If Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's trip to Alberta this week was intended to assuage concerns in the province over whether the federal government has its back during these punishing economic times, it did not exactly work.
Part of that failure Mr. Trudeau must wear. But certainly, much of the negative coverage the visit prompted had to do with unrealistic expectations.
With his government piecing together its first budget, this was not the trip in which the Prime Minister was going to unveil a comprehensive plan to assist the province during this extraordinarily dark moment in its history. The scene in Ottawa is chaotic right now, with delegations representing provincial governments in town to state their case for funding to address any number of pressing issues.
Everyone has a hand out. But one hand is extended a little further than the rest.
While in Alberta, the Prime Minister pledged to fast-track $700-million in infrastructure funds announced by the former Conservative government, and offered $250-million more from a stabilization program. As for the call to loosen up eligibility requirements for Employment Insurance to help the tens of thousands now out of work in the province, the Prime Minister was non-committal. He generated some more negative headlines with his answer to this question: If the National Energy Board green-lights the Energy East oil pipeline, will you approve it? Again, Mr. Trudeau could not answer in the affirmative, which angered many, including the Wildrose and Progressive Conservative opposition.
So what are we to make of all this?
Not much in my view. It is no surprise Mr. Trudeau did not have a grand plan to announce when the government's own grand budgetary plan is still being formulated. Alberta is going to do just fine once the fiscal dust settles. Plenty of stimulus money in the form of infrastructure dollars will be in the Liberals' March budget. Most believe the EI rules will be altered to help oil patch victims who do not meet the current requirements.
As for the pipeline question, Mr. Trudeau's answer cannot shock anyone who understands energy politics in this country. Why rile the folks in his home province unnecessarily? Saying yes to a reporter's question is not going to change the current situation in Alberta. And that is the most important thing at the moment. The NEB could give conditional approval to Energy East, but if Quebec says no, then it will be extremely difficult for Mr. Trudeau to ram the pipeline through – for precisely the same reason the Conservative government had no interest in trying to shove Northern Gateway down the throats of British Columbians even though the NEB gave the project the tentative thumbs up.
It is understandable that Albertans want certainty about their economic future, but the solution to what ails the province is not simple.
Believe it or not, one of the most important things the province has going for it right now is the relationship the Trudeau Liberals have with Rachel Notley's New Democrats. The rapport between a Prime Minister and a Premier is important. The fact is, Ms. Notley has built up a lot of goodwill in Ottawa for the bold, even courageous, steps her government has taken on climate change. Mr. Trudeau wants to find a way to reward that kind of commitment to the environment.
In many respects, Mr. Trudeau's government has far more in common with the Alberta New Democrats than it does the Christy Clark Liberals in British Columbia. Many view Ms. Clark's government as Liberal in name only. In fact, some say it is the most conservative government in the country. On top of that, there is also some early tension between B.C. and Ottawa on the climate dossier, with Ms. Clark apparently reluctant to commit to the level of emission-reducing action the Trudeau Liberals are seeking.
We will likely find out how great that divide is when the Prime Minister convenes a First Ministers' meeting in Vancouver in early March.
Meantime, there is a reason Ms. Notley was not as openly offended as others by the dearth of economic aid Mr. Trudeau offered her province this week: She has likely been assured more help is on the way. When the federal budget is tabled, there will probably be no province in the country receiving more assistance than hers.