Alberta’s new Premier can’t bank on an extended honeymoon just because she’s the first un-conservative to take office since the Great Depression. There’s nothing especially attractive about watching yet another social democrat mature in office. The conventions on dancing to the left of Conservatives and Liberals without being too “socialistic” are time-tested and tiresome.
It’s all so Canadian: They grow politically when they accept that most of their time will be spent graciously—and promptly—addressing other people’s messes.
The Alberta electorate was emphatic. Abacus Data’s survey of post-election attitudes confirms that the vast majority of Albertans are pleased that they have a new government. That same majority, however, doesn’t want to change Alberta very much, nor downsize its expensive expectations as tax-paying workers and clients of her government.
Alberta’s economic circumstances are far less certain than the demands of its people. The foundation of its exceptional wealth hasn’t been low taxes, seasonal tourism, superior public infrastructure and a flexible labor force—but robust external demand for its abundant fossil resources. Right now, the profitability and access to continental and world markets of those resources are deteriorating. "Next Year Country" isn’t inspiring much hope right now.
It’s smart in opposition and in think tanks to blue-sky the other side of the road; diversifying resource economies is always desirable. But that isn’t what landlocked Prairie governments are first obliged to do. And telling oil executives, developers, investors, and staff to not be afraid of Notley and her cadre of Eastern sophisticates is presumptuous. They have much bigger things to worry about.
Performance metrics for the Notley government are settling in against a decade of lower prices.
The urgent challenge for Notley is not to strike the proverbial right balance as a social democrat but to embrace the bracing legacy of Peter Lougheed and reassert the Alberta and the Prairie’s core imperative: equitable support for, and treatment of, its landlocked resource industries.
To be taxable, to be able to afford cleaner technologies and standards and to be able to pay off waves of white-collar lobbyists, ravenous "social license" holders and NIMBYs of various stripes, the Alberta oil industry must make a handsome profit selling crude oil at prices buyers set thousands of miles away.
It was harmless politics in the campaign for Notley simply to shrug that the Keystone oil pipeline and the Gateway Project had been fatally mishandled by insensitive right-wingers. Being stoical about past failures, however, isn’t what Alberta Premiers are elected to do.
Without Keystone, the most advanced and economic line to meet new oil production already approved, Alberta will stop being a competitive place to invest and that means lower employment and personal as well as public income.
There is no doubt that powerful and influential shallow forces in Washington, BC, Ontario, and Quebec would find it less displeasing and less politically expensive to burn another barrel of “Notley Alberta Oil” than another barrel of Stephen Harper’s. Fair or not, that’s the Alberta “advantage” today—and she’s obliged to play it.
Notley can surely get a second hearing of Alberta vital interests. The only question is where she is prepared to assert them.