Seamanship Quotation

“In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination.”
— from Michael Oakeshott's
Political Education” (1951)

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Canada’s summer politics: “aspirational” energy conferences

We scold Americans for their political theatrics and scold ourselves for watching. We put maps of Greece in place of the forty-eight states and complain that our dollar is uncompetitive. We have majority governments everywhere and triple-A credit ratings from coast to coast. Canada’s Liberal Party—the official residence of  moderates—seem to have so little room to grow that they’ve decided to spend the summer meekly listening to the people.

Ontario—the largest, richest, and, demographically and politically, the most secure jurisdiction in the country—is gearing up for an election in which every party will complain about the province’s woes. In Ottawa, the pundits wait for Harper to make his first big mistake. In the meantime, they note that he’s still reluctant to spend $10 million to renovate the Prime Minister’s official residence.

If only to relieve the boredom, governments and senior executive lobbyists decided that Canada was missing a “national energy strategy.” Their solution was unassuming but apparently irresistible. None of the advocates of thinking-as-one had a precise political issue to resolve. No province volunteered or was asked to surrender an iota of their authority over energy development, resource ownership and in-province regulation. Business spokesmen didn’t come close to saying energy mega projects shouldn’t be carefully regulated, only that they be regulated timely fashion.

The willingness of the Harper government to play along at the Energy Ministers’ Annual Conference was out of character. Harper may not believe in “fire walls” to protect Alberta anymore. But, he’s still a classical federalist; rather than resent, he generally prizes clear divisions of responsibility in the constitution.

The only possible concrete accomplishment of a “national energy strategy” would be a united rather than divided set of lobbies for more federal money and support. Ontario’s bid for federal aid to build another clean nuclear reactor would be strengthened and Alberta would get to feel less isolated as the fossil fuel engine of the national economy. To Harper, the former would surely be unwelcome and the latter fanciful.

Unsurprisingly, the energy ministers’ conference failed to agree to anything specific. Ontario’s decision not to even associate itself with the communiqué’s platitudes, however, may explain Harper’s early support of the effort.

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The Ontario Minister of Energy Brad Duguid explained that Ontario could not associate itself with even the notion that the oil sands projects are “sustainable and responsible.” Such a direct attack on the principal industry of Ontario’s burgeoning  trading partner—and vital source of financial support—must have been orchestrated by the Premier’s re-election strategists.

On energy subsidies, environment priorities, and Equalization payments, the McGuinty government is clearly going to try to pick fights with conservatives in Ottawa and the West in order to energize its election campaign this fall. 

Harper would be unrealistic to hope that he won’t be attacked by McGuinty for any number of omissions and sins. All the premiers run against Ottawa when they’re in trouble and loyal Ontario premiers have never been any different.

What Harper must worry about over the long term is the fragile amity between his two great political bases—nervous Ontario and surging Western Canada. He will likely make substantive as well as rhetorical gestures to try to keep them at peace.    

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