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Is Alberta's 'Yes to TMX' campaign a sly tax-funded attack on the Trudeau Liberals?

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Alberta Energy Minister Sonya Savage talks to reporters at the foot of Parliament Hill. Photo: Sonya Savage/Twitter

Things are certainly different on the pipeline front now that Jason Kenney and his United Conservative Party are in power in Alberta!

Yesterday, the airwaves were full of reports Alberta Energy Minister Sonya Savage had announced an advertising campaign urging Parliament to say "Yes to TMX." (We'll get back to the messaging in a moment.)

The Kenney government is prepared to spend $1.6 million on this campaign in Ottawa alone, media breathlessly reported. More would be spent elsewhere in the country, although the UCP's not ready to say how much.

Savage, a former oil industry executive, told a roadside news conference with Parliament Hill for a backdrop that, "We need to approve the pipeline without hesitation … Our campaign will reinforce this message across the country. It's time for a firm decision on Trans Mountain pipeline. It's time for a 'yes.'" 

Savage was standing in front of a cube van which, as the CBC put it in its report, was "emblazoned with messages promoting the pipeline."

The campaign has a website, YesToTMX.ca, for those who want more emails.

Compare this to 2018 when the NDP was in power …

Oh! Wait! In 2018, the NDP was doing exactly the same thing! Who knew?

The NDP was spending about half a million dollars a week placing full-page print and online advertisements in newspapers across the country. In addition, it was buying outdoor advertising in Ottawa, radio ads, doing national polling and running its online "Keep Canada Working" campaign.

The messaging was basically the same: The NDP campaign claimed Canada was losing $40 million a day because of the lower price fetched by Alberta crude in the U.S. and that a pipeline to the West Coast would fix that. (Both statements are controversial and disputed by many experts.) "In the 30 seconds it takes to listen to this ad, Canada will lose $15,000," alleged one clip.

This NDP ad campaign is credited with turning Canadian public opinion around on the merits of completing the Trans Mountain pipeline, now owned by Ottawa

The NDP's version also emphasized the safety of pipelines compared to other methods of transporting crude. And it had a nice website, too, KeepCanadaWorking.ca.

If you click on KeepCanadaWorking.ca today, you'll go straight to YesToTMX.ca, so you can't compare and contrast very easily. The new UCP website slips in Kenney's oft-repeated sotto voce threat that not letting Alberta have its way will put national unity at risk. The UCP campaign also repeats the claim not having a pipeline costs Canada money every day.

But there is another difference that should be more evident.

The NDP campaign was designed to do what it purported to do, sell Canadians on the need to get to work on the Trans Mountain Expansion Project as quickly as possible. You could argue the merits of that case, but that's all it was.

The UCP campaign, in a shade of bright Tory blue reminiscent of the Harper Government's branding, is promoting more than a pipeline. It has a subtext -- or maybe it's a supertext, since it seems to get more prominence on the mobile advertising in the nation's capital than what is supposedly the main message.

Media images of Savage's news conference show the smaller panel on the back of the truck, in French and English, saying "Yes to TMX pipeline June 18." But outside Alberta and circles obsessed with the debate, who even knows what TMX means, in French or English?

The main message, on the truck's side panel, reads: "Ottawa, we have a problem."

There's some palaver about the TMX and June 18 below that, but it's not what viewers of the ads will see when they whiz past the sign, or it whizzes past them.

Is this a plea to say yes to the TMX, or a sly effort paid for by Alberta taxpayers to attack the Liberal government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau? Is it designed to boost the fortunes of the blue team, led by Andrew Scheer, the guy who's been described as Stephen Harper with a nicer smile?

Will the campaign continue after June 18, and if it does, will the pro-Tory messaging get less subtle after that, regardless of the federal government's decision?

So what's this really about? According to Savage, "if there is any delay, we could lose an entire construction season and that's going to have an unbelievable detrimental impact to Alberta."

That's a debatable proposition on both counts, of course, but it's fair to say Trudeau has a serious political consideration to make when pondering his cabinet's June decision. After all, he's not going to gain any votes by doing what Alberta wants, and he may just lose a few by appearing to knuckle under to Kenney's demands.

On the other hand, his government bought the broken pipeline, so he now may feel he must abide by the political version of the fictitious Pottery Barn Rule.

As we learned from Ontario Conservative Premier Doug Ford's recent childish gas-pump sticker stunt, there are no restrictions on provincial campaign activities during national campaigns.

With Ford's bromantic partner in Alberta now appearing to cook up more sophisticated ways to use tax money to support the federal Conservatives, Ottawa may need to close that dangerous loophole.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca

Photo: Sonya Savage/Twitter

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