Back to the Future, God Damn It

Well, Alberta has stepped backwards again. Stepping backwards politically is an act so familiar to us that when we finally stepped forward and elected a progressive government four years ago it was a seismic shock to the national political psyche. Rachel Notley’s government stepped boldly onto the stage, and led the way for a shift to the left that seemed to open the way to the sunny uplands of post-Harper, post-Klein politics for Canadians.

But oh, just wait. The REALPOLITIK of international oil was about to cast a bigger vote than the Alberta electorate. Where the Conservatives had failed to advance Albertans’ interests when oil cost 150 bucks a barrel, the New Democrats were now going to have to construct a New Deal with a fraction of the resources that poured into the coffers of generations of right-wing Alberta governments.

Their strategy was to spend money. They spent it on infrastructure. Simple stuff: schools, roads, medical facilities. Yes, they ran the deficit higher.   They did so in a time of lower debt cost and cheaper labour. Albertans did not have ridiculously high-paying jobs in Fort McMurray any more.   Never mind that McMurray had had half the townsite burned to ashes by the worst forest fire in the province’s history. The dogged rebuilding of Alberta’s failing infrastructure continued.

This was precisely the correct thing to do. In the face of economic downturn, the NDP government worked to keep the province functioning, to keep the pump primed in the hope that international oil prices would gradually recover, and the ship would gradually right itself.

Then it gradually dawned upon all of us who were pulling for the progressive wing of Alberta politics: the one thing that could actually pull the oil industry out of its years-long slump was a national commitment to a national energy policy; instead of being shipped to the United States at steeply discounted prices, Alberta oil would be shipped in greater volume by additional pipeline capacity to the East and West coasts and made available to overseas markets. But this would not come to pass, because neither the British Columbia nor the Quebec governments felt it was in their interest to support such a policy, and they blocked it with an energy that might have been expected from the most vociferous of anti-leftist governments.

So Notley’s government, blocked by so-called left-wing governments from access to world markets, proposed a desperate new measure: increase rail capacity so more oil could be shipped by tanker cars. This would involve investment in millions upon millions of dollars in this failing technology. Rail cars are an ecologically and technically inefficient way to run what is effectively an above-ground pipeline. They constantly leak, they involve massive infrastructure, they deny native peoples the right to new royalty benefits, and they steer the economic benefits to the traditional economic powerhouses– the rail companies. This policy, in some form, now seems the most likely oil transportation scheme that is somehow, impossibly, the way forward.

This Pyrrhic victory for the “progressive” forces in British Columbia and Quebec helped ring the death knell for Notley’s government. Jason Kenny, the latest in a long line of right-wing populists, who has offered nothing but a return to the backward-facing politics of generations of Alberta conservatives, has been swept to power on a promise to balance the budget and “put Albertans back to work again.” Inventing an array of statistics and numbers about the horrible disaster created by the NDs, and promising a return to the comfortable boom-time economics of the 1990s, Kenny has managed to convince a vast plurality of Albertans that somehow, our province will economically bloom again in a world environment where Alberta oil is still worth a fraction of its former price.

For the immediate future, we can expect to see rollbacks in infrastructure funding, in education, and in health care.   The new schools that have been very visibly constructed across our province will be either finished (and then claimed as a triumph of the UCP gang), or left to languish. We will see vast cuts in public services in the name of budget balancing. We can also reasonably expect that our new government will have absolutely no answer to the REALPOLITIK of world oil price, but they will of course push for the oil pipeline: their very political future absolutely depends on it. Nor will this push have anything to do with a national energy strategy: their whole platform is anti-Fed.

And I, as a third (and if you count my children—fourth) generation Albertan left-winger am now left to tear my raiments and wonder what might have been if Notley’s government, had been granted a modicum of luck with regard to oil prices. One of her most-hated policies was the institution of a Carbon Tax, a five-cent-per-litre levy on gas purchase. Not doubt there are thousands of owners of gas-guzzling trucks and SUVs who will celebrate the fact that they can get a few kilometers futher down the road on their hundred-dollar fuel purchase. Personally, I’m going to miss the solar and wind initiatives that have been, and would continue to have been, funded by that tax. Get ready, Canada. We’re going backwards yet again. We’ve rejected a real leader, a woman of remarkable strength and vision, and replaced her with yet another clone.

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