One key thing is changing in the fraught relationship between Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: Both now need some kind of deal.
So when Mr. Kenney and a delegation of his cabinet ministers fan out in Ottawa this week, you can expect they will be making demands. But you can also expect they, and their federal government counterparts, will be looking for things they can agree on, soon.
For months, Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Kenney talked past each other. Mr. Trudeau used Mr. Kenney as an election-campaign foil. The Alberta government demanded changes to equalization and a rewriting of Liberal environmental legislation. The Prime Minister wasn’t going to deliver on that. Mr. Kenney started to talk about autonomist policies, promising to emulate Quebec in seeking more powers for the province.
One could see how this could go on and on. Mr. Trudeau doesn’t have any seats in Alberta and isn’t likely to win many, ever. Mr. Kenney was winning cheers in Alberta for confronting the Liberals in Ottawa.
But the Liberal Prime Minister and Alberta’s Conservative Premier increasingly have political reasons to agree – at least on some things.
Mr. Kenney’s popularity has taken a dip, his spending cuts are proving controversial and Alberta’s unemployment rate is climbing. He swept to power in April, but it’s not easy to lead a province in tough times, even if you are the leader who united Alberta’s conservatives.
So it would be a good time for the Premier to claim a concession from Ottawa – to be able to tell Albertans that his tough stand brought home something his predecessor, NDP premier Rachel Notley, never could.
That’s not going to be a massive reform of the equalization program, or a cancellation of the federal carbon tax. But there are some things where Ottawa can play let’s-make-a-deal, on programs to encourage green-energy jobs, approvals for some resources projects and cold, hard cash.
There will be no time when Mr. Kenney will have more political leverage.
The angst of Alberta and Saskatchewan have become a national concern. It was underlined by the fact that Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals were wiped off the political map between Winnipeg and B.C. A Nanos Research poll conducted last week found more Canadians are concerned about Wexit than Quebec separatism.
This is a moment when Canadians not only see Western alienation as a serious problem, they expect Mr. Trudeau to do something about it.
Mr. Trudeau, for his part, needs a cooling of the conflict. Now that he has a minority government, he has tried to set a more humble, co-operative tone and send a message that the government is working more and talking less.
His Liberals certainly aren’t desperate for Alberta votes, but they know voters in other places, such as Ontario, don’t want a country riven by conflict. Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals have to look as if they are taking every reasonable step to calm the frustrations.
There isn’t much he can do about some of the most palpable frustrations. He can’t make the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline go faster. Mr. Kenney is demanding a firm deadline, but in practice that wouldn’t change the completion date. And Mr. Trudeau’s government has insisted it won’t amend its environmental assessment law, Bill C-69.
But Mr. Trudeau’s government signalled last week it wants to deal. It accepted Alberta’s industrial carbon-pricing plan, so the federal scheme will not apply in the province.
And Ottawa can certainly find ways to make a deal on some of Alberta’s other demands by opening a chequebook.
The province wants a retroactive “stabilization” payment of $2.4-billion to make up for lost revenues when the economy was hit by falling oil prices. It wants financing incentives for green jobs. It wants Ottawa to put up cash to help First Nations consortiums buy the Trans Mountain pipeline. There is room for Ottawa to make a deal.
It would not be a deal that settles disputes between Mr. Kenney and Mr. Trudeau for good. There are too many fundamental political disagreements for that to last. But both sides have compelling reasons to make some kind of deal now and claim a win.
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