Jordan: Sometimes the things you think you know about a place when you’re an outsider turn out to be completely false. This is not one of those times
News Clip: Angry and ignored. The feeling among the 2000 protesters here, frustrated by the enormous discount Alberta crude is being sold for. The reason for that crisis and this protest: an inability to get Canadian oil to market due to a lack of pipeline capacity and rightly or wrongly, in this crowd, much of the blame for that lies with Justin Trudeau.
Jordan: If you want to know how Alberta is going to vote in October, ask yourself how the oil and gas industry will be doing by then? Ask yourself if the long awaited Trans Mountain pipeline will be under construction by then? And ask yourself, how does Alberta typically feel about leaders named Trudeau? This week, our Lay of the Land project dives into Canada’s conservative stronghold, where a good 85% of the ridings can be called, like, right now. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can learn by examining just how Trudeau and the Liberals came to be so hated in this province, or by looking at what has voters in the few swing ridings that exist still making up their minds, or by wondering what, if anything, could dent Andrew Scheer’s chances in this province? Because, as he might be learning from Ontario polls right now, electing an overwhelmingly Conservative provincial government doesn’t necessarily guarantee the federal vote will go that way, too. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings, and this is The Big Story. Jason Markusoff is the Alberta correspondent for Macleans. Hey, Jason!
Jason: Howdy, as we say out here.
Jordan: How’s democracy going out in Alberta?
Jason: Oh, it’s It’s always churning, and war rooming, and going forth.
Jordan: We are now, at least a couple of months– you would know better than me– removed from Jason Kenney’s big win. How’s that going?
Jason: It’s been, what, since April? So, like, that’s maybe 17 months, I think. Jason Kenney’s, you know, acting a lot of promises. He had a pretty big, detailed agenda. It helps knowing well in advance that you are almost definitely going to win. So you can basically just put out the manifesto for all the things you are promising to do! And then you do a bunch of those things, or set them to motion, so they scrapped the carbon tax, you know the federal back stop will come in soon, like it has in other provinces, but he’s scrapped the carbon tax, launched– or announced he’s gonna launch yet another court challenge against it. He’s cut corporate tax. He’s done a lot of consultation. I mean, you know, as one does, you put out a bunch of consultations to do things a bit later, whether it be because you just want to make sure you get all your ducks in a row once you actually have the books when you’re in government, or in a lot of what Jason Kenney’s doing, he’s actually postponing some major decisions, including the budget until after the federal election. Jason Kenney being very sensitive to not wanting to upset the apple cart for Andrew Sheer, he’s actually delayed the fall sitting of the Legislature until October 22nd.
Jordan: That’s happening out here in Ontario as well.
Jason: Well I think– I mean, there are two reasons for that, I would, I would gather. One is to make sure that your political staff and M.L.A’s can take some leave and do some campaign work and help the federal cause. But also, not paint yourself as a target. You know, Jason Kenney, like Doug Ford in Ontario, has promised to take aggressive action on the deficit, and that means a lot of public service cuts. And we’ve seen what’s– you know, all the furor through various service cuts and reforms in Ontario. Jason Kenney is really trying to keep those out of the headlines until after election by actually keeping them out, period, of the public eye. Nothing is decided. Nothing is happening technically until sometime in late October, once we figure out who the Prime Minister for the next four years, give or take, is gonna be.
Jordan: Well, it’s interesting, because in Ontario, I think in a province that’s kind of a swing province, people are linking Andrew Shears candidacy to what they’ve seen from Doug Ford’s government. Or at least that’s what– that’s what the polls are showing. But in a province that’s pretty much just faithfully conservative–
Jason: The least swingy of us all, yes.
Jordan: Yeah! Do voters link Scheer and Kenney that closely like will Kenney’s policies reflect on a potential Scheer prime ministership?
Jason: In Alberta? Maybe. I mean, you know, keep in mind what’s in play in Alberta. So we have 34 seats. 29 of them are Conservative. For one liberal last year, which was a high water mark for quite a while, and one of them went NDP. And those are all urban seats. Three in Edmonton, two in Calgary. And those are really the only seats that are in play. And the rest of the province is reliably Conservative. Nobody is really going to take those too seriously as ones that could flip. And because of that, what Kenney does won’t really have any impact on Scheer because the loyalty is unflappable. The support is not going to shift. You know, unless there’s something really astonishing– if Andrew Scheer suddenly behind closed doors, making fun of Albertans and you know, and saying I’m actually– my secret agenda is gonna to rip up all pipeline plans, then maybe people would lose faith in him in Alberta. But I don’t really see that happening so much.
Jordan: Well, in the places that are up for grabs then, what issues are Albertans voting on? What could swing those ridings?
Jason: One of the big things– 2015 was a watershed for Justin Trudeau Liberals. They hadn’t won anything in this province in the Harper years. They hadn’t won anything in Calgary, the Liberals, since 1968. Then they picked up two seats, former Minister Kent Hehr downtown, and a seat in the northeast, in a riding with a lot of new Canadians. Then they won two in Edmonton, sort of the same configuration, downtown and in a suburb with a lot of new Canadians. In those areas, the issues will be the same as in the other– in the rest of the province, pipelines in the economy. The Alberta economy took a deep dive around 2015, around the time of the last election, and never really recovered. And a lot of people blame the whole pipeline in carbon tax issue for that, some of which is justified, some of which is certainly played up by Conservative politicians and detractors. Justin Trudeau’s policy– he’s bought the pipeline. He bought the Trans Mountain pipeline. But, you know, I don’t think he’s gotten any much credit for that. In terms of people saying, “Oh, thanks, Justin Trudeau. We’re gonna give you former years because you were saving our pipeline,” that doesn’t really come to play. People in this province have decisively turned against Justin Trudeau, and only in the most liberal areas where there are concerns about Andrew Scheer and support in new Canadian communities for the Liberals over the Conservatives, do they have a hope. It’s going to scrape for these seats for the Liberals, very much.
Jordan: My next question was gonna be about the pipeline because, again, as a casual observer from outside of the province, it doesn’t seem like there’s been a lot of movement since the Liberals purchased it. And presumably the point of purchasing it was to get moving and bring jobs to Alberta and keep Albertans, or at least a small pocket of Albertans approving of the Liberals. So what has happened?
Jason: Well, shortly after they purchased it in the Spring of 2018 they had the hard hat, photo-ops and people digging with shovels, and they were starting to do work on it. Then came the Federal Court of Appeal ruling in favour of a number of First Nations communities in BC, saying that they didn’t consult properly. The same rap that the Conservatives had for Northern Gateway that went up sculpturing that pipeline. So they’ve had to go back, do more consultations, get a new approval. That happened in the Spring. Uh, just last week on Wednesday, the federally owned pipeline company announced that they’re going to be moving forward on starting construction in September, which means that there will likely be some photo ops anew for the Liberal government.
Jordan: More hard hats!
Jason: Right, more hard hats, more shovels, more smiles. And in the last case, they invited the provincial government, then under Rachel Notley, to don those hard hats with them. And they were very eager to, thinking that they were driving confidence. They were saying like, look, our compromise is working with the Liberals is working. They’re on our side, they’re moving forward and we’re getting results. Jason Kenney is not playing that game with things, and nor is much of the oil sector. In part because they’ve been burned in the past. They know that if you don that headline, that hard hat, you could look pretty funny if in a few months later there’s another court ruling saying you didn’t consult enough still, go back to the drawing board. Or if there’s what a lot of people are expecting, a lot of civil disobedience and activism among the Indigenous activists and environmentalists trying to physically block some of the construction zones in British Columbia. And the other factor, of course, is that Jason Kenney does not want to give a lot of credit, any credit, really, to Justin Trudeau for things. So what they’re saying is, we’re gonna hold our celebration until the pipeline’s actually complete and oil flows, and that’s 2022.
Jordan: What are the chances that shovels actually end up in the ground for real before the election? And I don’t mean for a photo op, I mean, work really starts, and if so, does that change anything about Albertans’ opinions of the Liberals?
Jason: Well this announcement was that they’re going to start hiring people and they will be in a position to start work at various points in the pipeline route through BC and starting in Alberta, as of September. So there will be actual– there won’t be ground move, but they will be putting things in place, they’ll be getting– they’ll be doing some land clearing, and what not. There’ll be photo-ops for things that are not just announced, but things that are actually going to be happening. But that doesn’t instil much confidence now because that puts the pipeline in the same place that it was in the middle of last year, and then people saw what happened. There’s a lot of skepticism, concern. Any confidence is very reserved. And you also still have Jason Kenney and a lot of people in the oil patch who are in the advocacy end, heaping on Trudeau much more criticism. Not for what he did with Trans Mountain, but for what he’s done with everything other– everything else in terms of pipelines. So people in Alberta, and that’s what the Conservatives have tried to engineer in large part, are much more likely to blame him for the things he’s done that, you know, would limit future pipelines, than what he’s done positively on the current pipeline.
Jordan: Is there any point– and maybe this is a dumb question– but is there any point or anything that the Liberals could even try to do to reach out and court some of those voters, or is the split deep enough that it’s probably a waste of campaign resources?
Jason: They’re gonna devote some resources to Alberta, and part of that is because you don’t want to be seen as abandoning Alberta. There’s already that myth out there, and Trudeau has been very aware of that ever since he started his leadership campaign back in, I think it was 2013 before he got elected. He was coming to Calgary and Alberta on a regular basis. Having covered Harper all this time, we’ve never in recent years, seen a Prime Minister come this often to Alberta. They’ve made a lot of investments. They’ve tried to say, “We’re not giving up on you. We have your back.” They’re trying. Are they gonna devote a ton of resources? Are they going to do anything serious to expand their foot print? No. They’ll try to keep the three MP seats they have. If things look really bleak, if they seem like they’re really, really hard up, they may shift resources out. But Liberal crowds are a lot thinner than they were four years ago at Alberta events.
Jordan: Do we know how the general populace of Alberta feels about climate change? Because this is one of the issues that’s come up repeatedly as we’ve we’ve asked people in other provinces and ask pollsters about, you know, the top voting issues.
Jason: Alberta is the province that believes least in immediacy of the climate change crisis in the country in terms of lack of faith in climate change science and lack of belief that Canadians can do anything about it, or the cause– that humans are the cause of climate change. Compared to other provinces, Alberta’s dead last. About half of Albertans do believe that climate change is a serious issue. It’s only a low double digits difference between what Alberta believes and what most other provinces believe. But you will find more climate change deniers, skeptics, here in Alberta. The oil companies are are working within a climate-change-is-real framework. They’re not leading the charge on this, but a lot of grass-roots Albertans certainly believe that the oil sands and oil patch and natural gas extraction is not causing climate change, and they have a vested financial and economic interests in making those arguments.
Jordan: Well, at the same time, they’ve been in an economic downturn for, like you said, since Justin Trudeau was elected, pretty much. What did the signs say for the economy now, has it improved at all over the last little while? Did the provincial election have any impact, or is it just gonna be bad till we vote?
Jason: Nothing’s really moved. I mean, there was some some signs of recovery over last year. Things have shifted as the pressures on oil have increased based on the global recession. Oil is a fine demander in product, and when the economy slows down, people spend less, consume less. There’s a real risk there. Oil prices are not strong, and certainly they’ve had to take drastic measures to keep the price gap between the heavy bitumen oil that Alberta produces and the light Texas oil that Texas produces. So with that, Jason Kenney has said, “We’re gonna cut regulation.” He quickly started to cut the carbon tax, announced he’s coming out with a new regime for large polluters, cut the corporate tax, called it a job creation tax cut. But the reality is we haven’t seen a lot of job creation yet, because these oil companies, suddenly with a bit more cash in there in their banks, aren’t gonna go suddenly invest those in new jobs, new projects, because the economics are there. The oil price, the money they’ll make off those projects, doesn’t make it worth it to do that. So Jason Kenney is not able to make the economy rebound suddenly. You know, so often these issues are much trickier than any politician can can really achieve. When you read any reports about the oil economy, in the business pages, people aren’t really talking about a lot of government decisions like the carbon tax or corporate tax. They’re talking about larger forces like the world global recession or, in some cases, the lack of pipelines, which makes it difficult to find markets for a product.
Jordan: When I do these pieces, I’m always conscious of only asking about things that I see as issues in the province from afar. So what– if there are any– what issues that aren’t related to the oil and gas industry and its impact on the economy, will Albertans be taking into consideration.
Jason: That’s a good question, and the answer is probably nothing that’s going to really take hold. I mean, obviously in Alberta, they’ll, you know, people pay attention to the SNC-Lavalin thing. A lot of people will grumble that, “Oh he– Justin Trudeau tried so hard to save jobs for SNC-Lavalin employees, but what’s he done for Alberta oil patch?” And then if a mild mannered reporter might say, “Well, what about the Trans Mountain Pipeline?” They’ll say, “Grrr.” Because the mood is so against Justin Trudeau in this province, it’s palpable. But, like in the provincial election, there’s a singularity of issues. People are very single-minded on this right now in Alberta. We want jobs, we want the economy, we want oil to flow, we want the pipeline to be the conduit through which oil flows. This province is, like, we’ve really become– I’ve coined the term “petrol patriotism.” You know, you see more of these “I love oil and gas” T-shirts being worn casually on Fridays or during the week in the oil sector. You see those all around the countryside in the province. I was at a street fair in Chinatown in Calgary the other day, and there was a Conservative booth and they were giving out, you know, regular pamphlets, and they’re also giving out these curious stickers, which have the candidate Greg McLane’s ah, name on it for Calgary centre, and the sticker says, “Proud of Canadian Oil” with a big maple leaf on it. That is a sort of new virtue signalling in Alberta. If you say, “I love oil,” it becomes synonymous with saying, “I love Alberta and what Alberta does and what is seemingly diminished, you know, and criticized in other parts of the country.” As a matter of fact, you know, you’ll see Justin Trudeau’s Liberal MPs here really take that thing. I mean, they are, you know, if they didn’t have the transplant pipeline to champion here, they’d be completely dead in the water. It helps, it certainly– it helps them from being eliminated, in the same way that it was in provincial politics. Notley was a big champion of pipelines too, but the reality is that’s sort of table-stakes. You can’t get people to talk you further, if the answer to their first question is, “What do you think about pipelines,” is, “No.” I’m not, you know, or even a well, equivocation, like maybe some of them are good, but we don’t need them all. Climate change, that would not work. You have to be an unabashed flag-waver for pipelines and the oil industry to get anybody– to get most people in Alberta to talk to you at this point.
Jordan: I ask the same last question every time we do one of these. If you’re looking back after election night and somehow Alberta is much less blue than you expected, what would have had to happen between now and then?
Jason: A substantial cratering of Andrew Scheer’s popularity nationwide would have to happen. If Alberta has more than five non-Conservative seats, that means that Andrew Scheer won virtually nothing in Ontario, very little in Quebec, and incredibly large swaths of the country went some other colour. Because if Andrew Scheer doesn’t win at least 29 seats here, something went seriously wrong for his campaign.
Jordan: Thanks, Jason.
Jason: My pleasure.
Jordan: Jason Markusoff, straight out of Alberta. That was The Big Story, for more from us, and for our previous episode of this series, and all the rest to come, you can find us at thebigstorypodcast.ca. You can also chat with us on Twitter @thebigstoryfpn, our DMs are open. And of course we are wherever you get podcasts, on Apple, on Google, on Stitcher or on Spotify. Thanks for listening, I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings. We’ll talk tomorrow.
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