When Alberta Premier Alison Redford addressed her party faithful in Calgary on Friday night, the unsuspecting might have believed that all was well with her party and her province. A deeper look suggests otherwise.
Ms. Redford tucked into a majority government in the final days of the last election, as voters fled from the Wildrose Party rather than necessarily to Ms. Redford's Progressive Conservatives. Nonetheless, she put together a coalition that proved a winner. She assembled a government from re-elected MLAs and cabinet ministers, none of whom had supported her leadership aspirations, and some new faces.
She's safely in office for at least another three years, and Alberta's economy remains the envy of every other province, except maybe Saskatchewan. So what's the worry?
Start at the top. It turns out Ms. Redford is tough to work for and with. Staff turnover has been a problem and, by privately conveyed accounts, ministers and MLAs are frustrated with her one-person style of decision-making. She has to learn that she's the leader, yes, but the leader of a team.
Across the aisle, Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith is learning from her mistakes as a rookie leader of a new party, just as Stephen Harper did when he led his Conservatives into their first election. Wildrose candidates won't be freelancing any more, as a few did in the last election. Ms. Smith herself won't be so ideologically blind as to insist that global warming is unproven and that the human use of fossil fuels doesn't cause it. Too many Albertans thought that position incredible – and dangerous, too, for a province already under worldwide scrutiny for its emissions.
The last Alberta budget predicted "elevated oil prices" and "continued investment in the energy sector." Yes, investment is obviously occurring, but big bitumen projects are being scaled back. Why? Because many of the long-held assumptions underpinning energy in Alberta are now shaky. New shale gas production across North America is hammering down natural gas prices, something that will obviously have a depressing impact on the industry in Alberta. Shale oil production in the U.S. and coming mileage improvements for cars are calling into question the axiomatic assumption in Alberta that if you pump it, the Americans will buy it.
The likely good news is that the re-elected Barack Obama will now approve the Keystone XL pipeline to take Alberta oil to Gulf of Mexico refineries, although there's an off chance that the President will feel he owes something to his environmental backers and that blocking Keystone might be it.
As for those tantalizing Asian markets, they may still be hungry for Alberta oil, but how does Alberta gets it there? The Enbridge pipeline across northern British Columbia, now before the National Energy Board, is dead politically. Even the Harper government's ministers are starting to slightly modulate their hell-bent support for the project, presumably because they can sense the political winds in B.C.
Another pipeline alternative – Trans Mountain's down the Fraser River Valley to Vancouver – might be a better bet, but it remains years away from construction. Rail shipments of bitumen oil are rising, and the wind is up for shipping oil to more easterly parts of Canada.
Ms. Redford has not helped her province's cause. True, she can't be seen as a shill for the oil industry and, true, B.C. Premier Christie Clark's recent trip to Alberta was more a political stunt than anything else, but the Alberta Premier has proven tone-deaf to B.C.'s legitimate concerns about the pipeline.
The greatest fun at this weekend's Calgary convention will be internal party politics. A majority of Harper MPs from Alberta backed Wildrose in the spring provincial election, a natural fit because so many of them are old Reform Party people. Needless to say, this enraged many of Ms. Redford's Progressive Conservatives.
A motion is on the agenda to take away from federal Conservatives their automatic right to be members of the provincial Conservatives. As always, the nastiest politics in Alberta are inside the conservative tent.