Albertans once again voted overwhelmingly for the Conservatives in Monday’s federal election — all but ensuring they won’t be front of mind for the new minority Liberal government.
That’s just the hard political truth of minority governments.
“Regional politics becomes critical but it’s a very crude sort of regional politics. ‘Where are the seats that I can win to produce a majority government?'” said University of Calgary political scientist Anthony Sayers.
No doubt, Justin Trudeau and his re-elected party will first try to please voters in Ontario. Then Quebec. Then B.C. Then, in rough order, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Newfoundland, P.E.I., Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Yukon and Saskatchewan.
Finally, stubbornly conservative Alberta.
What will matter more than Monday’s results, however, are the agreements made among the various parties that will prop up a Liberal minority and under what conditions. It is these agreements that will determine just what impact the election will have on Alberta.
Even so, the odds that the next government will fulfil Albertans’ fondest wishes by booting the tanker ban on a portion of the West Coast, ditching the federal carbon tax and repealing the Liberals’ environmental review legislation are likely non-existent.
First, a note to the reader.
This will be written as though Alberta is a sort of monolith. That’s because the majority vote Conservative, and so it’s assumed Albertans are conservative and all want the same thing. Despite the stereotypes, that’s not true.
That said, the majority view and the attendant conservative policies will be taken as a de facto classification for what Alberta wants — and that means, generally, these things are paramount.
So, what’s likely to happen in the coming days and weeks?
Trudeau’s party could form official coalitions with any one of the other four parties with seats, meaning a cabinet with members from the Liberals and whoever else has signed on.
While common in the rest of the democratic world, in Canada a coalition is rare and unlikely.
More likely is some form of agreement between the Liberals and one or more other parties that essentially says they’ll support the government in confidence votes to keep it in power, but might defeat separate bills.
That can be formalized, or a bit more back-of-the-napkin in nature.
Stephen Harper managed to get quite a bit done while managing two consecutive Conservative minorities from 2006 to 2011 — mainly by making agreements on the fly, on issues like the current equalization formula and boutique tax breaks.
Currently, there are plenty of matters on the minds of the majority of Albertans, from equalization payments that redistribute wealth across Canada, to what to do about the continued stagnation of Alberta’s oil patch. Perhaps top of the list: the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.
Coalitions and partnerships will have a profound effect on what’s discussed and how it’s dealt with, if at all.
What happens to pipelines?
Despite having the highest incomes in the country, unemployment remains stubbornly high in Alberta compared to the rest of Canada and it’s becoming clear that the boom times and oil and gas jobs that produced staggering wealth in the province aren’t likely to return to pre-oil crash levels.
That has produced anger and anxiety in the province.
Many of the policies that Albertans have blamed for the continued downturn, however, are unlikely to change after Monday’s election.
The Trans Mountain pipeline, which the Liberals purchased for $4.5 billion, is tied up in the courts, but it’s difficult to imagine Trudeau killing it.
Despite opposition to pipelines, Sayers doesn’t think the federal New Democrats would force the matter if they helped prop up the Liberal minority.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said during the campaign that any party looking to partner up would have to consider the NDP’s a series of priorities in order to work together: creating universal pharmacare, investing in housing, waiving interest on student loans, committing to reduce emissions, ending subsidies for oil companies and delivering aid to oilpatch workers to transition them to a new economy, increasing taxes on the wealthiest Canadians and closing tax loopholes, and reducing cellphone bills.
Missing from his demands were any mention of pipelines and Trans Mountain in particular, despite his opposition to the project.
Then, there’s the separatist Bloc Québécois.
Of course, Alberta and Quebec often see eye to eye when it comes to more power for the provinces. But the Bloc is also antagonistic to pipelines. It wants the federal government to sell the Trans Mountain pipeline and wants to see strong legislation on the environment.
“If the Bloc is holding the balance of power and they’re solely interested in Quebec’s interests, who are the biggest recipients of equalization, you know, that’s a very different calculation than even if the NDP is holding the balance of power,” said pollster Janet Brown.
Unlikely to happen is repeal of Bill C-69, which clarifies what is required for approval of major industrial projects. Opponents like Alberta Premier Jason Kenney decry it as the “no more pipelines act.” The province has mounted a constitutional challenge against the legislation.
Also unlikely? Repeal of Bill C-48, which bans tanker traffic on a stretch of Canada’s West Coast, but wouldn’t affect Trans Mountain.
‘An elite-driven narrative’
All of that will surely contribute to the overheated anger and rhetoric in Alberta, but what could be done to calm it?
In a word: not much.
Alberta has long relished flinging mud at the Laurentian elites of Central Canada. It’s a storied pastime, not without merit, to grumble about the province’s lot in Confederation.
There have been political upswells, from the socialist prairie populists angry at the price of grain and the railways to the more recent rise of the Reform Party (which morphed and merged into the Conservative Party of Canada).
Now the anger is more nebulous and, according to political scientist Melanee Thomas from the University of Calgary, stoked by political parties for short-term gain.
“This is an elite-driven narrative,” she said.
“The prize with this particular election now, where it’s kind of like what can we say that will basically be the message for 2019 that will help us win both elections? And a lot of this is just: these people are against Alberta.”
In the end, the narrative worked for the Alberta election and the federal one.
But that kind of genie bottle is difficult to recork.
University of Alberta political scientist Jared Wesley said he’s not sure a Conservative federal government can meet the “nebulous demands of the Western populist movement.”
He researches campaign rhetoric in the west and how leaders in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta present themselves in relation to the rest of Canada.
He says the feeling in his focus groups has shifted from Alberta being held back to the province being left behind by Canada and the rest of the world.
“That starts to bring in feelings and sentiment — worry, anxiety, alienation, resentment, rage — that we’ve seen in other parts of the world, including the United States,” he said.
According to Wesley, the rust belt states like Michigan where the primary industry has collapsed could provide a more realistic parallel for Alberta than Texas.
The question is whether anyone, or any party, can fix what ails Alberta and its main source of income.
Wesley sees regionalism and partisanship melding “into a really potent force.”
That kind of thinking and the divisiveness that has been exposed by the recent campaign and the years leading up to it, all point to one thing: the need for a national vision and someone capable of inspiring the regions to band together.
Who, and what, can achieve that?
This is the part of the narrative that requires the little shrugging emoji.
Sayers says there are no policies on the table that could become the great unifier. Instead, he argues it has to be a metaphysical plea for a Canada that is stronger together.
“I think between now and the next election, which I assume will happen pretty quickly, it’s going to be pretty tumultuous and there’s not an obvious [unifying force] other than the claim that we are better off together than we are divided,” he said.
“And I’m not sure who is capable amongst the current crop of leaders to really pursue that vision.”
It will also be difficult for the current Alberta government to work with any minority government that doesn’t have the Conservatives at the head.
Kenney has campaigned for federal Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer’s party in Ontario, Manitoba and Alberta, and has openly said it would be difficult to work with another Trudeau-led government.
He has threatened to hold a referendum on equalization — a legally non-binding exercise — if bills C-69 and C-48 aren’t tossed and a pipeline built.
Heck, his party sent out an email telling supporters they should protest Trudeau’s visit to Calgary last Saturday night.
Meanwhile, if Quebec feels shorted, it could ratchet up separatist sentiment.
Sayers hopes the election provides a moment of pause where Canadians realize they can’t keep going down the route they’re going and that big conversations come from that pause.
“Politicians have seen the writing on the wall, that if we don’t work together here, things are going to look pretty nasty,” he said.
“And that’s the moment, it’s like the ’95 referendum and these things, that I think we’ll be looking for a moment of ‘gee, you know, if we carry on allowing this fragmentation to get worse, we will end up in a really bad spot.”