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Jason Kenney flip-flops, adopts 'social license' strategy

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Suncor Steepbank mine, near Fort McMurray. Image: Jason Woodhead/Flickr

We interrupt this blog with an important bulletin from the stable reliable liberal democracy of Alberta!

In an unexpected move, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has announced he will seek social license for new energy projects in the Canadian province.

How unexpected was this announcement? It was so unexpected it hadn't even been reported by the Alberta government's official "war room"!

Then again, considering that the so-called Canadian Energy Centre's mission -- running a website that supposedly exposes the lies and deceptions of people who dare to suggest fossil fuels don't have much of a future in a rapidly heating world -- maybe it will never be reported there.

Instead, Kenney chose a forum in Washington and an interview with a friendly Postmedia writer to reveal Alberta's United Conservative government now understands it's necessary to seek social license for new fossil fuel projects because "no reasonable person that can deny that in the decades to come we will see a gradual shift from hydrocarbon-based energy to other forms of energy." (Emphasis added, of course.)

Kenney told a Washington forum Friday it's "preferable that the last barrel in that transition period comes from a stable, reliable liberal democracy with among the highest environmental, human-rights and labour standards on earth."

The premier, who is widely considered in this province to be a very stable, reliable and democratic genius, told the interviewer, "I have a firm grasp of the obvious."

In the message, clearly aimed at listeners outside Alberta's borders, Kenney did not use the actual words "social license," which thanks to his efforts over the past several years have acquired something of a tarnish in Alberta.

Nevertheless, that's clearly what he has in mind, although with a little foot dragging thrown in as the italics in the passage above suggest. As Postmedia's Don Braid noted while politely refraining from using the suspect term himself: "This is new. And it's significant."

Indeed, Kenney is clearly trying to influence federal leaders to approve a large oilsands project that while unlikely ever to be completed is apparently thought necessary for the continued political wellbeing of the UCP.

Indeed, the possibility the Teck Frontier oilsands mine might not get the nod from the federal cabinet has lately been distracting the Kenney government from its efforts to cut public employees' pay, cut the free speech rights of labour union members, cut education spending by $136 million, cut health care spending by up to $1.9 billion, and lower environmental standards and weaken worker safety legislation in the name of fighting what the UCP refers to as "red tape."

Recognizing that his effort to seek social license for Alberta's petroleum industry needs to impress one audience in particular, Kenney also sent a rambling, four-page open letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in which he complained about how frustrating it is while "genuinely looking for a path to responsible and sustainable development to be met with ambiguous shrugs."

As the premier's thoughtful journalistic interpreter concluded, "it is almost impossible to imagine those minority Liberal ministers approving Teck without some assurance that, over time, UCP Alberta is comfortable with transition."

One imagines muffled guffaws inside the Prime Minister's Office, which along with Alberta's former NDP government has been on the receiving end of Kenney's sustained and bitter campaign against the efficacy of the social license strategy for about five years.

"The NDP's 'social license' deal with Justin Trudeau has been a miserable failure for Albertans," Kenney said in a typical pre-election tweet in 2019. "Social license is a shell game by ideologues," he told a far-right vlogger back in 2016.

Nevertheless, we ought not to imagine Trudeau's Liberals will stand too vigorously in the way of Teck's ambitions, regardless of how they view Kenney.

Braid argues we ought not to be annoyed at Kenney's dramatic flip-flop because "it's Alberta's future that matters most." At least former premier Rachel Notley, who long advocated the strategy, is entitled to say, "I told you so!"

I wonder if some of Kenney's other cheerleaders in media, not to mention his army of trolls on social media, will be able to catch up with his neck-snapping reversal as quickly?

When a handout is a hand up

Speaking of sudden flip-flops, I wonder how Environment Minister and Government House Leader Jason Nixon feels about the handout Alberta farmers have just received from the federal government?

No sooner had Nixon got done sharply advising the Liberals that Albertans are proud people who don't want handouts from Ottawa in compensation for rejection of that oilsands mine than Agriculture Minister Devin Dreeshen announced what appears to be a 50/50 grant from the federals so farmers can upgrade their grain drying and handling equipment.

"Albertans are not looking for a Justin Trudeau handout," Nixon huffed in Calgary on Friday. "We're not interested in that." Except when we are, of course, in which case we prefer to call it a hand up.

Dreeshen's news release didn't go out of its way to explain the federal connection, although it did quote federal Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau, a sure sign of what's up.

It's worth noting that on-farm grain drying equipment is yet another cost of the loss of the Canadian Wheat Board, finally eliminated by Stephen Harper's federal Conservative government in early 2015 after its single-desk grain sales were ended in 2012 in the name of utopian market fundamentalism.

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 at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on his blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Image: Jason Woodhead/Flickr

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