Alberta deserves a climate election
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. A few days after an Abacus poll showed the Alberta NDP with a sizable lead in the May 29 election, a bunch of other ones — including a follow-on poll from Abacus — put the UCP back in front, and by quite a distance in some areas. If you’re an Alberta political obsessive like me, it’s been a fascinating thing to watch.
However it shakes out, one thing is already abundantly clear: this one’s going down to the wire. It will almost certainly be the most competitive election in Alberta’s history, and its outcome may yet complicate the country’s two-dimensional perspective on my province. You’ll be watching, no doubt — and I’ll keep doing my best to explain what’s happening and why.
Alberta deserves a climate election
Well, so much for spring in Alberta. After a few days of unseasonably warm temperatures that melted the last pieces of ice and snow, the bill came due in the form of wildfire smoke settling over Calgary, Edmonton and most of the rest of the province.
It provides a useful reminder of what’s really at stake in this provincial election. Yes, properly funding and running our health-care system matters. And yes, having the right mix of tax policies is important. But at the end of the day, these are secondary concerns, ones whose importance will continue to fade with the passage of time. Whether Albertans like it or not, this is a climate change election, one where the outcome will determine whether we (and by extension, Canada) try to move ahead with ambitious climate policy or bury our collective head back in the tar sands and continue ignoring the change that’s so clearly afoot.
Part of the problem is the NDP’s unwillingness to clarify the stakes for voters. From a purely tactical perspective, it probably makes sense to focus all of their energy on Danielle Smith and her litany of gaffes, goofs and outright knee-slappers. The UCP leader’s bizarre opinions on everything from the pandemic to policing are rich grist for the NDP’s mill, and they’ve done well to remind Alberta voters what they’d really be getting with four years of a Smith government.
That’s the safe play, anyways. But as the latest batch of polling shows, it still isn’t moving the needle far enough towards the NDP in places like Calgary. For whatever reason, there are a lot of voters who seem to be OK with the things she’s said in the past if it comes attached to a tax cut and the promise of low taxes to come.
The riskier approach, but perhaps the one with more political upside, involves telling Albertans the truth. By failing to take the climate crisis seriously, and pretending it can either be avoided or ignored, today’s voters are effectively imposing a tax on future citizens — including their children and grandchildren. Perhaps the NDP could show Albertans what that might look like and how it could be avoided.
They could also tell the voters about the economic upside associated with riding the wave of technological change that keeps building around the world. There are jobs to be had, businesses to be built, and wealth to be created in the work of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and scaling up the alternatives. In the process, we might even be able to clean up the mess of unreclaimed oil wells and tailings ponds that’s been getting larger and larger, one that could employ thousands of people for many, many years. We could even turn some of those old wells into new batteries for renewable energy, as one company has proposed, or pull lithium out of the briney water that’s pooled in the province’s depleted oil reservoirs.
It would be nice if we could actually have a proper conversation about this. In a more perfect world, we’d have an entire televised debate dedicated to a discussion of climate policy, with experts at the ready to fact-check any statements that run afoul of reality. Instead, we might get a question or two in tonight’s debate — if we’re lucky.
This is one of the fundamental problems with our politics right now, and it extends well beyond Alberta’s borders. For all the time, energy and emotion people pour into political debates, they’re rarely discussing the things that actually matter. Instead of a meaningful conversation about foreign interference in Canada’s democracy, whether it’s from China or other malign actors like Russia, we get the rending of garments over a new passport and the images that are — or aren’t — inside its pages. And instead of talking about the enormous impact a changing climate and the global response to it will have on Alberta’s very way of life in the future, we get bogged down in what was said and done by each leader in the past.
It reminds me of Logan Roy’s withering comment to his children in one of the last moments on the television show Succession: in Alberta, and in Canada, we are not serious people. I long for the day when that changes, but I’m not exactly holding my breath right now — and that’s not just because of the wildfire smoke.
Timing is everything — even with a column
Earlier this week, I wrote what I thought was a spirited defence of the economic record of NDP governments in this country. And before we’d even published it, the Alberta NDP stepped all over that message when they released their fully costed platform, one that included a substantial increase in corporate taxes and the elimination of the small business tax rate — along with a big unforced error.
I don’t think there’s anything particularly wrong with raising corporate taxes back to where they are in the rest of the country, especially since it’s become abundantly clear the UCP’s big tax cut didn’t deliver the job creation they promised. The oil and gas industry, in particular, has no real interest in expanding its workforce — if anything, as new Suncor CEO Rich Kruger said on a conference call with analysts recently, they want to shrink their headcount. "I think we can eliminate work,” he said. “I think we can do away with work that doesn't add value.”
Cutting the corporate tax rate even further isn’t going to change his mind, and he’s hardly alone on this front. But if you’re going to return corporate tax rates to where they were before the UCP slashed them (and yes, you should) then you have to prepare the public for your argument — and anticipate the one that will be made against it.
The NDP didn’t do nearly enough of that. Yes, they did some messaging around their broader economic objectives and policies back in March, and most of that was interesting (if not exciting) stuff. There were no revolutionary ideas in there, just sound (and yes, conservative) management of the province’s economic future, promises of balanced budgets and a long-overdue attempt to strip out some of the volatility associated with oil prices.
But the recent announcement didn’t build on that foundation. Instead, it actively eroded it by playing right into the UCP’s pre-existing narrative about the NDP’s “job-killing” policies. Worse, the NDP appears to have fudged its numbers a bit on the benefits of raising corporate taxes, and drawn the ire of Trevor Tombe, one of the most reliably fact-oriented people on Twitter. His conclusion: their math overstated the amount of revenue it would generate by $1 billion, thereby throwing their forecasted surpluses into doubt and opening the door for conservative proxies to attack their economic credibility.
It should come as a surprise to nobody that this is exactly what happened. And so, a day that was supposed to be about highlighting the NDP’s economic competence may have ended up doing the reverse. And just a few days before the most consequential debate in Albera’s history, they’ve given their opponents a golden opportunity to frame the election in their preferred terms. Every campaign is allowed to make a few of these sorts of unforced errors. But making one here, at this particular moment, could prove to be a game-changer.
Stuck in the middle
As an avowed centrist, I find the idea of a political party that’s rooted in moderate policy and people incredibly intriguing. It’s why I participated in the early days of the Alberta Party a decade ago, which seemed at the time like a perfectly viable alternative to the long-governing Progressive Conservatives, even though the idea of anyone defeating the Progressive Conservatives still seemed unreasonably optimistic. And so, the recent news that the so-called “Centre Ice Canadians” group is exploring the idea of forming a new political party does scratch me where I continue to itch.
The group, which was co-founded by a self-described fiscal conservative named Rick Peterson in 2022, initially sought to influence the Conservative Party of Canada before coming to the realization that the moderation they were selling was about as popular as a skunk at a dinner party. Its advisory council includes some genuine heavyweights, from former B.C. premier Christy Clark to former New Brunswick cabinet minister Dominic Cardy. And there is clearly some vacant space on the federal political spectrum right now, with blue Liberals and red Tories having been abandoned by their respective parties.
A combination of those two increasingly spent political forces makes a certain amount of sense, and it could offer up another choice to Canadians who are tired of the increasingly reflexive and reactionary partisanship in our politics. It would be good for Canada, all things considered. It also seems about as likely to happen as an apology from Jordan Peterson on, well, anything.
When both sides of the spectrum are selling variations on fear and loathing, what hope does comparatively bland policymaking really have? That’s especially true under the current political funding model, which depends on individual donors giving — and then giving again, and again. You can’t drum up those sorts of donations with nuanced policy discussions and polite disagreements with your opponents. And unless or until the funding model changes — back, perhaps, to a per-vote subsidy — it’s hard to see how any new political party can make a go of things on the basis of moderation.
I’d like to be wrong here, I really would. And maybe I need to have Peterson on the Maxed Out podcast to discuss his idea. But from where I sit, we need to repair our political garden before any new flowers can really grow. That means implementing a system of proportional representation and doing (or redoing) campaign finance reform, and pursuing other changes that discourage politicians from tapping into the more reptilian parts of our brains. Here, again, I’m not holding my breath.
Over the weekend, I wrote about the ludicrous controversy over our new passport.
On Wednesday, I had a piece on the NDP’s economic track record in government across Canada, and why it’s not nearly as bad as conservatives love to pretend.
And in case you missed it, we published an excellent piece on Finland’s efforts to combat online misinformation. They have certain advantages there, including their unique language and the way it betrays efforts by non-native speakers to misinform or deceive. But there’s still a lot we could — and should — learn from their example.
Next week on the Maxed Out podcast, I’ll have my long-awaited chat with a Bitcoin enthusiast. You won’t want to miss it.
Comments? Concerns? Complaints? Find me at [email protected], or on Twitter at @maxfawcett for as long as it remains a going concern.