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When propaganda becomes memory: Pierre Trudeau and the National Energy Program

Jason Kenney

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Everybody in Alberta knows Pierre Trudeau and his National Energy Program laid waste to Alberta in the 1980s, and that would include plenty of people out here who nowadays vote NDP and plan to continue doing so.

So even with lovable social democrats in power here on the western edge of the Great Plains, that Trudeau guy haunts us still.

Jason Kenney was explaining this just yesterday as part of the Stephen Harper Government's effort to ensure they don't duplicate the achievement of Kenney's former cabinet colleague Jim Prentice and get the Conservatives turfed out of power in the nation's capital.

Kenney is now the federal minister of defence. Prentice, briefly the premier of Alberta, is at the moment looking for new opportunities, possibly in the banking industry.

Kenney was fussing about Justin Trudeau, the son of the Pierre mentioned above, and explaining how Albertans "remember that the last Trudeau who was prime minister destroyed single-handedly the energy economy of Alberta and Calgary leading to massive layoffs, huge numbers of bankruptcies and a massive recession in this province because of the National Energy Program." (Emphasis added.)

Coming two days after the first televised national leaders' debate, this suggests that in the eyes of rank-and-file Canadians Justin, as Prime Minister Steve insists on calling the leader of the Liberal Party, presumably to emphasize his relative youth on the assumption voters will think that's a bad thing, must have done better in the debate that I gave him credit for doing.

We'll be reading about another poll in a few hours, I'm willing to bet, that still shows the NDP under Thomas Mulcair -- known as Mister Mulcair by our bloodless, seething prime minister -- narrowly in the lead. But it's obvious it's still the Trudeaus, père et fils, that continue to worry and enrage the Conservatives the most for some reason.

But surely Kenney's accusation seems a trifle hyperbolic, even to Albertans who absorbed their hatred and contempt for the NEP with their mothers' milk.

I mean, seriously, people, the elder Trudeau did this all by himself? Good Lord! That's a sentiment worthy of Martin Luther: "For still our ancient foe, doth seek to work us woe … on Earth is not his equal!"

Just the same, like children sitting around the campfire, Kenney and the other members of the Harper Cabinet may actually half believe their own scary stories. This is, after all, what sometimes happens when propaganda becomes memory.

So I'm here to set Kenney's mind at ease. Alberta did have a bump there in the early 1980s on the path to energy superpowerdom, but the elder Trudeau and the National Energy Program actually didn't have that much to do with it.

Cast your minds back to the mid-1970s, those of you who were old enough to be aware of what was going on at the time (Kenney, born in 1968, was not), and you will recall that the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries had managed to quadruple the price of oil, creating severe economic problems for countries like Canada.

Prime minister Trudeau tried to address the situation, first by establishing Petro-Canada, then, in October 1980, by bringing in the NEP to ensure Canadian oil security, increase Canadian ownership of our own resource and capture for all Canadians some of the huge windfall increases in oil revenue flowing to Peter Lougheed's Conservative Government in Alberta thanks to the massive OPEC price increases.

This was not received well by the foreign-owned oil companies that dominated the Alberta patch for the same reason the same players don't like the suggestion of a royalty review today -- one that might, God forbid, move Alberta royalties back toward where they were when Lougheed was in power!

The PM's plan might have worked but for, alas, the tumble in oil prices and the global recession of 1981 and 1982, which notwithstanding Kenney's charming faith in the power of Pierre, was not caused by the elder Trudeau and had precious little to do with the NEP.

All oil producing countries in the world suffered through the same situation. In Alberta, our then-Conservative-dominated political class rather cynically blamed the Liberals and the NEP, and have continued blaming them ever since with such fervor that this convenient fantasy has taken on the quality of inerrant Biblical revelation.

Another Conservative prime minister, Brian Mulroney, used the widespread belief in this imaginative interpretation of history to try to ensure such things as national energy self-sufficiency could never happen again, by selling off Canadians' share in the industry and entrenching prohibitions on export taxes and controls in the 1989 Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement.

So I say to Kenney, he can rest easy. Even if any one man could have done all those things 35 years ago -- and, of course, he couldn't have, and didn’t -- voters can now safely remove the Conservatives from power on Oct. 19 without any fear Calgary will be wiped from the map.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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