Reflecting on a long political career, Peter Lougheed said a salutation to prime minister Pierre Trudeau in 1981 was one of his biggest regrets.
It was a festive champagne-glass toast to celebrate a National Energy Program compromise – an image not well-received at home in Alberta, where Ottawa’s policy enacting sweeping changes in the oil and natural gas sector was deeply unpopular. The photos of that moment have had the staying power of a gaffe, often running alongside histories of the province or biographies of Mr. Lougheed.
It was a lesson for future Alberta premiers: The pictures that come out of their interactions with prime ministers, who they must interact with in order to do their jobs, have an outsized influence in the province’s politics.
They especially matter when difficult federal-provincial discussions over complicated energy matters are in play. The stakes are even higher when an ultracompetitive provincial election is just three months away, as is the case now.
The most enduring images of this week’s first ministers meeting in Ottawa would usually be the leaders of the provinces and territories lined up to react to the news of the increased health care funding offer from the federal government. But instead, the most memorable moment came from the side event – the meeting between Alberta Premier Danielle Smith and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
In what The Canadian Press accurately described as “a photo opportunity punctuated by short statements and a very awkward handshake,” Ms. Smith smiled faintly as she shook the Prime Minister’s hand with the least possible amount of enthusiasm – like a teenager forced to say hello to her parent’s lamest friends.
There are political precedents for this. Notably, Jason Kenney – Ms. Smith’s predecessor – gave a master class on cool greetings during a meeting with the Prime Minister in 2019. Like Mr. Kenney, Ms. Smith had little in the way of political downside for not looking too keen in her meeting with Mr. Trudeau. Also like him, she has spent months campaigning against the federal government, and she draws some her strongest support by those Albertans with a deep mistrust of Ottawa and Mr. Trudeau.
Now, Ms. Smith is focused on a tight race with Rachel Notley’s NDP ahead of a May 29 election. The NDP is more likely to win an election if voters are focused on, say, issues such as deficiencies in Alberta’s health care system. Ms. Smith’s United Conservative Party has more strength when fights with Ottawa are top of mind.
Many voters who would vote for the UCP, or would consider doing so, will embrace Ms. Smith’s reluctant handshake strategy. It might put off some of the undecided voters, who at the very least find it discourteous. But the UCP must still believe it’s a winner. At the same time the premiers and Prime Minister met, the UCP was releasing a new attack ad against the NDP, again trying to portray Ms. Notley – who was Alberta’s premier from 2015 to 2019 – as a close ally of the federal Liberals.
But similar to the photo of a champagne toast, the visual of the cool handshake trivializes the seriousness of the issues at play. Ms. Smith didn’t spend most of the time she had with the Prime Minister talking about health care.
In Ottawa this week, Ms. Smith deferred to Quebec Premier François Legault, Ontario Premier Doug Ford, and Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson – who is chair of the Council of the Federation – to lead the talks and concern about what Ottawa has offered. This is in part because a massive oil surplus this year gives Alberta financial wiggle room other provinces and territories don’t have.
Ms. Smith also decided her time was better spent on the energy and climate policies that carry so much significance for her province. She and Mr. Trudeau were able to speak about some areas where they might find some agreement – including carbon capture, utilization and storage, and hydrogen projects, as well as somehow boosting plans for liquefied natural gas exports to Asia.
But the Alberta Premier, for both practical and political reasons, is not going to shy away from speaking about the issues more likely to end in acrimony this year. They include the federal plan to cut and cap oil and natural gas sector emissions – that Alberta is worried will act as a de facto production cap of its most important industry – and legislation coming to lay out Canada’s plan to hit a net-zero target in electricity production by 2035.
The federal Just Transition plan was a key part of the discussion as well. The federal Liberals say they will rename their controversial plan Sustainable Jobs, and that it’s not a scheme for reordering the economy – but simply about providing help to sectors that could need it in the years ahead. The UCP says it speaks to the end of high-paying energy sector jobs, and Ms. Smith has asked the federal government to abandon terminology and policies that signal some kind of phaseout.
Ms. Smith makes this case while linking the Alberta NDP to the federal Liberals, even though Ms. Notley, too, has said she opposes the Just Transition/Sustainable Jobs plan as it stands, and also opposes the cap on oil and gas emissions.
So from a pure politics point of view, Ms. Smith and the UCP would actually lament the introduction of the “boring” Sustainable Jobs legislation Ottawa is promising it will be. It could make an election win more difficult for Alberta’s governing party.