This week’s Council of the Federation meeting in St. John’s, Newfoundland marked Alberta Premier Rachel Notley’s first appearance on the national stage since the NDP won a stunning victory in the May 5, 2015 provincial election. The new premier used the meeting to strike a more collaborative tone than her Conservative predecessors, who sometimes appeared more interested in chest-thumping than negotiating with their counterparts from other provinces.
Taking a different approach raised the ire of one of Ms. Notley’s staunchest conservative critics, Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall. Mr. Wall lashed out against Ms. Notley for her willingness to negotiate with Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard over the TransCanada corporation’s Energy East pipeline.
Three weeks ago, Mr. Couillard told reporters that he saw little economic value for his province from the Energy East pipeline. He was not alone in this opinion. Two-thirds of Quebecois are opposed to that pipeline, according to one poll released in late 2014. This opposition is likely the reason why Mr. Couillard laid out some potential conditions related to climate change and environmental issues in exchange for his support of the pipeline going through his province.
Mr. Couillard may have opposed the pipeline without a compromise and may still oppose it, but Ms. Notley has succeeded in keeping the dialogue open.
Like every other premier sitting around the table at this week’s meeting, Ms. Notley, Mr. Couillard and Mr. Wall have their own political agendas in mind.
While conservatives have fallen over themselves praising Mr. Wall as a voice for Canada’s oil industry, we should not believe for a moment that he has Alberta’s best interests in mind. In the days after Albertans elected Ms. Notley’s government on May 5, Mr. Wall and his ministers were inviting the oil industry to abandon Alberta and move east to Saskatchewan.
If you believe Mr. Wall that compromise on national issues is not acceptable, remember that he has asked the rest of Canada for concessions in the past, most recently when Saskatchewan agreed to sign on to the National Securities Regulator in 2014.
The premiers signed on to a Canadian Energy Strategy, which could be an important first step in national cooperation but does not approve pipelines or targets to reduce carbon emissions. As long as Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the federal Conservative government refuse to participate in these meetings, there is only so much that can be achieved.
What is clear is that previous strategies used by Alberta premiers to promote expansion of pipelines from Alberta’s oilsands has fallen flat. And with this week’s major oil pipeline leak in northern Alberta, critics and opponents of pipeline expansion to change their minds without assurances of stricter environmental regulations.
Compromise and negotiation should be part of politics in any democratic country. On any controversial projects, like cross-Canada pipeline expansion, it should be expected that local political realities in provinces and First Nations will slow, or block, attempts to force through industrial projects.
Alberta’s poor environmental record has helped fuel opposition to the oilsands and the proposed pipelines that would carry our natural resources to ports in all directions. Our province’s status as a national laggard on environmental issues is a big reason Ms. Notley and Environment Minister Shannon Phillips announced last month that University of Alberta economist Andrew Leach would lead a panel to recommend a new climate change plan for Alberta.
With a new government, Alberta has an opportunity to show our critics, through collaboration, negotiation and action, that strong leadership on economic and environmental issues are not mutually exclusive. That would be a refreshing change.