Oil is sucking the air out of Alberta’s political culture

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To hear the politicians talk you would think the one and only thing that matters in Alberta is oil.

That’s the single focus in Alberta politics.  There is an oily tide of outrage about the current woes of the province’s oil patch sweeping all other concerns out of its path.

There’s actually little difference between the United Conservative Party and the NDP on the tone or message.  Everyone is making life difficult for Alberta’s prime resource and that has to stop.  Pipelines must be built.  Quebec must express desire for our oil bounty.  The world in general must pay a fair dollar for Alberta’s barrels.

The anger is directed most squarely at Ottawa.  It’s not just Rachel Notley and Jason Kenney leading the charge.  Grassroots truckers are planning to drive the message down the Yellowhead and TransCanada to Ottawa in their giant diesel-guzzling Kenworths in February.

Oil, in short, is sucking all the air out of Alberta’s political culture.  It’s hard to imagine what might have been done for other sectors of the economy, other needs in society, in the last 18 months if the NDP government hadn’t been forced to divert so much of its attention and energy to the oilpatch.

As a provincial election nears in the spring, the campaign will boil down to whether Jason Kenney is louder and angrier about Ottawa’s failure on oil than the current government.

During year end interviews Kenney unveiled a plan to create a well-funded war room in the energy department to fight back “in real time” against attacks on Alberta’s primary industry by environmental organizations like the Tides Foundation and to launch legal challenges against anti-oil federal legislation.

He wants oil company executives to join the province in that fight.

Notley also vows to continue on her government’s path of battling for a pipeline, taking on all comers from B.C. to Ottawa.

“Every time we have been presented with (a roadblock) we’ve faced it head on and fought back, and we’ll keep doing that,” she said to the Edmonton Journal in a year-ender.

Both the NDP and UCP have offered tentative support to the truckers movement which has seen traffic-blocking convoys pop up around the province displaying anti-Trudeau signs and demanding pipelines and an end to equalization payments.

A speaker with the group Oilfield Dads at one such protest in Rocky Mountain House said the province is suffering the “worst recession turned depression” in a generation because of lack of pipelines and low oil prices.

Economic statistics don’t actually back that up.  In December various Canadian bank economists were predicting Alberta GDP growth in 2019 around the 1 to 1.5 per cent mark — not great, but not a depression either.

And what about the rest of Alberta?  There are other economic sectors which are ticking along fine that could, in the longterm, cushion the economic gap developing in the oil patch.  There are Albertans working in the tech sector and the construction sector.  Albertans are growing medicinal and recreational marijuana, protein crops and developing food processing industries.  The province is home to world class research in health care and artificial intelligence.

No doubt all those sectors have issues that could be addressed in a legislative agenda that puts some emphasis on true diversification in the province.  But the dominant theme, established in the last two years and likely to continue into the next government’s mandate, remains nonrenewable oil and gas resources.

Kenney is making it very clear that he wants that single focus for the next four or so months of the campaign: all economy, specifically the oil patch economy, all the time.

Some of this is calculated to deflect voters attention away from areas that the UCP is weak on.  For instance, Kenney has come under attack for his own history of intolerance on LBGQT issues.

It also allows Kenney to campaign against Trudeau and the federal Liberals rather than directly against Notley, who still personally commands a good deal of respect in the province.

The NDP has also been captured by the oil patch agenda and has to continue its efforts to shore up western oil prices and improve transportation options.  From the beginning of its mandate, the government has known that a major pipeline win would be the ticket to a second term.  That is looking relatively impossible given an election is expected in scant months.

There may be other pressing economic, social and cultural issues which deserve attention in the upcoming Alberta election campaign, but the race is going to focus on one beleaguered and highly politicized commodity.

Photo Credit: Jeff Burney, Loonie Politics

More from Kathy Kerr.     @kathkerr1

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