Deconstructing political discourse in Alberta: Doublethink is alive and well in recessionary Wild Rose Country

Posted on March 07, 2016, 12:21 am
11 mins

PHOTOS: Parson Manning spreads the Gospel of Market Fundamentalism in his days as leader of the Reform Party of Alberta. The actual neoliberal preacher-men of Confederation may not appear exactly as illustrated. Photo grabbed from Elmer Gantry, the movie. Below: Brian Jean, leader of the Wildrose Opposition (from wildrose.ca); the prime minister Trudeau whose policies Mr. Jean appears to think Canada should now emulate (from history and the CBC); and author George Orwell, also known as the inventor of the doublespeaking duckspeaker concept, in the 1920s, before than kind of moustache went out of fashion for some reason (from a passport). If Mr. Orwell were alive today, he’d likely be known on Twitter as “Eric Blair.”

The year 1984 may be long past, but doublethink is alive and well in here Alberta, especially on the political right, but in other circles as well.

The central venue for this doublethink – or, to stick with author George Orwell’s metaphor from his 1949 novel, its subcategory duckspeak – is the increasingly bitter commentary in this province about the interconnected issues of how Alberta’s oil will get to salt water so it can be refined and sold more easily at higher prices to foreigners, Ottawa’s widely misunderstood Equalization Program, and Alberta’s role in the recent past as the market-fundamentalist preacher-man of Confederation.

JEAN_LEFT-JPGNow that things are not booming in Alberta, we regularly hear demands from the Wildrose Opposition and other conservatives that the federal government of Justin Trudeau immediately implement a key provision of an earlier Trudeau Government’s energy strategy, to wit, that it encourage, nay, demand, the use of Alberta oil in Central and Eastern Canadian refineries.

I speak, of course, of the government of Pierre Elliott Trudeau and the National Energy Program it adopted in 1980, the literal first principle of which was “security of supply and ultimate independence from the world market.” This was a policy it was imagined at the time would be implemented partly through the construction of pipelines to carry Alberta petroleum to the refineries of Central and Eastern Canada.

As is well known by readers of this blog, the policies of Trudeau the Elder, in particular the NEP, are almost universally reviled in Alberta, most of all by the Wildrose Party.

And yet here is Mr. Jean, the Wildrose Party’s leader, huffing in a Tweet last week, “If Quebec won’t back #EnergyEast, they can send back their equalization payments & explain why they prefer Saudi oil over Cdn oil”!

This was in reaction to the insistence of the Quebec government it is prepared to go to court to ensure its environmental regulations are considered before any pipeline from Alberta to New Brunswick passes through its territory.

CBC-Trudeau photo by Jean-Marc Carisse -poster '78alt.tif credit must be given to "Jean-Marc CARISSE PHOTO"Actually, I assume Mr. Jean and his advisors know perfectly well that in the market-fundamentalist Canada Albertan conservatives have successfully demanded and built in the years since the elder Mr. Trudeau left office, Quebec has nothing to do with determining whether refineries within its borders or anywhere nearby use Saudi or Alberta oil.

That decision is made by private oil companies, based on the signals of the almighty market, just as Mr. Jean and his fellow ideologues demanded.

To make matters worse, as a writer in iPolitics pointed out, considering the vagaries of that wonderful market, the economic case for the Energy East Pipeline may have just fallen apart anyway.

Energy East, wrote retired oil industry manager Ross Belot, “was a brilliant idea for the Canadian oil industry … in 2013. But if you’re a Canadian oil producer in 2016, it doesn’t look like such a good idea anymore. It may not be a good idea for another 10 years. If ever.”

“It’s pretty obvious Canada’s oilpatch won’t need any more pipeline capacity until after 2025,” he explained. To put this another way: It’s the market, stupid!

Since resources belong to provinces under the Canadian Constitution, the Government of Canada has very little influence over this situation because we have no national petroleum company – another goal of the elder Mr. Trudeau’s NEP that was dismantled as quickly as possible by Mr. Jean’s neoliberal fellow travellers in Ottawa as soon as Brian Mulroney came to power.

OrwellPetro-Canada was sold off because it didn’t fit the prevailing ideology of the right. Canada became the only major oil exporter without a national oil company to influence the activities of other companies, which typically respond only to the impulses of the market, not the needs of the country and its regions. This reality appears to only now have dawned on Mr. Jean!

So Mr. Jean, longtime advocate of the pure market system that Alberta and Canada are suffering under now that international oil prices have turned south, and show signs of staying that way, demands Quebec be forced to accept Alberta oil.

How? Other than protecting its environment, Quebec too has virtually no influence over the oil companies operating within its borders, let alone nearby. Nor does Ottawa.

All thanks to the policies advocated – still advocated – by Mr. Jean and his friends.

Doublethink.

Which brings us to the matter of interprovincial equalization.

We should assume that Mr. Jean and his advisors also understand perfectly well that not a single dime of equalization funds comes from the Alberta government and that a considerable number of equalization dimes come from Quebec.

This is because, as appears not to be widely understood in Alberta, all the money for equalization comes from federal taxpayers, principally income-tax payers. This is why – since the program began 59 years ago – the largest provincial contributor to equalization has always been Ontario, which has the largest population.

Alberta doesn’t pay more than other provinces, except insofar as it has a larger population than some provinces and, until recently at least, there were a lot of extremely well paid people here who were in the highest income tax brackets.

Make Quebec “send back” all the money back to suit Alberta – money that mostly came from Ontario and a lot of which came from Quebec?

Duckspeak!

“Ultimately,” George Orwell wrote of his imagined invention of duckspeak, “it was hoped to make articulate speech issue from the larynx without involving the higher brain centres at all.”

Which brings us to Alberta’s self-appointed role as the market fundamentalist preacher-man of Canada, once made incarnate in the person of Parson Manning.

An awful lot of us Albertans were quick, back in the days when we were making money hand over fist, to argue that because of the Equalization Program, other provinces in general and Quebec in particular had no business spending “our money” on social programs we didn’t approve of in Alberta.

This notion was regularly trotted out by the usual suspects in Thinktankistan, the Astro-Turf sector and the rest of the Conservative Perpetual Outrage Machine to demand that Quebec cease subsidizing, say, affordable child care forthwith.

Needless to say, this didn’t go over particularly well elsewhere, which may account for some of the schadenfreude we are observing in other parts of Canada at Alberta’s current economic predicament.

So, what will happen if, God forbid, things get to a point at which Alberta is in a position to receive payments under the Equalization Program?

I will tell you: It won’t take long before some politicians in Eastern Canada remind us that we have no business taking “their money” if we’re not prepared to implement a sane taxation policy like the ones they have. You know, one with a substantial sales tax and higher income taxes. They’ll ask: “Why should Albertans’ low taxes be subsidized by our province’s taxpayers?”

And you know what? They’ll be making a better case than the one against subsidized child care.

Can you imagine what will be said then by Mr. Jean and his ilk?

I’ll tell you one thing: It’ll be double-plus ungood!

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

18 Comments to: Deconstructing political discourse in Alberta: Doublethink is alive and well in recessionary Wild Rose Country

  1. George

    March 7th, 2016

    What we clearly need in Alberta is a purely market fundamentalist party with a focus on one thing: the economy. People don’t care about social issues when there’s no jobs.

    Reply
    • Watson S

      March 7th, 2016

      I assume this is sarcastic since a purely market fundamentalist party couldn’t focus on the economy by definition as non interference in the economy (letting it act on its own) is the definition of market fundamentalist?

      Reply
  2. Ted Alden

    March 7th, 2016

    Thinktankistan HEY! That’s a good one Dave. If I quote you, do you mind if I use if from time to time? I really like it.

    You raise some very good points. Over the last year as the election drew closer I was battling Albertans (I was born in the province and worked, lived and raised a family there for 38 years), in the social media comment sections of the National Post, The Globe & Mail and Sun newspaper chain (which by the way “BLOCKED” me from posting comments, mostly because of my rather pointed BUT polite and diplomatic questions). Over just the points you have raised here.

    It’s as though they’re not even amicable to an INTERVENTION by the rest of the Canadian family. I’m sure and your readers are more than familiar with the “we pay the freight in this country” mantra emanating from that province. That is up and until the recent collapse of oil prices. I’m having a hard time locating those clowns now. Hum, I wonder where they’ve run off to?

    Reply
    • David Climenhaga

      March 7th, 2016

      Thank you, Ted. You’re welcome to it. It’s in the public domain, in my opinion. I don’t think it’s original … I must’ve seen it somewhere, although I have no idea where. DJC

      Reply
  3. Ted Alden

    March 7th, 2016

    Oh ya, I almost forgot. Do you mind if I plug a couple of books? I’m sure they’re in your library, but for the benefit of some readers. They’re a little hard to get as they’ve been out of print for decades now (but sometimes used book stores you can score them). And what I find interesting is how right and wrong he got things about the oil industry in this country, looking back some 30 odd years when they were published. I might note as well that the writer, I would thing considers himself a conservative as his stuff regularly appears in the National Post.

    1. The Blue Eyed Sheiks – Peter Foster
    2. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice – Peter Foster

    Reply
  4. TENET

    March 7th, 2016

    You put the cards on the table. You have the clearest, most succinct synthesis of the NEP. It cannot be easier to comprehend.

    Sadly, bible wielding parsons and their flock will fall for a mythical version. Enter little men with little moustaches.

    Reply
  5. CuJoYYC

    March 7th, 2016

    A garden of (not so) pure ideology. How quaint of Brian and his band of not-so-merrymen.

    #NEPredux

    Reply
  6. Farmer B

    March 7th, 2016

    Connecting Brian Jeans tweet to the NEP is quite a stretch. The NEP was all about price control and putting a federal tax on every barrel of oil produced. The Trudeau government banked on these newly imposed taxes and when production didn’t materialize the federal deficit ballooned. The NEP was wound down in the mid eighties when the price of oil dropped to under 10USD per barrel. As for Petro Canada Mulroney started the privatization process and Chretien finished it in 2004.

    As for equalization, the funds for equalization do indeed come from federal personal and corporate income tax. Ontario and Quebec to pay more income tax total due to their much larger population but between 2000 and 2014 Quebec was a net recipient, meaning they received more back from Ottawa than they sent. Alberta on the other hand sent 200 billion more to Ottawa than they received back. The formula for determining who receives equalization is based on a 3 year average of economic performance so doubtful Alberta will qualify.

    As for your comment on taxation the Alberta NDP has so far said they will not implement a sales tax and they have raised personal and corporate taxes similar to other provinces. The NDP has also opted for a carbon tax that only 40% will pay due to the fact that Premier Notley has stated that 60% of Albertans will receive rebates. Have a good day:-)

    Reply
    • Watson S

      March 7th, 2016

      If Oil revenue were included in the formula Alberta would see a significant decline even in a 3 year rolling average but since it isn’t you are correct; it will take a massive continued regional recession to see Alberta become a recipient.

      Reply
    • Expat Albertan

      March 7th, 2016

      While you may be technically correct about how much Alberta has paid in versus what it got back, I contend that this is a red herring because the money came from income taxes (and other sources) that was a result of Albertans making more money than others in Canada. In other words, the true measure is not how much money LEFT Alberta because of equalization, but how much money STAYED in Alberta because Albertans had higher earnings (including salaries) and how that affected Albertan’s buying power. My bet: the equalization program did not hamper Albertans spending in anyway and they still live better (on average) than those in the rest of the country (at least until recently). I mean really, how many F100s does the average Albertan need?

      It should also be noted that all provinces receive transfer payments for things like health and education. In fact, under Harper, Alberta was awarded more per capita for health transfers, to the detriment of other provinces, because Harper changed the rules so that health care funding was based on population size and not need (B.C. and Ontario, for example, have aging populations and aging people need more health care, but since their overall population isn’t growing, they get less)

      Reply
  7. Erin Hickman

    March 7th, 2016

    Best column ever!

    Reply
  8. Maria

    March 7th, 2016

    George Orwell’s comment “it was hoped to make articulate speech issue from the larynx without involving the higher brain centres at all.” will be on my mind from now on when I listen to any Wildroser. Great Article!

    Reply
  9. Watson S

    March 7th, 2016

    Wow,

    How does anyone think that adding more pipeline capacity will increase prices? IF anything making movement of goods and arbitrage more accessible makes prices lower. There would be some argument to be made if the price in the East was significantly higher than it is in the west (if Brent was way higher than WTI) but it’s not. Adding 1 or 2 or 10 pipelines will not increase the world oil price, it will lower it. It will not reduce the price spread between WCS and WTI because the heavy oil is simply a low quality product relatively speaking. The only way it reduces transportation costs is if we build too much pipeline capacity and they have to compete for shipping but we’ll never do that; pipelines are individually approved and transport tariffs are agreed to by the NEB.

    As for NDP policy, so far everything combined is less than $1 a barrel in potential costs and even that is if the price is back to $80 a barrel or so. It’s going to take $60 oil to bring the industry back to “normal operation” although frankly there is no such thing as a stable normal operation; swings like this are completely normal in a boom bust commodity driven economy.

    Reply
    • Chris

      March 7th, 2016

      Another pipeline would take many thousands of train tank cars off the track, making the transport of oil much safer and cleaner. But I guess we have forgotten already the horror of Lac-Megantic.

      Reply
  10. Expat Albertan

    March 7th, 2016

    Am I the only person who sees an odd sort of flip-flop on the reasons for the Energy East pipeline in the editorial and comments sections of this countries conservative newspapers (that is to say, most of them). The rationale for ramming through EE keeps changing: one day it’s because we should refine our oil in Canada and keep the money in the country, the next it’s so that we can deliver our oil (or dilbit) to China and other related markets so that it can fetch a world price. Since these two explanations are mutually exclusive, and in light of the excellent iPolitics article David referenced in his article, I’m beginning to smell a rat.

    Reply
  11. Rick

    March 16th, 2016

    FFS
    Talk about a weaver of double talk. Dave ol’ pal. You have taken that art to a whole new level.

    Reply

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