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Oilsands phase-out freak-out explained: Conservatives think road back to Ottawa runs through Edmonton

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Image: Facebook/Jason Kenney

OTTAWA

"Funny," Alberta Federation of Labour President Gil McGowan observed in a tweet yesterday: "I don't remember Kenney or Jean hyperventilating when their boss agreed to decarbonization by 2100."

McGowan was referring to the nearly complete meltdown on the right in Alberta after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's remark last Friday in Peterborough, Ont., that "we can't shut down the oilsands tomorrow. We need to phase them out."

The tweet included a convenient link to a CBC story about news conference in Schloss Elmau, Germany, on June 8, 2015, at which the plan by the G7 advanced nations to deeply cut carbon emissions by 2050 and "decarbonization" by the end of the century was announced.

Harper, sounding reasonable enough, argued at the news conference that "the kind of targets we're talking about will require a transformation in our energy sectors."

He went on: "We do understand that to achieve...these kinds of milestones over the decades to come will require serious technological transformation. Nobody's going to start to shut down their industries or turn off the lights. We've simply got to find a way to create lower-carbon emitting sources of energy -- and that work is ongoing."

As McGowan observed, no one among Harper's supporters -- least of all former federal Conservative cabinet minister Jason Kenney, who is now campaigning to lead the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party, and former Conservative MP Brian Jean, who is now leader of Alberta's Wildrose Opposition -- were freaking out about what their sometime boss had to say.

Indeed, while there was some mild opposition from the federal NDP, then still the Opposition in Ottawa, no one was taking Harper's remarks wildly out of context at the time either, although it was thought that, behind the scenes, Harper had done what he could to water down the statement he was publicly defending.

Listened to in context, Trudeau's remarks sound remarkably similar to Harper's. "We are a country of resources and we need to get those to market. But in the twenty-first century, getting our resources to market needs to be done not just by diktat, but by doing it responsibly, sustainably, and including people in the process. Including consultations, including science, including indigenous communities in the way we move forward."

He went on, also reasonably: "You can't make a choice between what's good for the environment and what's good for the economy. We can't shut down the oilsands" -- here, he paused momentarily -- "tomorrow. We need to phase them out. We need to manage the transition off our dependence on fossil fuels. That is going to take time."

So what changed?

Not the Alberta government. It had already changed, the month before.

Back then, though, Harper's Conservative Party of Canada presumably still expected to be the National Governing Party of Canada, forever and ever, amen. Or, at least, that it had a fighting chance of doing so. Many of the rest of us certainly felt that way at the time, and weren't particularly happy about it.

Accordingly, they wanted to strike a combination of policy and rhetoric that would appeal to as many Canadian voters as possible: appearing to be environmentally responsible but prepared to responsibly develop Western Canada's petroleum resources.

Alas for them, by then the perception they were trying to create -- in that and other areas -- had worn a little thin, and four months later the voters of Canada decided on significant political change.

As a direct result, the federal Conservative Party is today in a terrible state, and you only have to look at the gong show that constitutes its leadership race to see the truth of that!

Meanwhile, the new prime minister of Canada, Trudeau, hails from the old Natural Governing Party. And -- guess what? -- he also wants to strike a combination of policy and rhetoric that will appeal to as many voters as possible: appearing to be environmentally responsible but prepared to responsibly develop Western Canada's petroleum resources.

Now, Trudeau may or may not be more serious about the environmental part of this equation than his predecessor -- I'm still making up my mind about that, as are a lot of Canadian voters. Not necessarily the ones in Peterborough, however. It's interesting to note that Trudeau was defending his approval of the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion to a hostile questioner -- one who had just been cheered by town hall participants.

But this time, after Trudeau's remark in Peterborough (so similar to that of Harper less than two years ago), the Alberta right went wild, as did their media echo chamber.

Quote the PM in context? Fuggedaboudit!

How do we explain this? Well, there is the obvious of course. Harper was an autocratic boss and if you wanted to keep your place in a political party he ran, you needed to keep your toe on the line. And mainstream media in Canada, in particular the Postmedia newspaper chain, supports the Conservatives with open partisanship.

But there is more to it than that. After all, while there may not be much difference between the Grit NGP and the Tory NGP on resource development policy, there are significant differences in other areas, and the people who enthusiastically backed the Conservatives' worst policies when Harper was PM are very unhappy about the change of government in Ottawa.

The situation is a little more complicated in Edmonton, where the NDP government that relaxed the Progressive Conservatives in 2015 seems at least to realize that the rest of Canada is a democracy, and there is likely to be more progress on resource shipments with meaningful consultation -- viz., "seeking social license" -- than without. The evidence to date suggests they are right.

But, given the parlous state of the Conservative party, the Right's movers and shakers -- people like Preston Manning, former Harper strategist Tom Flanagan and Harper himself -- have decided that there can be no Conservative restoration in Canada without a beachhead somewhere, and Alberta is the logical place for it.

Its government has access to big money, after all, or at least it will if the price of a barrel of oil ever returns to three figures. And there's nothing like lots of money and the shelter of a government if your intention is major mischief.

The Alberta NDP is still inexperienced, and therefore arguably more vulnerable than, say, a Liberal government in Ontario or B.C. The province's electorate, moreover, remains heavily influenced by conservative thinking, and thus may be more easily turned than elsewhere in Canada.

And like the residents of any company town, the citizens of a province so heavily dependent on one industry should be easier to stampede into doing your bidding. This, pretty obviously, is the strategy behind the heavy handed campaigns against Premier Rachel Notley's NDP by both PC and Wildrose parties.

Plus, a lot of the people closest to Harper are from Alberta -- or, like Harper himself, are Ontarians who have made it their congenial ideological home.

In other words, Canada’s conservatives have decided that the road back to Ottawa runs through Edmonton.

To make that happen, Notley's social license strategy must be discredited -- not so easy after a decade of Tory failure on the pipeline file caused directly by the party brain trust's reluctance to seek social license from voters and politicians outside Alberta.

Thus we have PC leadership candidate Jason Kenney's childish foot-stomping on social media and Jean huffing that if Trudeau wants to shut down the oilsands "he'll have to go through me!" Plus, of course, the screeching hysteria of the conservative online rage machine.

That's what's different since Harper said basically the same thing as Trudeau.

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

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Image: Facebook/Jason Kenney

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