Can the Great Wall of Saskatchewan resist Rachel Notley’s wish to put democracy back into energy politics?

Posted on July 18, 2015, 2:10 am
9 mins

PHOTOS: Canada’s provincial and territorial premiers in Newfoundland, with St. John’s Harbor visible in the background (CBC Photo). One hopes they didn’t have to walk up that hill! Below: Alberta Premier Rachel Notley and Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall (CP Photo).

The acerbic public disagreement between Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall and Alberta Premier Rachel Notley at the annual premiers’ gathering in St. John’s is not merely a spat about tactics as portrayed by the media.

Rather, their war of words about how energy development should proceed at the national provincial and territorial premiers’ meeting this week reveals a significant rift over how Canada ought to be governed that is important to the future of the country.

Notley-LThe yearly summer premiers’ conference yesterday yielded an “aspirational” agreement on a “Canadian energy strategy,” which, despite being labelled “monumental” by its authors is not likely to be particularly earthshaking, unlike, say, hydraulic fracking in northern Alberta. Indeed, the long-term impact of Mr. Wall’s sniping may turn out to be more pronounced.

On Wednesday, Mr. Wall blew a gasket and accused Ms. Notley of offering a “veto” to Ontario and Quebec on bitumen pipelines from the West. Dismissed as “ridiculous” by Ms. Notley and most of the other premiers in St. John’s, the Saskatchewan conservative’s outburst was approvingly parroted by Alberta mainstream media throughout the day yesterday.

Ms. Notley kept her cool and her trademark charm, shrugging off Mr. Wall’s tantrum as “a little bit of showboating” and expressing the view “you don’t get things done by picking fights with people gratuitously. You do get things done by having good conversations …”

However, it’s said here Mr. Wall’s frustration reflects the opinion of many on the right, including his ideological fellow travellers in Ottawa, at the challenge mounted by Ms. Notley and Alberta’s new NDP government to their neoliberal approach to governance. No doubt they are particularly vexed by what this might mean for their attempts to eliminate the ability of citizens within the Canadian federation to control the energy industry in their own jurisdictions.

Mr. Wall and like-minded conservatives elsewhere in Canada, including here in Alberta, have long attempted to erect, if readers will forgive me, a Saskatchewan Wall between the public face of democracy and the ability of citizens to influence fundamental policies undertaken by their governments.

In other words, in the neoliberal worldview, democracy is only about the periodic selection of leaders expected to carry out economic policies already determined by an “expert” leadership consensus.

WALL2JPGWhile leaders remain important according to this mindset, if only to keep things operating as smoothly as possible for the leadership class, recent conservative governments in Ottawa and Canada’s provinces have attempted to put in place such mechanisms as interprovincial and international trade agreements to ensure any variation from the elite consensus is impossible, even if by some fluke the “wrong” politician manages to get elected.

This would explain why Mr. Wall, the Alberta mainstream media and MLAs from this province’s Opposition Wildrose Party are all so appalled by Ms. Notley’s efforts to build consensus with other provinces to facilitate export of Alberta’s petroleum resources.

From their perspective, the very notion of consensus building is dangerous because it opens the door to the expectation participants in Canadian democracy may have some role other than merely electing powerless representatives who know enough to behave themselves and abide by the elite consensus.

Take this to its extreme – which would presumably be fine with both Mr. Wall and Prime Minister Stephen Harper – and you have Greece, at least in terms of the negotiability of policy decisions that have already been decided elsewhere behind closed doors. In this sense, recent Harper Government social media advertising about the NDP has it exactly backwards – it’s the Conservatives who want to turn Canada into Greece!

For this reason, any argument Ms. Notley has a clear mandate to keep the promises she made during the campaign leading up to her government’s election on May 5 seems nonsensical to many conservatives. From their perspective, she has no more of a mandate than, say, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras!

From Mr. Wall’s point of view, building pipelines to all points of the compass and catering to every whim of the energy industry is not just sound policy, it is simply non-negotiable. Asking other provinces – or, God forbid, their ordinary citizens – what they think about it must seem deeply subversive to someone who believes such perspectives ought to be irrelevant.

The idea Ms. Notley was seeking consensus to help Alberta apparently appeared so outrageous to Mr. Wall he let his mask of congeniality slip in public. Well, he wouldn’t be the first person to mistake Ms. Notley’s engaging manner for a lack of steel. This is a serious error, as some have discovered already.

Ms. Notley, by contrast, has a fundamentally different, much more traditional, view of democracy in which political parties are needed to act as brokers of conflicting ideas to build consensus on policies that a majority of voters can support.

That means for Alberta to succeed with its wish to benefit from the province’s oil resources – which Ms. Notley shares, despite the ravings and rantings of some right-wing newspaper columnists – then social licence must be granted by citizens of the parts of Canada through which those resources flow on their way to market.

As noted, this is deeply threatening to neoliberals, for whom democracy is only a cosmetic tool. All the worse, from Mr. Wall’s point of view, if Ms. Notley’s plan works better than his alternative, which may well turn out to be the case.

Of course, there may also be a personal side to Mr. Wall’s barbs. Some have suggested he may harbour ambitions to play larger role than possible on Saskatchewan’s tiny stage, and that could be upset by Ms. Notley’s example. If so, his snarky resentment is showing through, surely doing no good to his reputation as the Mr. Congeniality of Canadian politics.

Nor will it help Alberta’s opposition very much to claim Mr. Wall has this province’s interests at heart when he has just proved he doesn’t by using the NDP’s plans for a badly needed royalty review to try to purloin businesses away from our province.

But the exchange between the two premiers should remind all Canadians that an opportunity may soon arise for them to choose between the neoliberal view of democracy represented by Mr. Wall and his friends in Ottawa and the traditional interpretation represented by Ms. Notley and Thomas Mulcair’s NDP, in which citizens actually have a meaningful role.

That is scheduled to happen on Oct. 19.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

6 Comments to: Can the Great Wall of Saskatchewan resist Rachel Notley’s wish to put democracy back into energy politics?

  1. ninente

    July 18th, 2015

    Thank you!

    For once, something about the conference that I can understand.

    Reply
  2. Bill

    July 18th, 2015

    An excellent summary account of the conference and participants.

    Ms Notley did an excellent job in representing democracy in balancing future energy and environmental direction. Winner was progressive, Wall was scary, Clark was cheerleading.

    Great respect for Ms Notley’s positive contribution and standing up for the future of Canada.

    An appreciative west coaster.

    Reply
  3. Expat Albertan

    July 18th, 2015

    As an Alberta expat now living in central Canada, I was particularly offended by Mr. Wall’s comment that if we put equalization money into pipelines headed east then they would sure to be built, This is rich coming from a Saskatchewan premier whose province relied on equalization up until recently (I might add that, as a proud Canadian, I am quite happy that my tax dollars went to help the good people of Saskatchewan, some of who are my relatives). But also this: as a central Canadian, I am getting pretty sick and tired of the trope that we are living off the good graces of equalization from the west. In fact, Ontario and Quebec pay slightly more into the transfer system than Alberta (and certainly more than Saskatchewan) – we just end up paying for most or our equalization to ourselves.

    Reply
  4. Sub-Boreal

    July 18th, 2015

    Although it isn’t hard to look good on energy policy when the comparison is Brad Wall, I’d be applauding Ms. Notley with one hand only, especially after reading the text of her recent remarks to the Stampede Investment Forum ( http://www.macleans.ca/news/canada/for-the-record-rachel-notleys-speech-to-the-calgary-petroleum-club/ ).

    Sure, there’s some boilerplate stuff about “enhancing Alberta’s environmental record”, but the important part of the message is that expansion of tar sands production for export will continue under this government.

    And unfortunately for Ms. Notley, and Mr. Mulcair, this just can’t be done while meeting any current or likely future international climate obligations for Canada. Nope, no way.

    And it’s a real shame, too. Because just when it seemed that the province might have some hope of getting a bit more return from its main remaining hydrocarbon resource – after pissing away decades-worth of potential revenues – it turns out that they’ll be trying to squeeze something out of a stranded asset.

    Having spent a few years in AB back in the ’70s and ’80s, I was as blown away as anyone when the NDP sweep happened this spring. And I’m still glad. But the problem for social democrats – especially the ultra-moderate variety like the NDP – is that they still haven’t really understood what a tight bind all wealthy societies are in when confronted with climate change. We just won’t have the option any more of growing our way out of facing distributional or social justice questions.

    While I’m willing to make an allowance for Ms. Notley tuning her remarks to suit the audience, it has to be a small one, I’m afraid. On the main questions posed by climate change, hand-waving about sustainability and balancing this and that just can’t cut it any more. The hour is too late. And that’s a pity for otherwise nice and sensible people who had to wait so long for a chance to govern.

    So where I’m sitting on the BC coast this evening, after walking along a clean, white beach before dinner, Ms. Notley and Mr. Mulcair will find that the locals will be just as implacable in opposing Kinder-Morgan’s pipeline proposal as they were in opposing Harper’s support for Northern Gateway. Neither will happen.

    Reply
    • political ranger

      July 20th, 2015

      excellent post, and very well put

      There seems to be a particularly Albertan meme in which opposition parties campaign on; if you just will elect us we will continue with all the current policies but do it with a more benign (Liberal or NDP) twist.
      I hope that Notley and her crew come to realize, before it is too late, that the tide that swept her into power was a hope that things would be done differently. Out with the old, in with the new.
      Not just a different or new colour of lipstick on the old snarly pig either.

      So, new ideas and institutions are the expectation of the voting public. Getting them to work is a tall order in an environment of neo-con sabotage, as David says.

      Whether they will be enough or effective is another question entirely, as you say. We have pissed away all the ‘good’ solutions over the last 40 years; all that is left now are bad and worse. We will pay the piper. A calm progressive leadership with steely resolve will be required to ensure that debt is paid down in an orderly manner. The alternative is 1790 France.

      Reply
  5. Bill

    July 19th, 2015

    Since our PM has no time to participate at these conferences – he has to be available for photo ops rather than to Canadian business affairs, it is good to hear the premiers addressing the issues. Perhaps, with Harper at the helm of the Canadian government we can abolish the federal level of government until such time we have a Prime Minister that cares about Canada _ not his financial backers.

    Reply

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