When details of a telephone conversation between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and new Conservative Party Leader Erin O’Toole were made public this week, it was somewhat surprising to hear that the Member of Parliament for Durham had raised the topics of Western alienation and national unity.
It’s a surprise because Western alienation – which really, primarily, means Albertan alienation – has not been much in the news lately. Albertans, like most others in the rest of the country, have been preoccupied with other matters, such as staying alive amidst a global pandemic.
The timing of Mr. O’Toole’s overture to the Prime Minister is stranger still, given that the Liberal government, in response to the social and economic fallout from COVID-19, has showered literally billions of dollars on Alberta to help buffer the blow of the crisis.
Just this week, in fact, Ottawa directed $262-million for Albertan school re-entry needs and another $82-million for an array of projects, including the construction and upgrading of everything from aquatic centres to ice rinks. If anything, the pandemic has surely reminded Albertans how fortunate they are to be of a federation that looks out for its constituent parts in a real emergency.
In other words, if we do have a snap election this fall, it will be a lot harder for Mr. O’Toole to make the argument that Alberta and the West have been treated especially shabbily by the Prime Minister and his government.
But as an exercise, let’s imagine that Mr. O’Toole’s Conservatives can capture the imagination of the country in a national vote and he becomes prime minister. He’d have to act on his words, to be a champion of the West, and make happy again the many angry Albertans that exist in his mind. How does he propose to do this?
On that front, his campaign platform for his party’s leadership outlined several proposals, none of which are particularly new or innovative. He promises to fix the national equalization program. He’s pledged to repeal Bill C-69, the one Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has dubbed the No More Pipelines act. He’s vowed to scrap the tanker ban that the Liberals put in place to effectively kibosh the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline project.
Again, none of this is new. It was effectively the same set of policies that Mr. O’Toole’s predecessor, Andrew Scheer, campaigned on in the last federal election.
What the Conservatives prefer to discuss less is the viability of their proposed solutions to Western alienation.
Will it be through fixing equalization? Please tell us how you’ll do this, Mr. O’Toole, without igniting vehement protest from Quebec, the same province you courted so assiduously during your campaign, and a region credited with helping you win. Even Western provinces such as Manitoba and and British Columbia aren’t clamouring for change on that front. And we know the Maritimes sure aren’t.
And it is no small point that even with some of the proposed changes to equalization that have been recommended, Alberta still wouldn’t benefit from the largesse of other provinces because it’s still one of the richest jurisdictions in the country, although that could change in the coming years.
Perhaps Mr. O’Toole will propose killing Bill C-69, so pipelines can be built across the country? Well, good luck with that, especially in Quebec (to which Mr. O’Toole devoted six pages in his platform, compared with one for Western Canada). And if the Conservatives think they’re ramming another pipeline down the throats of British Columbians, they are sadly mistaken; British Columbians don’t want to see the tanker ban killed so another pipeline can be built. Yet Mr. O’Toole is proposing this in the name of “Western alienation” – a phrase that has become void of meaning.
And before we leave this topic, we’d be remiss not to point out that construction on the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, which was purchased by the federal government in 2018, continues unabated. That would be the same project the Tories could not get built while in power.
The one grievance of Alberta’s that seems to have the most credibility is federal fiscal stabilization, which is in legitimate need of reform. The fund is meant to backstop dramatic and unexpected economic declines. Most economists agree that the current formula is unfair and doesn’t recognize the needs that even rich provinces like Alberta may have during severe economic downturns.
That is something Mr. O’Toole could and should do something about. But much of the rest is old, pointless and nothing more than political theatre.
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