Premier Jason Kenney may be coming to a stark realization: stoking the flames of division and alienation, and providing oxygen to Alberta separatists, may not be in his province’s best interests.
By following this course of action, there is far more for Alberta to lose than gain. To that end, there is a growing chorus of voices saying that blaming Ottawa for all of the province’s economic woes is wrong-headed, foolish and short-sighted.
Mr. Kenney was notably diplomatic at the recent First Ministers’ gathering in Toronto. Absent was the usual bashing of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Liberal economic policies. Instead, his language was far more politic as he thanked his fellow premiers for supporting initiatives important for Alberta, such as seeking changes to the fiscal stabilization program that provides dollars to provinces facing economic hardship.
Recently, Mr. Kenney’s Energy Minister, Sonya Savage, had positive words to say about the country’s new Natural Resources Minister, Seamus O’Regan, who has visited Alberta three times since being handed his new post a few weeks ago. This is another encouraging sign that the Kenney government is tempering its full-fledged assault on Mr. Trudeau’s Ottawa, which has fed tensions in his province and given life to #Wexit – the hashtag given to the nascent separatist movement in Alberta.
This change of tone has likely been inspired by recent events.
At a recent business forum in Lake Louise, for instance, speakers talked about the damage that the uptick in separatist sentiment is doing to the province’s reputation. Mary Moran, chief executive of the Calgary Economic Development, revealed that a major tech company that was considering the city for its head office was scared off by Wexit chatter. It was a 1,000-person company the city lost as a result of it, she said.
Other CEOs participating in the conference talked about how talk of separatism and the perception that Alberta does not take the threat of climate change seriously have had a deadly effect on the province’s brand.
A few weeks earlier, at another forum, the head of Calgary Chamber of Commerce denounced Mr. Kenney’s Fair Deal Panel, which has been established to look at ways the province can become more independent.
“This is definitely politics over policy right now,” said Sandip Lalli, who added that the panel only creates a greater sense of uncertainty in the province, something potential investors abhor. She implored the Premier to instead focus on fostering an atmosphere that emphasizes resource development but through a friendlier, more pro-active environmental lens.
The panel is exploring ideas such as the viability of Alberta creating its own pension plan, starting its own police force and creating its own tax agency – all initiatives that would create a massive increase in the size of the bureaucracy. Some economists believe this will increase government spending and lead to tax increases, hardly results that a fiscally-conservative government could boast about.
Consequently, many are asking whether the potential payoff of these moves is enough to mitigate the unquestionable risks that come with them. They also wonder how any of these ideas would help solve the province’s fundamental economic problems.
Mr. Kenney may also be alive to the notion that Alberta is running the risk of isolating itself from the country, at a time when it needs it most. And he can’t be unaware that his province and Saskatchewan increasingly look out of touch with 21st Century realities, especially as it pertains to concerns around climate change. There are many in Mr. Kenney’s own province, especially those living in urban centres such as Calgary and Edmonton, who have no interest in being associated with such backward ideas.
I’ve talked to Albertans who also resent the idea of old political war horses such as Preston Manning advocating a referendum on secession as a political strategy. It’s easy for Mr. Manning to say. He wouldn’t be around to bear the potentially horrific consequences of such a decision.
More than anything, I think Mr. Kenney realizes deep down that talking about separation in any form is just patently ridiculous. Most Albertans want no part of it, so even entertaining the idea as part of some partisan wedge issue tactic is just dumb.
Besides, workers are starting to lay pipe for the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. And Ottawa seems to be open to other measures that will help the province, such as putting tens of millions into the cleanup of abandoned oil wells and making changes to the fiscal stabilization formula.
Talk of separatism does nothing but harm Alberta. And Mr. Kenney knows this.
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