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What Brexit and Ottawa's decision on the Teck oil sands mine have in common: Jason Kenney's stubborn intransigence

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Image: Government of Alberta/Flickr

Question: What do Brexit, which finally happened on Friday but the full implications of which are yet to unfold, and Ottawa's impending decision on the Teck Resources Ltd. Frontier oilsands mine in northern Alberta have in common?

Answer: Both are examples of Alberta Premier Jason Kenney's stubborn tendency to cling to inconsistent and unhelpful positions long after they have lost any utility. In other words, to keep digging when he finds himself in a hole.

Alert readers will remember what Kenney famously tweeted on June 23, 2016, when British voters chose by a narrow margin to leave the European Union: "Congratulations to the British people on choosing hope over fear by embracing a confident, sovereign future, open to the world!"

That was before the disaster Brexit would turn out to be was clear to all, but it nevertheless gobsmacked most commentators who still thought of Kenney as an experienced Calgary MP and senior cabinet minister only recently returned to the opposition benches. In other words, a responsible grownup.

Clearly, though, Kenney was already thinking about messaging that would appeal to the base of the two conservative parties in Alberta, the long-term consequences be damned. Less than two weeks after the Brexit tweet, he would announce he was soon leaving federal politics with the goal of uniting the Alberta's Progressive Conservative and Wildrose parties.

Dog-whistling xenophobic messages like those Brexit's hard-core campaigners had used became a key part of Kenney's successful strategy to unite Alberta's right, and the equally successful election campaign that climaxed last April with the victory of his United Conservative Party and his elevation to premier.

Never mind the obvious inconsistency of supporting Brexit with the traditional position of the modern Canadian conservative movement on the necessity of trade agreements to the economic survival of export dependent regions like Alberta, or Kenney's insistence that all other regions of Canada must have no say in Alberta's export ambitions, regardless of their environmental or social implications.

And never mind the growing realization throughout the world that Britain's decision to pull out of a market into which it had deeply integrated over a half century was bound to unfold catastrophically -- which no amount of cheerful whistling past the graveyard by conservative politicians on either side of the Atlantic is now going to prevent from playing out.

But instead of shelving the strategy that had done its work, Kenney has doubled down, helping gin up an Alberta separation movement on his right-wing party's loony fringe to bludgeon Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberal government -- and, presumably, somehow open a way for Kenney to eventually triumph in Ottawa when Canadian voters tire of the Liberals.

"Congratulations to our friends in the United Kingdom on officially regaining their independence tonight," he tweeted unrepentantly on Friday as the clock ran out on British membership of the EU, and the soon-to-be-obsolete cross-of-St.-Andrew version of the Union Jack was hauled down in Brussels.

It's far from clear how this is supposed to help his cause or that of Alberta, but it's obvious Kenney has absorbed the U.S. Republican lesson that flip-flops are somehow un-conservative, never mind the circumstances. So we can expect him to stick with his discordant Brexit/Wexit theme music as background noise for his ongoing campaign against Trudeau.

Which brings us to that other hole he's digging himself into: the twinned ideas that Alberta's economic fate hinges on the development of projects like the $20-billion Teck mine and pipelines to carry their output to the sea.

Last year, Kenney campaigned on the notion that lowering corporate taxes and focusing solely on the fossil fuel industry is the only way forward for Alberta.

He convinced many voters, probably a majority, that seeking social license by trying to diversify the province's economy or moderate its carbon footprint with, for example, a carbon tax, were useless fripperies, and economically harmful as well.

At the same time, Kenney refused to acknowledge that an economy solely dependent on a dying industry and subject to the whims of an international market over which Alberta has little control is not sustainable.

Confronted with evidence his right-wing economic nostrums don't seem to be working -- consider the 50,000 jobs Alberta has lost since the UCP slashed corporate taxes by $4.7 billion -- Kenney and the UCP default to casting Trudeau and Confederation as scapegoats for Alberta's troubles.

But as blogger Susan Wright pointed out yesterday, by making Ottawa's upcoming decision on the Teck mine "a litmus test for national unity," Kenney may have painted himself into the proverbial corner, making the compromise with Ottawa required to move the Teck project forward impossible.

"When asked about the feds' pending decision, the federal environment minister said the feds are looking for 'concrete action on climate change' and hinted Alberta might want to reconsider its position on the federal carbon tax," she wrote. "Mr. Kenney has an opportunity to help the feds decide in Teck's favour, but he won't take it."

Much the same can be said of Alberta's ongoing campaign for more pipeline access to salt water.

CBC reported yesterday the federal cabinet is considering approving the mine -- but only if Alberta legislates an emissions cap that would require the province to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.

Even if the mine is approved, though, Teck CEO Don Lindsay suggested last week it may never be developed if the Vancouver-based corporation concludes the economic case for the investment falls short. Current calculations suggest the mine can't be profitable unless North American oil prices reach US$75 a barrel.

You'd think that sooner or later even die-hard Alberta conservatives might start to wonder if all of Alberta's problems can really be Trudeau's fault.

Meanwhile, Kenney keeps digging.

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 David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Image: Government of Alberta/Flickr

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