OPINION | Hey Alberta, how is it going so far?

·9 min read

This column is an opinion from journalist and political commentator Jen Gerson.

CBC
CBC

Dear Alberta Conservatives:

Now that U.S. President Joe Biden has followed through on his promise to cancel the Keystone XL permit, I have to ask you all a simple question: How is this working?

I'm not trying to be mean about it. I understand why this province elected the UCP with historic turnout in 2019.

I get the appeal of that campaign, the lure of nostalgia that it evoked. It was a tempting fantasy, one in which Rachel Notley allied with Justin Trudeau, and Alberta's noble oil industry was beleaguered by a gaggle of environmentalists and socialists, who were conspiring to bring the province down.

I also understand why so many bought into the claim that by electing a conservative government, we could just make all of these problems go away; that Alberta would return to the glory days of 2014, or 2005, or 1994. Or 1973.

The 2019 campaign promised tax cuts that would bring the jobs back; fiscal discipline; fair deal panels that would put Ottawa in its place and highlight this province's growing, muscular sense of its own independence.

A white knight returns

Kenney promised to rescind the job-killing-carbon-tax. He promised to be a premier who would win the province glory, a white knight and returning prodigal son who would finally fight for Alberta.

He promised "war rooms" and inquiries that would finally unearth Alberta's nefarious enemies.

Somehow, this was all going to work wonders for pipeline capacity — which is why it made sense to invest $1.5 billion in taxpayer money in Keystone XL. Whoops.

Almost two years into this mandate, I have to ask: How has it been going? Is this working?

From the cheap seats, things don't look great. I've been trying to come up with one single solitary win since that election, and I can't find it. It looks to me like the UCP spun a fantasy in 2019 that it now can't make real.

And, yeah, this province has been hard hit by COVID-19, but I thought I was being generous by putting that file to the side for a moment.

WATCH | Alberta Premier Jason Kenney reacts to Keystone decision:

The jobs haven't come back. Alberta had a competitive corporate tax rate before the UCP was elected. It was always doubtful that cutting the rate even more was going to make a difference.

Our public finances are in shambles. A tax hike is inevitable.

Kenney did kill Notley's carbon tax — and then replaced it with another, less effective one. Meanwhile, this province's court challenge of the federal carbon tax is unlikely to hold up.

Kenney's "war room" is an international joke led by a PC-party loyalist who didn't get elected in 2019.

And that inquiry into foreign funding — dogged at the outset with reports that its commissioner, Steve Allan, awarded a sole-source $905,000 contract to the law firm in which his own son was a partner, because, of course — has already devolved into a series of delays and controversies.

A clown show

The latest, that the inquiry spent $100,000 to commission reports from several external groups, including a U.S. firm called Energy in Depth, which is affiliated with the Independent Petroleum Association of America, and a paper from Calgary-based political scientist Barry Cooper, whose contribution was entitled: "Background Report on Changes in the Organization and Ideology of Philanthropic Foundations with a Focus on Environmental Issues as Reflected in Contemporary Social Science Research."

Meanwhile, Greenpeace, which has already been publicly excoriated by the Allan inquiry as "a new breed of zealots less interested in saving Planet Earth than in destroying the capitalist system," has yet to be contacted to provide any evidence at all. (In fact, Greenpeace has already issued a legal warning to the inquiry.)

It should be noted here that we've spent an estimated $3.5 million on this clown show.

Put aside for a moment, dear Conservatives, the question of whether you think anything the inquiry is "investigating" is true. Instead, ask yourselves this question: whom is this inquiry going to convince?

Is anyone under the impression that a report informed by Cooper and the climate change denial group Friends of Science is going to turn the tide for Alberta?

What's the theory, here? Were we going to FedEx the Oval Office a final report that prompts Joe Biden into an epiphany on climate change?

Monty Kruger/CBC
Monty Kruger/CBC

Or is it possible — just maybe — that doubling down on climate change skeptics and conspiracy theories paints a worse picture of Alberta and her priorities than anything the environmentalists themselves have concocted to date? How hard does Greenpeace really need to work to make Alberta look like a cartoonishly villainous backwater right now?

In November, Premier Kenney starred in a podcast in which he criticized Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer — Biden's campaign co-chair — over their attempts to decommission a segment of Enbridge's Line 5. Kenney noted that those fighting to cut off Alberta's oil and gas exports were "brain dead."

Kenney also said: "We thought it was essential to send a message to the interest groups trying to block us, that resistance is futile, that Alberta is determined to take control of our own destiny."

Again, I ask: How is this working?

Delusions of self-importance

For the record, I think Alberta has been treated unfairly and hypocritically; we clearly have been the target of international and national campaigns to obstruct oilsands development. That's not in dispute.

Ironically, many of those campaigns began to abate in 2015 when Notley introduced an aggressive carbon tax policy that demonstrated Alberta was taking climate change seriously.

And these anti-oilsands actors aren't the cause of all of our problems. The price of oil is down everywhere, and we're now producing a commodity that is extracted in abundance within the United States thanks to the fracking boom.

Further, global concern about climate change means more banks and major companies are disinvesting in a jurisdiction that goes full ride-or-die on coal and petroleum extraction.

Something needs saying here, and there's no way to say it kindly. Boom times and wealth have conditioned Albertans to believe that we matter a lot more than we do.

Money gave this province delusions of self-importance that is reflected in a premier whose bombastic bar-brawl banter is increasingly revealed as short-man bluster. We're the guy who gets drunk and picks a fight but can't actually land a punch.

I don't mean to be too mordant about all of this. I love Alberta, and I still think we have a lot going for us. We're good people, we work hard, and we pull together in a crisis. But we're a landlocked jurisdiction of four million on the high plain that happens to enjoy large oil and gas reserves that are costly and emissions-intensive to produce. By population, that puts us somewhere between Oklahoma and Oregon, and all the less important to a United States that is effectively energy independent.

In other words: we don't matter to these people.

Kyle Bakx/CBC
Kyle Bakx/CBC

We don't matter to Joe Biden, who would happily torch our entire provincial economy if it bought him two weeks of peace from his own restive left flank. And what's Canada going to do about it, exactly? Issue a letter of protest? Proclaim tariffs and boycotts that will hurt us more than it will hurt the U.S.? Oh wait, Kenney implied that we should do exactly that on Wednesday, or Alberta would "go further in our fight for a fair deal in the federation."

On and on it goes.

This is the same obstinate attitude that led to the cringey display Kenney offered us in a press conference earlier this week. It included an appeal — just short of a demand — to Justin Trudeau to advocate more fiercely on behalf of the Keystone XL.

By the feds' own account, Trudeau has attempted to make the case for Keystone XL, and even brought it up in his first phone call with Biden, to the prime minister's credit. But let's reflect on the idea that Trudeau has any special motivation to help Kenney out, here — Kenney, the man who has spent the last three years winning Alberta's heart by drawing blood from Trudeau's.

Hey, maybe Kenney could reach out to some international oil and gas players. The very ones led by the CEOs he denounced for supporting the carbon tax in 2019. Get the head of Royal Dutch Shell on the line. I'm sure he's waiting for Alberta's call.

Limitless self-aggrandizement

The thing that continually baffles me about the UCP is its combination of limitless self-aggrandizement coupled with its incredible parochialism. You see this in who the government selects to head its pet projects. You see it in the habit of tripling down on ideologically derived solutions to complicated problems. You see it in the lack of original thinking; hell, their platform was practically cribbed from the Reform Party. Even the fair deal panel is just a rehash of ideas that were largely rejected as cost-ineffective in 2003.

This party acts like it's run by a bunch of jocks in a secret fraternity at a second-rate school who suddenly realize that nobody who matters knows their names. They're kings of the small campus.

Oil means nothing if nobody buys it. The only lever we have — the only real lever we've ever had — is vested in the relationships we maintain with the nations, provinces, interests and people around us. And, yes, that includes relationships with people who disagree with us: Ottawa, environmentalists and NGOs.

So, hey, all you Free Alberta types, here's some good news for you: Kenney is teaching us all what it really means to stand alone.

How is it working?

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