Advance polling for the 2023 Alberta general election has already begun. What’s on the table for the province’s tech sector?
Neither the incumbent United Conservative Party (UCP), headed by Premier Danielle Smith, nor the UCP’s biggest challenger, Rachel Notley’s Alberta New Democratic Party (NDP), has released a comprehensive policy platform. However, while light on specifics, both parties’ statements and commitments to date offer some indication as to what could be at stake for the province’s innovation sector come election day on May 29.
“Both parties seem to be avoiding talking specifics in terms of policy, so as not to rock the boat.”
“It’s perhaps a testament to the nail-biting closeness of the 2023 election campaign that both parties seem to be avoiding talking specifics in terms of policy, so as not to rock the boat,” stated Jess Sinclair, director of government affairs for Alberta at the Council of Canadian Innovators (CCI), which shared its review of how the province’s two biggest political parties plan to support Albertan tech with BetaKit.
As Sinclair noted, despite the lack of specificity, both parties have put forth some interesting promises related to attracting and retaining talent in Alberta and drawing more tech investment into the province as it looks to continue to diversify its economy beyond energy. “While commodity prices wax and wane, the technology sector has the potential to be the engine of prosperity for the province for generations to come,” said Sinclair.
Alberta’s tech ecosystem has generated momentum in recent years. Led by a bevy of maturing tech companies, rising investment levels, and increased buy-in from the provincial government following a hard-fought relationship, Alberta has become globally recognized as an emerging tech hub. But within the provincial government, much of this groundwork was laid under the leadership of former premier Jason Kenney and innovation minister Doug Schweitzer.
Recent political turnover, including the departures of Kenney and Schweitzer—who have since been replaced by Smith and Nate Glubish, respectively—and another election underway to determine who will lead Alberta for the next four years, has made the future of the province’s support for the tech sector uncertain.
While many stakeholders BetaKit spoke with back in 2022 expressed confidence that the political turnover won’t affect government support for tech broadly, leadership changes inherently bring risk, especially as new politicians and parties often pause spending to assess previous government policies and commitments.
To date, the UCP has made a small number of specific promises and committed to a number of other high-level tech-related items—a far cry from the 111-page platform the party released in 2019. As CCI notes, the “cornerstone of the UCP’s economic agenda is tax cuts and lots of them.” While the party has not made many specific commitments toward the tech sector, it appears that its overarching strategy is focused on ensuring Alberta is an affordable and attractive province in which to live and work.
The NDP has been more detailed about its promises. “Unlike their political rivals, the New Democrats have gotten specific about several items related to the tech industry over the course of the campaign,” notes CCI. This includes promising to reinstate several innovation economy tax credits, roll out some new ones, and launch an Alberta Venture Fund. “Still, like the UCP, the NDP’s larger economic plan is somewhat light on additional details,” adds CCI.
The UCP has placed greater emphasis on growing Alberta’s skilled workforce than the NDP. The UCP’s plan for addressing the province’s tech talent shortage includes committing to fast-tracking credential approval times, introducing a Graduation Retention Tax Credit and Alberta is Calling signing bonus, plus $35 million in previously announced funding for workforce planning and enrollment expansion in construction, energy, and tech.
These promises appear to build on the UCP’s approach with Budget 2023, which targeted skilled labour development and retention but outlined little else in the way of support for tech, focusing more on affordability and infrastructure. As Thin Air Labs partner James Lochrie put it to BetaKit back in March, innovation-wise, Alberta’s latest budget was about maintaining “the status quo” given the growth that the province’s tech sector has seen in recent years.
For its part, on the talent front, CCI notes that the NDP intends to establish a downtown campus for Calgary’s future Innovation District, in partnership with the University of Calgary.
One other recent issue raised by Alberta’s tech community that could hamper the province’s efforts to improve its skilled talent pool may be the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Alberta’s hardline approach to the title of “engineer” as it relates to software engineers, which tech firms claim is discouraging tech workers from locating to the province.
Investment-wise, while the NDP has outlined a wider array of strategies aimed at ensuring capital is flowing toward Alberta’s tech community, both parties appear to have some focus on ensuring venture capital (VC) investment in Alberta’s innovation sector continues to grow.
As BetaKit reported, VC funding in Alberta’s tech sector grew for the third quarter in a row during Q1—bucking the national downward trend as economic conditions have worsened. Over the past year, some investors have expressed concern that VC funding in Alberta may decline to levels similar to other Canadian tech ecosystems. For his part, Lochrie believes there is “a good chance” Alberta could set a new record in 2023 following its strong start.
The NDP has promised to reinstate the Interactive Digital Media Tax Credit and the Alberta Investor Tax Credit, introduce Alberta’s Future Tax Credit, create an Alberta Venture Fund, eliminate the small business levy, and increase the corporate tax rate—lowered to eight percent under then Premier Jason Kenney—back up to the 11 percent it was at previously.
Meanwhile, the UCP has committed to investing $100 million in the Alberta Enterprise Corporation; $25 million in Indigenous VC equity funds through Alberta Indigenous Opportunities Corporation, and $22.5 million in previously announced funding for the Alberta Technology Innovation Strategy.
As far as ensuring that government buys more tech going forward, the NDP has proffered a more detailed strategy on this front, offering $75 million over three years for healthtech through the Alberta Health Services procurement portal, and putting forth plans to formalize a Government of Alberta Digital Strategy.
For its part, prior to the election being called, the UCP was actively consulting on a Government of Alberta digital strategy. CCI noted that it looks forward to the results of this consultation should the UCP remain in power.
“The good news is that both parties have proven themselves open to working with innovators on diversifying Alberta’s economy, and unlike 2019 when Alberta was in a major commodities slump, there’s a renewed sense of can-do spirit in the province,” stated Sinclar.
Feature image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.