In the face of more troubling news on the energy front this week, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney was defiant.
On Monday, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries released its monthly report, declaring that it had cut oil-demand forecasts for the next couple of years. One day later, petroleum giant BP pronounced that peak oil had arrived, predicting that demand for crude would fall precipitously over the coming decades in its annual outlook.
Not surprisingly, Mr. Kenney was nonplussed by the dire forecasts, repeating his mantra that there would be huge demand for oil and gas well into the future, and that Alberta would be well-positioned once the pandemic was over and once his predicted global supply crunch takes hold.
Mr. Kenney could be right. There are many who subscribe to his view that energy demand will rebound once world economies return to normal. The question is what that rebound looks like, and to what extent it will provide relief to a province desperate for anything resembling good news.
The same thing could be said of Mr. Kenney’s political outlook, too.
It hasn’t been much fun for the leader of the United Conservative Party since he rumbled to a massive majority in the spring of last year, riding a wave of public anger he helped incite. He successfully portrayed his province as the victim of gross fiscal mismanagement by Rachel Notley’s NDP government and the anti-oil, anti-West agenda of Justin Trudeau’s Liberals in Ottawa.
It didn’t take long, however, for the honeymoon to end. Governing a province over-reliant on a single sector that is suffering a potentially existential crisis has been difficult – to put it mildly. The thousands of jobs he promised haven’t materialized. In fact, they began disappearing further on his watch, before the COVID-19 emergency made things a whole lot worse. Some of the more populist measures that he campaigned on – a $30-million war room to respond to “misinformation” being reported about the oil sands and a public inquiry into foreign funding of environmental groups, for instance – have so far been gross public relations disasters.
Faced with historic levels of debt, including a deficit for the current fiscal year now projected to be more than $24-billion – the Premier has launched cost-savings initiatives that have set off ugly wars with, among others, the province’s doctors. He also recently had to justify potential cuts to the Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped (AISH) program.
The Premier has received none of the surge in popular support enjoyed by many of his counterparts as a result of their handling of the pandemic, including B.C. Premier John Horgan and Ontario Premier Doug Ford, who prior to the virus’s arrival was as unpopular as Mr. Kenney is now. (However, Mr. Ford’s pandemic lift could suffer a severe setback with what appears to be a badly botched back-to-school plan.)
How unpopular is that, you ask? A fresh poll by the Angus Reid Institute puts support for the government at 38 per cent – equal to Ms. Notley’s NDP, but remember that Mr. Kenney’s UCP government was elected in April of last year with 55 per cent of the popular vote. Among premiers, Angus Reid found Mr. Kenney to be the second-least favourite, with only 42 per cent saying they approve of the job he’s doing. He did beat out Newfoundland and Labrador’s Andrew Furey, who had 34 per cent support, but he’s only been on the job less than a month.
Most will say that polls this far out from the next election in Alberta matter little. That may be true. The political landscape is littered with stories of miraculous turnarounds, of politicians who have come back from the dead; just look at the aforementioned Mr. Ford. Mr. Kenney is also a seasoned, highly skilled politician who will doubtlessly have a strategy for reviving his fortunes.
But it won’t be easy. Crude won’t be flowing through the TMX pipeline any day soon, not likely before the next election. There is nothing on the short-term horizon that suggests oil prices are going to rebound to levels that will help Alberta out of the dreadful fiscal mess in which it finds itself. Mr. Kenney also leads a province that is badly divided, at a time when it needs to be united around one issue: COVID-19.
The growing quagmire that is the province’s financial picture will not improve in the near term. Mr. Kenney, who is as conservative as they come, was relentless in his criticism of Ms. Notley’s NDP for allowing Alberta’s debt levels to rise to what he deemed were alarming levels. Well, they’re going up even more, under him.
Things were so easy on the campaign trail when all of Alberta’s problems were the fault of someone else. Today, Mr. Kenney is discovering what happens when reality gets in the way of best-laid plans.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.