The former Wildrose leadership candidate was appointed as the UCP’s finance critic in 2018 but was left out of cabinet when his party formed government in 2019. Since then he has been outspoken from the backbenches on Alberta separatism and autonomy and is the unofficial leader of the COVID 18 Caucus.
Nathan Cooper – The current Speaker of the Legislative Assembly has been around Alberta politics for a while. First serving as Chief of Staff at the Wildrose Official Opposition Caucus, Cooper was elected as the Wildrose MLA for Olds-Didsbury-Three Hills in 2015. He later served as the interim leader of the UCP after it was formed in 2017 and was elected Speaker after the 2019 election.
Jim Dinning – His is a name that hasn’t been talked about much in Alberta politics since he lost the 2006 PC Party leadership race to Ed Stelmach, but I have heard Jim Dinning mentioned by more than one political watcher in the past few months when discussing future UCP leadership aspirants.
Dinning has been out of elected office since 1997, but his connections to the Ralph Klein era, which many UCP supporters glorify, and his distance from the scandals and missteps that have plagued the UCP since Jason Kenney became Premier in 2019, could make him an appealing leadership candidate.
The one-term MLA for Fort McMurray-Conklin and former Member of Parliament resigned his seat in the Legislative Assembly in 2018 and has since become a voice on social media and the newspaper op-ed pages in favour of Alberta autonomy from the rest of Canada.
Jason Nixon – First elected as a Wildrose Party MLA in 2015, Nixon was Kenney’s rural lieutenant in the UCP leadership race. He was re-elected as the UCP MLA for Rimbey-Rocky Mountain House-Sundre in 2019 and his loyalty was rewarded with appointments as Minister of Environment & Parks and Government House Leader.
While fiercely partisan, Nixon is seen by many political watchers as one of the more politically savvy members of the UCP cabinet.
Rajan Sawhney – I’m told Minister of Community and Social Services of Alberta Rajan Sawhney’s calm demeanour and tough approach to a politically difficult file for the UCP government has impressed her colleagues. She is new to politics, first elected in 2019, so she may not have a political base to draw on but she could be a candidate to watch if she decides to throw her hat into a potential leadership race.
Shannon Stubbs – The Conservative Member of Parliament for Lakeland was a prominent voice for the province while serving as Official Opposition Critic for Natural Resources from 2017 to 2020. She is also well-known in Alberta political circles, starting as a candidate for the PC Party in the NDP-stronghold of Edmonton-Strathcona in the 2004 election and later becoming a party vice-president before crossing to the Wildrose and running under that party banner in Fort Saskatchewan-Vegreville in 2012.
Travis Toews – The current Finance Minister was appointed to the role after his election in Grande Prairie-Wapiti in 2019. The accountant and former President of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association appears to largely avoid the more partisan head-butting that many of his colleagues revel in, instead sounding at times like he is the adult in the room. Toews’ isn’t exciting but he might appeal to conservatives who want to return to old fashioned boring government.
With 2020 on its way out here is quick look at what might await Alberta’s political parties in 2021:
United Conservative Party: The UCP will continue pushing through a legislative agenda and ideological project that includes mass privatization of public services and public land, and big job losses for public sector workers.
The UCP’s inability to pivot off its agenda has been demonstrated clearly during the COVID-19 pandemic as Health Minister Tyler Shandro continued his fight against Alberta doctors, planned layoffs of thousands of nurses and health care workers, and schemed to privatize large swaths of the public health care system.
Kenney’s inconsistent approach to the pandemic has likely alienated him from both Albertans who would like to see more serious public health measures taken and those who think being required to wear a face-mask in public spaces is too far.
A federal election in 2021 might distract Albertans from the UCP’s mismanaging of the COVID-19 pandemic, so expect the UCP to ramp up attacks on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the federal Liberals. Increasing attacks of the federal government and next year’s promised referendum on equalization and Senate nominee election could also serve as a distraction from poor economic growth and the cancellation of the Keystone XL Pipeline permit by incoming United States President Joe Biden.
Kenney’s approval ratings took a big hit in 2020 and the UCP has dropped considerably in the polls since 2019. If their leader looks like he has become a liability for re-election in 2023 then expect a change at the top. Conservative parties in Alberta are ruthless with leaders who stop looking like winners, just ask Don Getty, Ralph Klein, Ed Stelmach and Alison Redford.
The good news for Kenney is that he is only two years into his government’s four year term in office which leaves him with some time to turn around his political fortunes. But the clock is ticking and the tire-kickers could soon be kicking.
Alberta NDP: It is not often that political leaders in Canada are given a second chance, but despite losing the 2019 election Rachel Notley remains in firm control of her New Democratic Party.
Notley’s moderate NDP is leading or tied with the UCP is three of the four recent voter intention polls released during the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic and has maintained competitive fundraising levels, but the next election is still more than two years away.
The potential for strikes by public sector workers in 2021 could test the NDP’s political coalition. The NDP’s opponents will inevitably try to use any major labour disputes as a wedge between the party’s union activist wing and its more moderate and centrist supporters.
The key to an NDP victory in 2023 will be a breakthrough in Calgary, smaller urban centres like Lethbridge and Red Deer, and a small handful of suburban and rural ridings scattered across Alberta. The NDP swept those regions in 2015 and Notley has already signalled through her constant visits and social media posts that her focus in 2021 will be Calgary, Calgary, and more Calgary.
Alberta Party: Finding a new permanent leader should be the top focus of this tiny moderate conservative party. The Alberta Party has become home to a small group of disenchanted former Progressive Conservatives unhappy the combative tone and social conservative politics of the UCP. The party lost all its seats in 2019 but continues to poll around 10 per cent support in most surveys. In a two-party political environment, the Alberta Party needs to give Albertans a reason to vote for it that is beyond just not being the UCP or NDP.
Alberta Liberal Party: The Liberals not only need to find a new leader, they need to find a reason to exist. After forming Official Opposition for 19 years, the Liberal vote collapsed in 2012, saw almost all of its supporters migrate to Notley’s NDP in 2015 and lost its only seat in the Assembly in 2019. With the NDP now comfortably occupying the space held by the Liberals in the 1990s and 2000s, the Liberals need a raison d’être in Alberta.
Green Party: Yes, Alberta has a Green Party. The Greens have been issuing a steady stream of press statements that plant the party firmly to the left of the moderate NDP on climate change, the environment and pipelines. It seems unlikely that the party will make any electoral breakthroughs in the near future, but they could put pressure on the NDP to remember that it still has a progressive wing.
Wildrose Independence Party: Also looking for a new leader in 2021, the child of a merger between the Freedom Conservative Party and the Wexit group in 2020 is now led by former Wildrose MLA Paul Hinman.
While separatist sentiment appears to be waining the further time passes from the last federal election, Hinman has clamped on to the anti-mask and anti-COVID restrictions groups as his focus, appearing at demonstrations in the two cities.
A number of UCP MLAs have expressed similar views, leading some political watchers to believe that one UCP MLA in particular – Drew Barnes – could be auditioning for Hinman’s job if his public comments become too much for the UCP.
The other fringe separatist parties: The Alberta Advantage Party and Independence Party of Alberta are also looking for new leaders. Advantage Party leader Marilyn Burns, a former Wildrose supporter, resigned in the fall amid a leadership challenge and has announced plans to run for the position again. Former Wildrose constituency president Lenard Biscope is now interim leader.
Amid a month-long spike in new COVID-19 cases, the Alberta government introduced increased measures and restrictions on businesses that include closing casinos, bar and in-person dining in restaurants, and a province-wide mandatory face-mask requirement. The measures are necessary but come after weeks of feet-dragging by provincial leaders.
Weaker measures introduced two weeks ago proved ineffective but you will not hear Premier Jason Kenney admit it, and you will not hear him call the new measures a lockdown.
At times it has seemed as as though Kenney was more concerned with not doing anything that might alienate elements of his political base than he was in taking measures to actually stop or slow the spread of the virus. This concern about his voter base appears to also include an avoidance of the word “lockdown,” despite it being an appropriate description of what the government has implemented.
As of today, there are 20,388 active cases province-wide and have been 640 deaths caused by COVID-19.
Still no federal app
The measures announced by Kenney still did not include the activation of the federal CovidAlert app in Alberta. The federal app has become one of the latest targets of partisan attacks against Ottawa, with cabinet minister Jason Nixon referring to it as the “Trudeau Tracing App.”
Despite the adoption of the ABTraceTogether App early in the pandemic, it has proven ineffective and is reported to have only been effectively used 19 times since it was launched in the spring.
Unlike Alberta’s app, the federal app allows contact tracers to track the spread of COVID-19 across provincial boundaries.
Schweitzer shows a little humanity, some leadership potential
Along with Kenney and Chief Medical Officer Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the press conference announcing the increased measures featured Health Minister Tyler Shandro and Minister of Jobs, Economy and Innovation Doug Schweitzer.
Compared to Kenney, who remains robotic, unemotional and prone to partisan outbursts, and Shandro, who appears to perpetually carry a giant chip on his shoulder, Schweitzer sounded like a real human being. While he does have a serious ‘dude bro’ vibe and his comments today were weighed down by business jargon, he was a much clearer and sympathetic communicator than his two colleagues.
Kenney may be in complete control of his party today, but history shows that Conservative parties in Alberta can be ruthless towards leaders who become liabilities at the ballot box. Just ask Don Getty, Ralph Klein, Ed Stelmach and Alison Redford.
The Battle of Alberta is a term usually reserved for competitions on the hockey rink or football field, but the rivalry between Calgary and Edmonton probably predates our professional sports clubs. While the animosity felt by some sports fans might not be felt the same way among voters, the politics and political divides between the two cities have helped defined Alberta politics since the province was created in 1905. From the decision of where to place Alberta’s capital city to where the province’s first university should be located, the roles played by the two major cities have been a periodic point of tension in provincial politics.
There are many reasons that explain the current political differences between the two cities, from the backgrounds of the settlers who founded the cities to the most recent round of economic convulsions.
As a friend of mine once put it, Calgary is where business decisions get made, Edmonton is where government decisions get made.
Calgary sees itself as the business capital, heavily influenced by connections to the American oil industry in Texas and the home of the braintrust of the federal Conservative movement. Edmonton is the government capital, heavily influenced by a combination of public servants and University employees as well as a base of blue-collar and trades workers with connections to Fort McMurray and northern Alberta.
These are obviously big generalizations that don’t reflect the diversity and complexity of the two cities but it does help explain some of the political differences between the two municipalities.
While I think the political differences between two two cities can sometimes be overstated, a troubling political narrative that has developed over the past six years has been that because Calgary is perceived to have felt the brunt of the economic fallout caused by the drop in the international price of oil, it is now Edmonton’s turn to feel the economic pain (translation: public sector wage rollbacks and job cuts).
There is an old saying in Alberta politics that a party has to win most of the seats in two of the three political regions of the province in order to form government – Calgary, Edmonton or rural Alberta. The “rural Alberta” in this calculation includes the small and medium size cities, which, with the exception of Lethbridge, have in the past four decades mostly voted in sync with the rest of rural Alberta – conservative.
But the calculation is generally correct. With a combined 46 seats in the Legislature, the two large cities represent the majority of Alberta voters (I hope to write more about voting patterns in “rural Alberta” in a future article).
This year marks one year since the United Conservative Party won the 2019 election and five years since the New Democratic Party won the 2015 election, undeniably two of the most important elections in Alberta’s recent political history. The two votes marked the first changes in government in Alberta since 1971, and both highlighted the political differences between Calgary and Edmonton.
The Progressive Conservatives had dominated Calgary since 1971 but in 2015 a combination of a surge of votes and the first-past-the-post electoral system allowed the NDP to elect 15 MLAs with 34 percent of the vote. The PCs earned 31 percent and the Wildrose placed third with 23 percent in Alberta’s largest city.
The 2015 election marked the first time since 1989 that the NDP had elected an MLA in Calgary and the first time since 1967 that a party other than the PCs won a majority of seats in the city.
While many prominent conservative pundits and politicians claimed the NDP breakthrough in Calgary, and much of the rest of Alberta, was a result of a vote-split on the political right, a closer look at that election would support the argument that the vote split was actually between the NDP and Wildrose among voters unhappy with the 43-year governing PC Party dynasty.
Edmonton has earned the nickname Redmonton for its reputation for electing more Liberals and NDP MLAs than anywhere else in the province. But despite the nickname, the capital city is historically more electorally competitive than it is an opposition bastion. Voters in the capital city have swung between parties more frequently than any other region in Alberta, making it one of the few consistently competitive areas of the province.
Led by Edmonton-Strathcona MLA Rachel Notley, the NDP swept the city in 2015, earning 65 percent of the total vote and winning every seat. The PCs earned 20 percent and the Wildrose finished with 8 percent in the capital city.
As one local PC Party campaign manager described to me after the 2015 election, their candidate faced “a giant impenetrable wall of orange.”
Four years later in 2019, the NDP maintained its vote share in Calgary but were only able to elect three MLAs as the UCP succeeded in consolidating the large base of PC and Wildrose voters, though a number of UCP candidates earned below the combined totals from the previous election. The NDP earned 34 percent of the vote and the UCP, led by Calgary-Lougheed MLA Jason Kenney, amassed 53 percent and elected 23 MLAs.
The seats won by Calgary NDP MLAs in the 2019 election have a tradition of electing non-conservative MLAs. Calgary-Buffalo and Calgary-Mountain View elected Liberals and NDP MLAs in the 1980s and 1990s, and Calgary-McCall swung to the Liberals in the 2000s.
Although the NDP lost all but one of the suburban surrounding the city, the party maintained its dominance in Edmonton in 2019, winning 53 percent of the vote and holding all but one seat. The UCP elected 1 MLA and earned 35 percent of the vote in the capital city.
The only viable third party in the 2019 election, the Alberta Party, earned 10 percent of the vote in both cities but failed to elect any MLAs. Party leader Stephen Mandel was unsuccessful in his bid for election in Edmonton-McClung and its two Calgary incumbents were defeated.
Past elections in the two cities
The results of these two elections, and how they have shaped Alberta politics in the most recent two election prompted me to take a broader look at voting results in Calgary and Edmonton over the past four decades.
1986: The departure of Peter Lougheed as Premier of Alberta in 1985 clearly had a big impact on Alberta politics, as the economic recession that followed allowed NDP led by Edmonton-Norwood MLA Ray Martin breakthrough in the capital city in the 1986 election.
Calgary remained a PC Party stronghold following Lougheed’s departure, with the NDP and Liberals electing a handful of MLAs between 1986 and 1997, and 2004 and 2012.
The election of Liberal Sheldon Chumir in Calgary-Buffalo in 1986 marked the beginning of a long-line of non-conservative MLAs representing that district. Non-conservative candidates would win in Calgary-Buffalo in nine of the next eleven elections (the district is currently represented by NDP MLA Joe Ceci).
Edmonton became the competitive hotbed of Alberta politics and a deep rivalry developed between Liberal Party and NDP partisans in the capital city.
The competition between the Liberals and NDP in Edmonton during this period generated much discussion around a “unite the left” movement to defeat the PCs, though this perennial debate largely became mute when the NDP formed government in 2015.
1993: In 1993, Premier Ralph Klein further consolidated his party’s electoral grip on Calgary while the Liberals led by former mayor Laurence Decore executed a clean sweep of the capital city. The Liberals were the beneficiaries of a collapsing NDP vote and also a burgeoning group of Reform Party voters wanting change on the provincial and federal levels.
The Liberals would again dominate Edmonton in the 1997 and 2004 elections, though the party began to resemble a group of independents more than the cohesive political organization created by Decore.
Competition between Decore’s Liberals and former Calgary mayor Klein’s PCs led to obvious descriptions of provincial politics as the battle of Alberta.
2001: The 2001 election marked a turn back toward the PC Party in Edmonton, which would then lose most of its seats when the Liberals and NDP rebounded in 2004 before regaining ground in the city in 2008 and 2012. This period marked the beginning of a decline of the Liberal Party in Edmonton after almost two decades as the official opposition party.
The 2001 election also marked the first time since 1982 that the PCs won every seat in Calgary.
2004: The 2004 election marked a breakthrough for the opposition Liberals in Calgary where the party elected three MLAs, the most since 1993. The Liberals would expand its voter base in Calgary and elect four MLAs in 2008 as the party’s fortunes in Edmonton sharply declined after it regained much of its seats in the 2004 election.
2012: The 2012 election marked a significant shift in the political environment in Alberta with the two large cities coalescing behind the PC Party. The opposition Wildrose Party swept much of rural Alberta, forming the first rural based official opposition party since the Social Credit Party in the 1970s. This trend would continue in the 2015 election as the Wildrose Party regained most of its seats following the 2014 floor-crossings.
(Note: Thank you to Shane Smith for sharing the poll level election maps. You can follow Shane on Twitter at @Smith80D).
While much of my undergraduate studies at the University of Alberta focused on Canadian politics, one of my favourite courses covered a topic far away from the prairies – the Habsburg Monarchy. It was a combination of an unfamiliar topic and a passionate professor that made this course memorable. So my interest was piqued when the words “South Tyrol” began circulating in Alberta political circles this week.
“Should Alberta be an autonomous Province? South Tyrol has” asked Airdrie-East MLA Angela Pitt in a Facebook post linking to a website showcasing facts about the autonomous province in northern Italy.
I expect many German-speaking South Tyroleans would probably prefer to re-join their linguistic cousins in Austria than remain in Italy.
I am not sure which other province or region Alberta would join if we adopt what might be Pitt’s version of an autonomous-province. Perhaps Frederick Haultain’s dream of a Province of Buffalo could be finally be realized if Alberta merged with its smaller cousin to the east, Saskatchewan? Or maybe British Columbia’s Peace Country will finally be released to unite with its northwestern Alberta cousins?
But Red Deer-South UCP MLA Jason Stephan is certainly whittling down the number of possible candidates.
Stephan apologized to the Legislative Assembly this week after describing other Canadian provinces as “hostile, parasitic partners” in a speech about federal fiscal policies and equalization program.
The rookie MLA and sole UCP backbencher appointed to the powerful Treasury Board committee also claimed that “Alberta must liberate itself from this mess.”
While Alberta is not going to separate from Canada, the final report from the government-appointed Fair Deal Panel will include recommendations to increase provincial autonomy from Ottawa.
The panel and its open-mic town hall meetings were both a relief valve and a steering wheel meant to allow Albertans to vent their frustrations while allowing Kenney to attempt to keep control of the latest burst of separatist fervour. The separatist fervour from Alberta’s right-wing fringe, despite the media attention it generated, now appears to have mostly died out.
The panelists included former Reform Party leader Preston Manning, former Progressive Conservative MLA Donna Kennedy-Glans, Peter Lougheed‘s son Stephen, and perennially disgruntled UCP backbencher MLA Drew Barnes of Cypress-Medicine Hat and fellow backbenchers Miranda Rosin of Banff-Kananaskis and Tany Yao of Fort McMurray-Wood Buffalo. The panel was tasked with making recommendations on topics including withdrawing from the Canada Pension Plan, replacing the Canada Revenue Agency by establishing a provincial revenue agency, opting out of federal programs like pharmacare, forming an office of a Chief Firearms Officer, and forming a provincial police force.
The NWMP had been created in 1873 and was part of the federal government’s suppression of the North West Rebellion in 1885, but, by 1917, Ottawa’s attention was focused on the First World War and there was little federal interest in enforcing provincial prohibition laws that had been enacted in 1916.
The APP merged into the RCMP in 1932 following negotiations between the provincial and federal governments during the Great Depression. The agreement to offload the costs associated with policing to the RCMP stipulated that former provincial police officers who transferred to the federal police would maintain their seniority and be eligible to receive pensions in accordance with their years of service.
When officers hung up their blue APP uniforms on April 15, 1932, it was reported in the Calgary Daily Herald that it took more than a month for the red RCMP uniforms to arrive in Alberta. So during the short period following the return of the federal police, RCMP officers worked in civilian clothes or, for those who worked as police in Alberta before 1917, wore the uniforms of the old NWMP.
While Alberta politicians have generally expressed pleasure with contracting policing responsibilities to the federal government, there have been several attempts to reinstate a provincial police force.
The next notable attempt to reinstate the APP came in 1937 from Edson MLA Joseph Unwin, the Whip of the Social Credit government caucus. Unwin introduced a motion to abolish the RCMP in Alberta and replace it with an Alberta Provincial Police Force.
Unwin argued that it was preferable that “the police force in the province should be indisputably at the exclusive orders of the attorney general.” Given this comment and the context of the time, it is fairly safe to speculate that Unwin was hoping to create a police force that would enforce the Social Credit ideological and political agenda in Alberta.
Unwin introduced the motion the same week he was arrested on charges of libel and counselling to murder in what would become known as the Bankers’ Toadies scandal.
Unwin and British Social Credit expert George Frederick Powell were arrested when police raided the party headquarters following the printing of a pamphlet advocating the “extermination” of nine prominent Edmontonians. The nine men, labelled as “Bankers’ Toadies,” included Conservative Party leader David Duggan and Senator and former mayor William Griesbach.
Unwin was sentenced to 3-months hard labour for the libel charge, which was later overturned on appeal. He did not resign as an MLA when he went to jail and his return to the Legislature was celebrated by Social Credit MLAs with a “snake dance” on the floor of the Assembly.
Various PC MLAs called for the creation of a provincial police force during the 1980s and early 1990s but most of those calls were quickly discredited because they were usually followed closely by racist comments about RCMP officers wearing turbans or speaking French.
Anti-oil patch activist Wiebo Ludwig called for the creation of a provincial police force during his brief run for the Social Credit Party leadership in 2000 before having withdraw from the race after a judge refused to waive the conditions of his bail.
Motions recommending the creation of a regional police force or to make public studies conducted to assess the creation of a provincial police force were introduced by Wainwright MLA Doug Griffiths in 2003 and Lethbridge-East MLA Ken Nicol in 2004 were debated in the Legislature but gained no real traction.
Premier Ed Stelmach defeated Morton in the leadership race and signed a 20-year agreement with the federal Conservative government that would have the RCMP continue as Alberta’s police force until March 31, 2032.
“This is wonderful news for the province and for Albertans,” Stelmach said in an August 2011 press release. “This agreement makes good financial sense for Alberta and strengthens a valuable relationship with a partner who continues to play a key role after more than a century keeping Alberta communities safe.”
The Fair Deal report will have to be publicly released before we know for sure what it recommends, but a move to create a new provincial police force in 2020 would face two powerful political factors
First, systematic racism and police violence against people of colour in the Canada and the United States has led to mounting calls to “defund the police.” Massive protests calling out systematic racism have taken place across the country, including a 15,000-strong rally outside the Legislature in Edmonton and similar rallies in Calgary and around the province. City councils and police commissions are now facing increased public pressure to reign in budgets and address systematic racism in the civilian police forces.
Second, Kenney has said that a great reckoning is coming for Alberta’s finances, which will likely mean more massive job cuts in the public sector across Alberta. If the Kenney is laying-off teachers and nurses, it will be difficult for him to explain to Albertans that he needs to spend money on creating a brand new police force. A lack of finances was the main reason why the provincial police were disbanded in 1932.
Creating a new provincial police force in this context would be incredibly tone deaf and completely unnecessary. But like many political decisions being made in Alberta lately, the world appears to be moving in one direction and our government moving in another. It kind of reminds me of those Habsburgs just over a century ago.
The bill was introduced by Energy Minister Sonya Savage on March 31 and received Royal Assent on April 2 after limited debate through an expedited legislative process.
Bill 12 included amendments to the Oil and Gas Conservation Act and the Pipeline Act, which Savage argued “provide clarity about the OWA’s mandate, better enabling it to, first, make agreements with producers to help bring sites through closure stages; two, ensure oil and gas resources are not prematurely abandoned; and three, exert more financial control to actually manage the orphan sites.”
During debate in the Legislature, Edmonton-Gold Bar NDP MLA Marlin Schmidt criticized the accelerated passage of a bill dealing with this decades old problem.
“I certainly don’t want to be responsible for leaving a $300 billion bill for my children and grandchildren to have to deal with because we didn’t have the foresight and the fortitude to make the polluters pay when we had the opportunity to do so,” Schmidt said in the Assembly on April 1.
In a press release last week the ALDP expressed concerns that Bill 12 threatens landowner rights by broadening the list of activities companies can carry out on private property without compensation to or consent from the landowner and creates loopholes which effectively transfer landowner compensation to taxpayers, leaving unpaid property taxes being written off in bankruptcy.
The group also expressed concern about political interference in oil well clean-up, with Bill 12 giving the provincial cabinet the power to direct the Orphan Well Association’s work and funding.
“Which wells get prioritized for cleanup should be determined by independent evaluations and public health requirements, not by partisan politics,” said former Calgary-Mountain View Liberal MLA David Swann, who is a member of the ALDP.
“Having Cabinet drive decisions on well cleanup means the OWA could become a slush fund for the government to reward their friends and punish vocal opponents. We can’t let that happen,” Swann said.
There is currently estimated to be more than 3,700 orphan wells scattered across Alberta and an additional 94,000 inactive wells in the province.
New AER CEO
Stepping right into the middle of the oil well liability issue is Laurie Pushor, who took over as the new Chief Executive Officer of the Alberta Energy Regulator on April 15. Pushor recently served as deputy minister of Energy and Resources in the Saskatchewan government and before that as a ministerial chief of staff, but political watchers in Alberta may remember him from his time in Alberta in the 1980s an 1990s.
Pushor served as executive assistant to Premier Ralph Klein and spent two years as a senior aide to Peter Elzinga, former minister of economic development and was executive assistant to transportation minister Marv Moore in the early 1980s.
He was also the Progressive Conservative candidate in Edmonton-Meadowlark in the 1993 and 1997 elections, where he earned 31 percent and 38 percent of the vote placing second to Liberal MLA Karen Leibovici. He served as president of the local PC Party association in-between those two elections.
It is remarkable how quickly time flies by. Fifteen years ago I was probably sitting on my couch in the living room of my heavily-subsidized and very run-down University of Alberta-owned residence in north Garneau when I first clicked the publish button on my brand new blogspot.com website. That was probably how Daveberta was born.
I was in the fourth year studying an undergraduate degree in Political Science that would be drawn out for a not insignificant number of more years as I threw myself into student union politics and activism, and then provincial politics.
I had no idea that 15 years later this website would still exist, and that it would also spin off into a podcast and lead to hundreds of media interviews, conference panels and speaking engagements, because at the time blogging was a novelty and something that a lot of people were just trying out.
Maybe I am just one of the few who had staying power?
The name Daveberta was inspired, somewhat mockingly, in response to Paulberta t-shirts donned by Paul Martin delegates attending the 2003 Liberal Party of Canada leadership convention in Toronto (which I was among at the time). I figured Daveberta both sounded better and was more authentic (I am a third-generation Albertan and Martin was not).
A lot has changed in politics over the past fifteen years, for myself and Alberta.
Fifteen years ago I was heavily involved in student politics at the U of A and in Liberal Party politics, mostly at the provincial level. This website certainly had a partisan inclination when it was launched and along with CalgaryGrit.ca and AlbertaDiary.ca (now AlbertaPolitics.ca) became one of the go-to blogs focusing on Alberta politics.
Back then I was a proud a partisan and largely depended on blog aggregators, links from other blogs, and keyword searches to generate website traffic.
Today, I enthusiastically hold no party membership (my political inclinations have also significantly shifted) and depend much more on Facebook and Twitter to reach my readers.
Alberta politics used to be boring, or so I am told, but the past fifteen years have been anything but boring. The political landscape has witnessed a number of political upheavals, and might be a little confusing to someone from 2005. Here’s a quick look at a few of the things that have changed in Alberta politics since Daveberta.ca was launched fifteen years ago:
Then: Ralph Klein was in what would soon be seen as the dying days of his premiership. Klein led the PC Party to win a reduced majority government in the November 2004 election, which was dubbed the “Kleinfeld” campaign because of the lack of central narrative of the PC Party campaign. Klein would be unceremoniously dumped by PC Party members at a leadership review in 2006, and he would resign from office months later and fade into obscurity after hosting a short-lived TV gameshow in Calgary.
Now: Former Member of Parliament Jason Kenney leads a UCP majority government, after successfully staging the merger of the membership of the PC Party and Wildrose Party, and leading the party to victory in the 2019 election. Like Klein, Kenney is hell bent on dismantling the high-quality public services that Albertans depend on each day. But unlike Klein, Kenney appears to committed to a much more ideologically-driven free market agenda.
Leader of the Official Opposition
Then: Kevin Taft had just led the Liberal Party from what appeared to be the brink of oblivion to more than triple the party’s number of MLAs. The Liberals regained most of the seats it lost in the disastrous 2001 election and made a major breakthrough in Calgary, electing three MLAs in Alberta’s largest city.
Now: Rachel Notley became leader of the official opposition after four years as Premier of Alberta. She becomes the first official opposition leader in 48 years to have previously served as premier. Notley announced in December 2019 that she plans to lead the NDP into the next election, expected to be held in 2023.
Now: Fringe politicians rally around the separatist flavour of the week, now known as Wexit, and a former respected newspaper owner and a defeated Toronto politician spoke in favour of separatism at a conservative conference in Calgary. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose…
It continues to be a wild ride, and a pleasure to share my thoughts on Alberta politics on this website and on the Daveberta Podcast.
There are a few people who I would like to recognize and thank for inspiring and supporting me along the way (this is by no means a comprehensive list and there are many people I am thankful for who helped me a long the way):
My family, and my beautiful wife Kyla in particular, have been incredibly understanding and tolerant of this hobby and my indulgences into Alberta politics.
My former boss at the Liberal Party, Kieran Leblanc, who is a dear-friend and someone who I definitely need to make time to meet for lunch with more often.
Adam Rozenhart and Ryan Hastman for helping start the Daveberta Podcast more than two years ago. The podcast continues to be a highlight for me, and a medium that I have enjoying focusing on over the past few years. (The Daveberta Podcast has been nominated in the Outstanding News & Current Affairs Series category in this year’s The Canadian Podcast Awards).
And a sincere thank you to everyone who keeps on reading this website and listening to the podcast. I may not still be writing on this website fifteen years from now, but regardless of how much longer it lasts, it has been a great experience.
Public education advocate and school trustee Michael Janz joins Dave Cournoyer on this episode of the Daveberta Podcast to discuss the state of public education in Alberta and how cuts in the United Conservative Party‘s first provincial budget will impact the education system in our province. We also discuss what is behind the UCP’s drive to expand private and charter schools, and why the New Democratic Party did not cut the 70% subsidy for private schools in Alberta while they were in government.
We also opened the mailbag to answer some of the great Alberta politics questions sent in by our listeners, and announce the launch of the Best of Alberta Politics 2019 survey which starts later this week.
A huge thanks to our producer, Adam Rozenhart, who tried to keep us on track during this episode.
The Daveberta Podcast is a member of the Alberta Podcast Network, powered by ATB. The Alberta Podcast Network includes more than 30 great made-in-Alberta podcasts.
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Notley knew what she was doing, and did not take it lightly, as she was willing to be thrown out of the Assembly for a day in order to make her point. This is the first time in recent memory that a leader of the official opposition has been removed from the Assembly.
The Election Commissioner’s investigation is related to illegal or irregular donations to the so-called Kamakaze campaign of Jeff Callaway, the former Wildrose Party president whose brief run for the UCP leadership is considered to have been a stalking-horse for front-runner Kenney. The RCMP are conducting a separate on-going investigation into the UCP leadership campaign.
Kenney’s campaign closely collaborated with Callaway’s campaign, and Matt Wolf, now the Premier’s Executive Director of Issues Management, played an intimate role. But that’s not the shady backroom business that is being investigated by the Commissioner or the RCMP.
The Office of the Election Commissioner was created in 2017 because it was determined that the Chief Elections Officer did not have the resources or political independence to launch thorough investigations into violations of Alberta’s election finance laws.
Wildrose MLAs argued against the creation of his office and UCP supporters have both despised and dismissed Gibson’s investigations, but it is the timing and brazenness of the firing that was shocking.
Before it was tabled for First Reading in the Assembly, Government House Leader Jason Nixon moved to fast-track Bill 22 by severely limiting debate to one hour at each stage in the Legislative process.
The UCP are changing the rules because people involved in the party broke the rules and were starting to get caught. Kenney knew that firing the Election Commissioner would be unpopular, but he is clearly willing to spend significant political capital to end the investigations into the Kamikaze campaign. It is a cynical move that is bad for democracy and bad for Alberta.
Notley asks LG to not give Royal Assent to Bill 22
It is clear that the best interests of Albertans would be served by allowing the Office of the Election Commissioner to continue its investigations into violations of Alberta’s elections laws, an unlikely outcome if Bill 22 passes, but it is both a serious request and a risky and potentially ineffective political move to ask the Lieutenant Governor to intervene (as she is likely to decline, or worse, simply not respond to the request).
That said, the Lieutenant Governor does have a power known as reservation, which has rarely been exercised over Canadian history, and probably for good reason. The powers exist in Section 55 of the Constitution Act, and explained plainly, it means the Lieutenant Governor may adopt one of three courses of action in regard to any legislation passed by the Assembly: they may assent, they may “withhold” assent, or they may reserve their assent for “the Signification of the Queen’s Pleasure.”.
I am aware of two examples in recent history in which a Lieutenant Governor opted to withhold Royal Assent to a bill passed by a provincial legislature.
In 1937, Lieutenant Governor John Bowen refused to give Royal Assent to three bills passed by Premier William Aberhart’s Social Credit government, including the Accurate News and Information Act, which would have forced newspapers to hand over the names and addresses of their sources to the government, and to print government rebuttals to stories the provincial cabinet objected to. The unconstitutionality of the three bills was later confirmed by the Supreme Court of Canada.
In 1961, Saskatchewan Lieutenant Governor Frank Bastedo opted to withhold Royal Assent for a mineral rights bill, which was later approved through an order-in-council passed by the federal cabinet in Ottawa.
There have been two recent cases in Alberta’s history where Lieutenant Governor’s have publicly mused about withholding assent.
The bill introduced by Premier Peter Lougheed’s PC government was designed to prevent Aboriginal land claims in the northern Alberta, including the oilsands producing areas.
And in 2000, Lieutenant Governor Lois Hole publicly suggested she might have a long talk with Premier Ralph Klein before granting Royal Assent to Bill 11, a controversial health care bill.
And in one of the most odd-ball political plays including the Lieutenant Governor: the Kudatah. Opponents of Notley’s NDP government collected signatures for a petition to present to the Lieutenant Governor to hold a a plebiscite on the carbon tax and Farm safety laws or else they would enact a secret clause in the Elections Act to overturn the results of the May 2015 election (or something like that). With everything else that is going on lately, I don’t think Albertans need or want a repeat of that.
Deep cuts to the provincial budget are resulting in the cancellation of public services and job layoffs across the province, and the fallout from the federal election continues to dominate the political discussion. And crisis – organized crisis – reigns, as Premier Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party government dramatically shifts the political narrative on an almost daily basis.
But things got really weird last week when elected councillors of the County of Wheatland, a 8,700 person rural municipality east of Calgary, voted for a resolution calling for a possible Alberta independence vote. The councillor who introduced the motion is Jason Wilson, who according to his online biography also sits on the board of the local UCP association.
Yesterday, Kenney stood at the podium at the now one-day Manning Networking Conference in Red Deer to announce the creation of a “Fair Deal” panel that will look at ways to give the province more autonomy.
While some of the frustration felt by Albertans is legitimate, regional and partisan grievances are deeply intertwined in this province. With the UCP essentially operating as a provincial-wing of the federal Conservative Party, it is hard to believe that this panel would exist if Scheer had not snatched defeat from the jaws of victory on October 21.
The panel will be given a $650,000 budget to hold seven town hall meetings to consult with Albertans on a prescribed series of issues that have been bees in Conservative partisans’ bonnets for decades, including:
withdrawing from the Canada Pension Plan and creating an Alberta Pension Plan (something that was hinted last week and could have a big impact on the migration of interprovincial labour to Alberta),
replacing the Canada Revenue Agency by establishing a provincial revenue agency,
ending contracts with the RCMP and creating a provincial police force (the RCMP are currently investigating allegations of fraud in the UCP’s 2017 leadership contest),
opting out of federal programs like pharmacare,
forming an office of a Chief Firearms Officer (a Wildrose Party policy), and
creating an Alberta Constitution.
The panel’s mandate letter talks a lot about emulating Quebec, including implementing a rule that municipalities and school boards require the approval of the provincial government before they can enter into agreements with the federal government. This could be used by the Kenney government to cut off potential cooperation between municipalities and the federal government on projects like affordable housing, public infrastructure and climate change initiatives.
The panel and its town hall meetings are both a relief valve and a steering wheel meant to allow Albertans to vent their frustrations while allowing Kenney to attempt to keep ahead of the crowd. Or at least that’s probably the plan.
Kenney frequently boasts about the size of his electoral mandate, so it is notable that none of the autonomy polices to be considered by the panel were included in the UCP’s incredibly thorough election platform just six months ago.
And, like many of the initiatives started in the final few years of Klein’s tenure as premier, it was a meant to create a distraction from what had largely become a rudderless government.
The mandate letter of the MLA committee was filled with much more flowery and hopeful language than the doom-and-gloom fear of separatism included in the mandate letter of Kenney’s panel. But the real mandate of the MLA committee was to travel the province to gauge support for the Firewall manifesto – a similar mandate of Kenney’s panel.
The MLA Committee on Strengthening Alberta’s Role in Confederation held 12 public hearings between January and March 2004 and here is what they recommended:
Pension Plan: “The Committee believes that withdrawing from the CPP and creating a separate Alberta pension plan is not in the best interests of Albertans. That is not to say that the CPP should not be improved for Albertans and all Canadians. The Committee further recommendsthat Alberta develop and advocate further CPP reforms that will end the intergenerational inequity, and move the CPP to a fully-funded foundation.” (Page 19)
Tax Collection: “Collecting our own personal income taxes would be a costly venture. One analysis suggests that set-up costs would be $30-40 million and that annual administrative costs could be between $70 and $160 million (including the costs of an additional 1,000-2,000 full time positions that might be required).By comparison, the administrative fee paid by Alberta under the TCA is less than $5 million annually. The Committee is also concerned that individual Albertans and businesses in the province would incur higher out-of-pocket costs in complying with two separate tax systems. This consideration alone makes the idea impractical. The Committee recommends that the Government of Alberta reach a new Tax Collection Agreement with the federal government that addresses Alberta’s concerns and provides increased tax policy flexibility.” (Page 21)
Police Force: “The Committee recommends that the Government of Alberta commission a detailed study of policing alternatives to the RCMP in advance of the 2007 cost review. This analysis should include a careful examination of costs, efficiencies, and levels of service. … The Committee further recommends that appropriate municipal stakeholders be consulted in the cost review negotiations in 2007, and that consideration be given to inclusion of such stakeholders on the Alberta negotiating team.” (Page 25)
Senate: “The Committee recommends that the Government of Alberta, through the Council of the Federation, encourage the Premiers to consider a process that would see the Prime Minister fill Senate vacancies from lists of provincial nominees. In Alberta’s case, the list should be generated by a Senatorial election.” (Page 29)
Intergovernmental Relations: “The Committee further recommends that the Government of Alberta re-establish an office in Ottawa. Close proximity to, and face-to-face contact with, federal decision-makers would improve relations between our governments and would help ensure Alberta interests are accurately and efficiently conveyed and addressed.” (Page 58)
Our Future: “The Committee also recommends that the Government of Alberta work towards fixing the underlying structural problems of our Canadian institutions that feed the flames of western alienation. The Committee further recommends that the Government of Alberta establish a fund for use in pursuing those legal challenges deemed to be necessary and desirable for safeguarding Alberta’s Constitutional jurisdiction.” (Page 59)
The MLA committee and its final report rejected the Firewall manifesto and was quickly forgotten after Paul Martin’s Liberals lost their majority in June 2004 and Klein’s PCs had their knuckles rapped in November 2004. But unlike Klein’s committee, which resulted in some fairly moderate and milquetoast recommendations, many of the panel members appointed by Kenney yesterday and the political environment they exist in are much more ideologically driven and politically divided.
This weird ride doesn’t look like it’s going to end anytime soon. There’s more crisis ahead.
Alberta to reopen office in Ottawa, again
In his speech to the Manning Centre, Kenney announced that the Alberta government will open offices in Ottawa, Quebec, and British Columbia. It is unusual and unclear why the Alberta government would need offices in other provincial capitals or in Ottawa, where Albertans just elected 34 Members of Parliament to represent their interests. But an office in the federal capital is not unprecedented.
The Alberta government opened an office in Ottawa in 1939. The Ottawa office was closed in 1996 and its last executive director, Gordon Olsen (brother of War Room CEO Tom Olsen), relocated to Calgary. A government review conducted in 2000 concluded that technology allows people to research information just as easily without a full-time office in Ottawa.
In 2004, Klein publicly mused about opening an Alberta government-funded office in Ottawa for the province’s elected Senate nominees, but the unpopular idea died quickly.
Premier Alison Redford reopened the office in 2013 and Calgary energy lawyer Alan Ross was hired as Alberta’s representative. Premier Jim Prentice closed the office again in 2015.
The results across Canada were a mixed colour of red, orange, green, blue, and bleu as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is returning to Ottawa to form a new Liberal minority government. But the results in Alberta were anything but mixed.
The Conservative Party earned 69.2 percent of the total vote in Alberta in Monday’s federal election, which is 3 percent higher than the party’s previous high-water mark of 66.8 in Alberta in the 2011 federal election.
It is no surprise that the vast majority of Albertans voted Conservative and that nearly all of the province’s elected Members of Parliament are also Conservative. This has happened in virtually every election since I was born, and about 25 years before that too.
Conservative candidates were elected or re-elected in most ridings in ranges from 70 percent to over 80 percent. It appears that Battle River-Crowfoot remains the strongest Conservative voting riding in Canada, with 85 percent of voters in that riding supporting the Conservatives.
Conservatives also dominated in Alberta’s two largest cities, earning 69 percent in Calgary, and 63 percent of the vote in Edmonton, which voted overwhelmingly for the Alberta NDP in the recent provincial election.
The Conservative Party and its predecessor parties have dominated Alberta for decades, and the Conservative have represented the majority of Alberta’s federal ridings since 1958, and have held all of the province’s seats from 1972 to 1977, 1977 to 1988 and 2006 to 2008.
This election has once again reminded Canadians of the regional divides in our country but it should also not be a surprise. Regional division is a feature of Canadian politics and our First Past the Post electoral system exaggerates these divides.
While the NDP convincingly held off Conservative challenger Conservative Sam Lilly and Liberal Eleanor Olszewski, this election further exposed fractures between the provincial and federal NDP in Alberta.
McPherson’s opponents delighted in a decision by Rachel Notley to withhold her endorsement of McPherson until days before election day but it appears to have had no impact on the results in the riding. McPherson finished with 47 percent of the vote, four points ahead of now-former MP Linda Duncan‘s results from 2015.
The Liberals saw their province-wide vote total in Alberta cut to 13.7 percent, down from 24.6 percent in 2015. The personal unpopularity of Trudeau in Alberta, fuelled by angst and frustration with the current economic situation and the consistently low international price of oil, made it very unlikely that the Liberals would do well in Alberta in 2019.
Despite Sohi’s loss in Monday’s election, the congenial and personally popular politician is frequently named as a potential candidate for Edmonton’s 2021 mayoral election if Don Iveson decides not to seek re-election.
What could a Liberal minority government mean for Albertans?
The prospect of the Liberal minority government influenced by the NDP and Greens could lead to the introduction of new national programs that will benefit Albertans – including universal pharmacare and dental care, and expanded childcare coverage – and the prospect of real electoral reform that could ease some of the rigid political divides we saw in Monday’s election.
Trudeau announced today that his government plans to move ahead with the construction of the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion Project, despite delays caused by court challenges from First Nations communities. Because the construction of the pipeline project does not require any votes of Parliament, the minority situation is not likely to impact the construction of the project.
Oil pipeline aside, the Liberals are expected to push forward on their climate change plans, including the introduction of a federal carbon tax in Alberta next year. In what could be a sign of changing times, New Brunswick’s Progressive Conservative Premier Blaine Higgs announced his plans to create a provincial carbon tax, dropping his opposition the federal carbon tax.
Kenney still campaigning…
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney is showing no sign he plans to end his campaign against Trudeau, announcing this week that he has sent a letter to the prime minister outlining the Alberta government’s demands, including a plan for a resource corridor and changes to the equalization formula (none of which Trudeau campaigned for ahead of Monday’s election).
Kenney has announced plans to hold a series of town hall meetings to gauge voter frustration following the federal election. This could be similar to the MLA Committee on Alberta’s Role in Confederation created by Ralph Klein and chaired by Edmonton MLA Ian McClelland in 2004, which travelled the province to gauge support for the Firewall manifesto (the committee’s final report rejected most of the manifesto’s proposals).
The town halls are both a relief valve and a steering wheel that allows people to vent their frustrations while allowing Kenney, as Klein would say, to try to keep ahead of the crowd.
The results in Alberta and bot-driven promotion of the #wexit hashtag on Twitter have fuelled a surge of media interest of Alberta separatism, an idea that has no wide-spread support in this province.
Many Albertans are feeling a real sense of frustration with the federal government, as Monday’s election results demonstrate, but there is no evidence that Albertans are flocking en masse to separatism. None.
The Alberta government’s much talked about energy war room now has its General. Energy Minister Sonya Savage announced yesterday that Tom Olsen has been hired as the managing director of the newly incorporated Canadian Energy Centre. The $30-million publicly funded private corporation is part of the UCP’s “fight back strategy” to counter claims made by critics of the oil and gas industry that Premier Jason Kenney said will target politicians, media and other opinion leaders, and could include satellite offices overseas.
After years as a columnist and reporter for the large daily newspapers in Calgary and Edmonton, Olsen jumped into politics when he was hired as Premier Ed Stelmach’s spokesperson in 2007. (Olsen’s brother, Gordon Olsen, worked in senior roles in the Premier’s Office while Ralph Klein occupied the office).
In 2008, the Alberta government launched a website called “For the Record” that was dedicated to correcting what the government determined was incomplete or incorrect information in the media. “It’s not a forum to argue philosophy and spin. . . it’s not debating the rightness or wrongness of a particular issue. It’s about factual information,”Olsen told the Calgary Herald in December 2008. “I don’t see it as government policing journalists.”
It was the government policing journalists, and it did not last very long. The government website posted six corrections to news stories from various media outlets between November 2008 and December 2010. The website briefly became a source of controversy when Olsen insisted the Globe & Mail be referred to as the Toronto Globe & Mail. The website was later edited to drop Toronto from the newspaper’s name.
Olsen later worked as a lobbyist for groups including the Calgary Residential Rental Association, Greyhound and the national group representing Pay Day Loan companies. He found himself back in the Progressive Conservative Party fold when he became Vice-President of Communications during Jim Prentice‘s brief time as party leader.
Savage, a former pipeline lobbyist and now a member of the war room board of directors along with Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer and Environment and Parks Minister Jason Nixon, said this week that the war room will include a rapid response centre, an energy literacy unit and a data research unit. Former Postmedia columnist Claudia Cattaneo was hired in August 2019 by the government to write the Energy War Room Strategic plan.
In an interview with the Postmedia-owned Financial Post, Postmedia President and CEO Andrew MacLeod said that the lobby effort was part the company’s effort to find new revenue streams and that it had no relationship to editorial decision-making (meanwhile, the front cover of the Postmedia-owned National Post today featured a paid political advertisement attacking Prime Minister Justin Trudeau).
The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, a lobby group that represents many of Canada’s oil and gas companies, is also registered to lobby Alberta MLAs, the Minister of Energy and the Premier’s Office to share and advise on best practices for the war room to counter misinformation.
Postmedia’s past relationship with CAPP is no secret, but these group’s business relationships with the war room could be.
As CBC’s Michelle Bellefontaine reported today, as a private corporation the Canadian Energy Centre will be exempt from freedom of information requests, meaning that Albertans might not ever know how much of the $30 million is paid to Postmedia, CAPP or whichever UCP-connected PR firms are hired to work for the publicly-funded private war room.
Regardless of which PR companies or Toronto-based newspaper company gets hired, Olsen will have his job cut out for him. The first order of business for the new Canadian Energy Centre might be playing defence for the Alberta government’s $2.5 million public inquiry into anti-oil campaigns – an effort that has been criticized as a witch-hunt by groups like EcoJustice and the venerable Amnesty International.
While it may be easy for Kenney to dismiss NGOs and suggest that the 4,000 Albertans participating in the climate strike protest outside the Legislature were communist sympathizers, Olsen’s war room will have a harder time dismissing its greatest opponent – the free market.
Many major international oil and gas corporations have withdrawn their investments in Canada’s oilsands over the past five years, and the UCP’s decision to scale back the Alberta government’s climate change commitments certainly will not help how our province is perceived internationally.
Conservatives howled loudly this week as a major Norwegian pension fund withdrew investments in four Alberta-based oilsands companies. The move was described by UCP supporters online as hypocritical, as Norway continues to make investments in its own off-shore oil and gas platforms. The move may have been hypocritical, but those are the types of decisions that countries like Norway can make when they have $1.1 trillion saved in the bank (something for Albertans to think about when they consider how much past governments have squandered our wealth).
Olsen’s biggest challenge might be to prove that the war room is more than a $30-million public relations subsidy to Alberta’s oil and gas companies.
Public attitudes toward fossil fuels and climate change are shifting dramatically, and Alberta risks becoming increasingly isolated on energy and climate issues on the national and international stage. Judging from the Alberta government’s numerous high-profile efforts over the past two decades to correct what it saw as misinformation about the oilsands and fight environmental advocates outside the province, the war room might be an example of the UCP preparing to fight the last war.
A short history of Alberta government advertising campaigns and initiatives aimed at critics of oil and gas companies (I am sure I have missed a few):
2002: the Alberta government announced and later scrapped plans for an anti-Kyoto Accord advertising campaign in Ontario after focus group testing proved the messaging was unpopular among Torontonians.
2008: the Alberta government launched a public relations campaign targeting critics of the oilsands outside of Alberta, which included a 20-page glossy brochure entitled Alberta’s Oil Sands: Balance. Opportunity. This campaign included a North America and European speaking tour by the Premier.
2010: the Alberta government rolled out a slick $25-million “Tell It Like It Is” oilsands promotional campaign that included advertisements in London’s Piccadilly Circus and New York City’s Times Square. The multimedia blitz includes CDs and DVDs about “Alberta’s Clean Energy Future” and “A conversation on oilsands and the environment” – which features commentary from provincial experts.
2012: the Alberta government announced it was spending $77,000 on a pro-Keystone XL Pipeline advertising campaign during the Premier’s visit to Washington DC and hired lobbyists to directly lobby US officials.
2012: the federal Conservative government assigned Canadian diplomats to lobby Fortune 500 companies in the U.S. in order to counter campaigns launched by an environmental advocacy groups targeting the oilsands.
2013: the federal Conservative government launched a advertising campaign directed at American politicians ahead of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s trip to the United States. The ad campaign described Canada as a “world environmental leader” on oil and gas development.
2018: the Alberta government spent more than $23 million promoting its KeepCanadaWorking advertising campaign in support of the expansion of the Trans Mountain PIpeline from Alberta to British Columbia.
It is perhaps less unusual because the premier in question is Jason Kenney. As a federal cabinet minister he was praised by fellow partisans for his role in expanding Conservative Party’s outreach into New Canadian communities that had previously been the strongholds of the Liberal Party, a strategy that appeared solid until its collapse in 2015.
And while Kenney is currently the Premier of Alberta, he very much remains a national politician and one of the leaders of Conservative movement in Canada, frequently speaking at partisan fundraisers and events hosted by right-wing think tanks like the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies and the Manhattan Institute.
Kenney’s interest in the federal campaign is no surprise. Much of the United Conservative Party campaign in Alberta’s recent provincial election focused on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who Kenney had pledged his efforts to defeat in the October 21 federal election. And it is probably the worst-kept secret in Canadian politics that Kenney still harbours federal leadership ambitions. Ambitions that could be realized sooner than expected if Scheer stumbles in this election.
This is the first federal election in decades that both the federal and provincial Conservative parties in Alberta are marching in lock-step. The creation of the United Conservative Party in 2017 was just as much about the merging of the Progressive Conservative and Wildrose parties as it was creating harmony between the dominant provincial and federal Conservative parties.
This campaign trip to Ontario is not Kenney’s first, but it is much more extensive than his previous visits.
Kenney made an appearance at a fundraiser earlier this year in Brampton-North, where his former ministerial staffer Arpan Khanna is running for the Conservatives. Khanna managed Kenney’s Toronto office during his time as Minister of Multiculturalism and Minister of National Defence.
Flying to Ottawa today, Kenney launched his campaign tour with Conservative candidates Brian St. Louis in Nepean and Abdul Abdi in Ottawa-West Nepean.
While Kenney’s Ontario itinerary does not appear to be publicly available, UCP sources tell me that he is scheduled to spend the rest of the weekend canvassing door-to-door with Markham-Stouffvillecandidate Theodore Antony, attending a BBQ for Brampton-Centre candidate Pawanjit Gosal, headlining a rally with Vaughn-Woodbridgecandidate Teresa Kruze, and attending an event at the Canadian Coptic Centre in support of Conservative candidates in Mississauga, among about ten other appearances.
Kenney is not the first Alberta politician to spend some time campaigning in this region of Ontario. Alberta’s Minister of Community and Social Services Rajan Sawhney was in the area over the summer to campaign with Conservative candidates Sean Weir in Oakville North-Burlington and Ramandeep Singh Brar in Brampton-South.
If the federal Conservatives have any chance of forming government, it is believed that this is the region where that party will need to gain seats from the Liberals.
While Kenney campaigns in Ontario, he is also acutely aware of how this sort of intervention can go awry. Kenny was one of the senior Conservative Party officials who scolded then-Alberta premier Ralph Klein for contributing to his party’s defeat in the 2004 federal election.
Two days after that election was called, Klein publicly mused that his health-care reforms could possibly violate the Canada Health act, a statement which senior officials in the Conservative Party said helped Paul Martin’s Liberal Party shore up support in Ontario.
“There’s pretty much unanimous consensus in the federal party that these remarks weren’t helpful,” Kenney told the Calgary Herald in 2004. “Suggesting the Alberta government was prepared to announce violations of the Canada Health Act two days after an election was giving the Liberals a big fat one over centre plate.”
Few politicians can sustain themselves in a permanent campaign-mode like Kenney can. Anyone who has been paying attention to Alberta politics over the past few years can attest that he hasn’t stopped campaigning since his jumped into provincial politics in 2017. He is a career politician who can probably out-hustle almost any of his peers, but he also carries a few suitcases worth of political baggage on his trip east.
On the issue of gun control, which the Liberals raised at the beginning of the campaign, how will Kenney’s decision to publicly endorse vigilante gun justice in rural Alberta play in suburban Ontario? Kenney will be speaking to crowds of friendly Conservative voters, but I would not be surprised to see the Liberals bird-dog Kenney on this issue during his Ontario tour.
While Kenney is certainly not a separatist, he is trying to do what many past Alberta premiers have done in order to position themselves as the province’s great defender against the political interests of Central Canada.
Stoking western alienation will help solidify Kenney’s support among Conservative voters at home but it could also poison Alberta’s relationship with Ottawa even further if Trudeau’s Liberals are re-elected on October 21. This could help explain why no Alberta premier has parlayed their provincial success to federal politics – something Kenney may want to consider as he hits the campaign trail in Ontario this weekend.
Notley plays coy about her federal vote
Former Alberta premier Rachel Notley, now leader of the official opposition, continues to play coy when asked who she is planning to vote for in the October 21 federal election. “When we get closer to the election, I’ll make a decision in my own riding about which candidate’s best able to represent the needs of Albertans and the people in my riding of Edmonton-Strathcona,” Notley told CBC.
While I would be surprised if Notley did not vote for McPherson on October 21, it does demonstrate the deep distrust between the provincial and federal wings of the NDP in Alberta over issues like the expansion of the Trans Mountain Pipeline. While some former NDP MLAs defeated in the April 2019 election have been actively campaigning for federal NDP candidates, Notley and her current 24 NDP MLA caucus remain nowhere to be seen on the federal campaign trail in Alberta.
The kamakaze campaign that just won’t die
CBC investigative reporters have dived deep into the allegations of fraud and misuse of voting kiosks by Kenney’s campaign during the 2017 UCP leadership contest. According to CBC, the RCMP, which has been tight-lipped on the status and focus of its investigation, will only say it continues to investigate allegations of fraud as it relates to the 2017 UCP leadership race.
The report is an endorsement of the United Conservative Party government plan to implement deep cuts to public sector funding, a wide-range of drastic changes to how Alberta’s public services are delivered (or delivered at all), and the use of legislative tools to interfere with the collective bargaining process.
When reading the panel’s report and recommendations, it is important to remember this is not a neutral or academic document. The MacKinnon Report is very much a political document written by political people who were appointed because they share the government’s vision.
Despite her past political affiliation as an NDP cabinet minister in Saskatchewan, MacKinnon’s fiscal conservative views make her more likely to feel welcome in the UCP or the Fraser Institute than in a party led by Rachel Notley or Jagmeet Singh. For decades MacKinnon has been a champion of fiscal conservatism and more recently provided an enthusiastic endorsement that was prominently displayed in the UCP’s election platform.
The MacKinnon Report calls for funding freezes or cuts to public services across the board, including increased privatization of health services, changing the funding formula for Alberta schools (and likely introducing more private and charter schools), increasing government control of post-secondary institutions and lifting the current freeze on tuition fees, and downloading more infrastructure costs on municipalities.
In yesterday’s press conference announcing the report, MacKinnon suggested that “fewer hospitals” could be a solution to cutting the health care budget, which should raise giant red flags in rural communities across Alberta. During her time as Saskatchewan’s finance minister, 52 rural hospitals were closed as a result of budget cuts.
The recommended cuts and creation of legislative mechanisms to interfere with the collective bargaining processes are likely designed to create strife with public sector unions whose members would be directly impacted by these cuts – a group that the UCP is eager to pick fights with.
For anyone who grew up or lived in Alberta in the 1990s, it may feel like deja-vu.
When premier Ralph Klein and treasurer Jim Dinning imposed drastic cuts on public services, Albertans were told that balancing the budget and paying down the provincial debt was necessary to get Alberta’s fiscal house in order. At the time, a young anti-tax crusader named Jason Kenney cheered on those cuts, going so far as to tell the Western Report that “Education will be the toughest area to cut, but it will also be the most important. If the government backs down on this one, then the entire Klein revolution will fail.”
Successive governments, both Progressive Conservative and NDP, spent decades trying to fix the damage those short-sighted cuts had on Alberta’s communities, public infrastructure and public services.
The “blue ribbon” panel was created to provide an endorsement of Premier Kenney’s political program, and, if its recommendations are adopted, could be the most radically ideologically conservative agenda Albertans have seen in decades. It is a far cry from the technocratic conservative agenda meticulously implemented by former prime minister Stephen Harper, who Kenney served dutifully in Ottawa.
Unlike Harper, there is no indication that Kenney is interested in half-measures or incrementalism.
Alberta still has a big revenue problem
The narrow mandate of this panel was a missed opportunity to actually address the fiscal challenges facing Alberta, which includes issues with revenue ranging from low taxation and over-dependence on oil and gas royalty revenues.
The report briefly mentions that over-dependence on unreliable natural resource revenue is an issue, but the panel was specifically told not to provide recommendations to fix the revenue problem – only spending. Both MacKinnon and Finance Minister Travis Toews repeated the government’s well-used talking points during yesteday’s press conference – that Alberta has a spending problem and not a revenue problem.
The report frequently compares public sector spending in Alberta with British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec, but only when it comes to government spending. The big problem with comparing Alberta with our provincial counterparts on the spending side is that our revenue – generated through taxes – is significantly lower than every other province.
If Alberta had the same level of taxation as BC, which is the second lowest in Canada, then Alberta could have no deficit and could be collecting billions of dollars in additional revenue each year.
By not addressing the revenue challenges faced by the Alberta government, the MacKinnon Report shows it was created to justify the spending cuts and privatization of public services that the UCP was likely already planning to implement. Remember, this is a political document.
It’s hard to criticize the MacKinnon Report without also laying some criticism at the feet of the past PC and NDP governments who did not fix Alberta’s revenue problems when they had the chance. Had the NDP been as aggressive in fixing Alberta’s long-standing revenue problems as the UCP will be in attacking government spending, we might not be reading the MacKinnon Report today.
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and Environment and Parks Minister Jason Nixon announced through press release and a video on YouTube that the “war on fun” being waged by the “nanny state” was coming to an end as the government relaxes alcohol restrictions at festivals and in parks, including lifting the annual ban on liquor in provincial campgrounds over the May long weekend.
Kenney referenced prohibition-era laws in the video, but the May long weekend ban at some provincial campgrounds was only first imposed in 2004, when Ralph Klein was premier of Alberta. Klein had supposedly sworn-off alcohol by that point in his political career but he could hardly be described as a prohibitionist.
The 2004 government press release reinforced the reason for the ban: “During the 2003 May long weekend, there were a total of 239 recorded liquor-related enforcement action occurrences in Alberta’s 68 provincial parks, including written warnings, charges, arrests and evictions.”
Campers in parks across Alberta will find out quickly whether this or future May long weekends result in a return to the alcohol-fuel chaos that led to the ban in the first place.
The company that owns the Calgary Sun, Calgary Herald, Edmonton Sun and Edmonton Journal and dozens of other daily and local newspapers in Alberta and across Canada has hired a lobbyist to “to discuss ways Postmedia could be involved in the government’s energy war room.”
During the election campaign, Kenney pledged to fund a $30-million “war room” to respond to critics of the oil and gas industry, including environmental groups and Bill Nye (the Science Guy). The energy war room is essentially a $30-million public relations subsidy for some of the wealthiest corporations operating in Canada’s oil and gas sector.
It would appear that Postmedia is fishing for a cut of the war room advertising money, likely for its “Content Works” division, which creates advertisements in the style of an editorial or news article. Literal fake news funded by taxpayers. The whole thing stinks.
Postmedia’s conservative editorial bias is well-known. Despite attempts by some local editors-in-chief to maintain local autonomy, the Toronto-based company has in required its newspapers to publish prescribed election endorsements of Conservative parties across the country.
This is not the first time Canada’s largest media company has become involved with oil and gas industry advocacy. In 2014, it was revealed that the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers made a pitch to Postmedia Network’s board of directors to create an “Energy Channel Sponsorship” for Postmedia newspapers to “amplify” CAPP’s “energy mandate.”
And as Postmedia is positioning itself for a role in the war room, its CEO Paul Godfrey is one of the key players agitating for funding from a new $595 million federal government media fund.
So this weekend as you relax in your lawn chair in one of Alberta’s beautiful provincial parks, forget about toasting a monarch who has been dead for 118-years, as Kenney and Nixon did in their video. Instead, raise a responsible drink or two for efforts to combat climate change, the freedom of the press, and for those poor reporters working for Postmedia who are just trying to do good journalism despite the best attempts of their bosses in Toronto.