stretches my optimism of Kinder Morgan being in the ground and pumping in 2021."

Camrose was sheltered to some degree in the recession, though it was hit, it was not to the degree of some communities that are completely dependent on oil. Camrose was buoyed to a degree by a strong agricultural sector and other health care related industries.

Kobly does see potential to grow the Chamber's influence in the region by tapping into the agricultural industry for more members.

"I think what we need to do is a better job of communicating and convincing the ag-based businesses, the farmers, the ranchers, that they are a business just like other businesses."  

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