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Alberta's 'fair deal' panel reheats the 'Firewall Manifesto' to manufacture consent for unpopular policies

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Fair deal panel members, UCP MLAs Tany Yao, Miranda Rosin and Drew Barnes (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

Consider the report of Alberta's "fair deal" panel, released yesterday by Premier Jason Kenney with considerable fanfare.

It strongly suggests the Harper-Kenney wing of the Canadian Conservative movement is made up of people who purport to be Canadian patriots when they're in power in Ottawa, but are Prairie separatists when they're on the outs with voters in the rest of Canada.

Patriots of convenience, you might say. Pay no attention to that red maple leaf flag in the background of those portraits from their Ottawa days.

It turns out the eight surviving "fair deal" panel members -- including a retired civil servant, an unsuccessful Progressive Conservative party leadership candidate, some undistinguished MLAs from the United Conservative Party backbenches, and a superannuated titan of the Reform party -- didn't have an original thought among them.

They just put Stephen Harper's 2001 sovereignty-association screed into the microwave, gave it a couple of turns at low power, and -- voilà! -- served it barely warm.

It would be a vast overstatement to call this unappetizing concoction "firewall letter 2.0." This is the "firewall letter" drafted by Harper and his Americanized cronies in the University of Calgary's political science and economics departments two decades ago cut and pasted into the third decade of the 21st century. It's the same C+ effort that deserved the trip to the recycler premier Ralph Klein, its nominal recipient, gave it in 2001.

The panel members needn't have wasted their time pretending to listen members of the public at 10 town halls across Alberta. They obviously paid no attention to what they were being told, especially on the topic of having Albertans' retirement funds hijacked to finance the foundering fossil fuel industry.

Not only do most Albertans hate the idea of replacing the Canada Pension Plan with an Alberta pension scheme -- recommended for further study by the panel -- they're opposed to most of the rest of its key ideas.

In the end the "fair deal" panel seems to have listened only to six people other than Kenney himself: Harper, Tom Flanagan, Ted Morton, Rainer Knopff, Andy Crooks and Ken Boessenkool, the original signatories of the Firewall Manifesto. And here it is again, whole cloth; reused, not recycled.

A provincial police force, Americanized private health care, incursion into federal jurisdiction while screaming at the feds to stay out of our lane, even the grand theft of Albertans' CPP funds, it's all as predicted in this space yesterday.

People in other parts of Canada may wonder, why bother? Most of this is unlikely to come to pass. Certainly there will be no constitutional change in Canada to suit Alberta's post-oil tantrums.

There are, however, strategic reasons for much of this -- now as in 2001. They include:

Neutralizing the threat from the right

Last fall, when this nonsense was being plotted, Kenney was worrying his promotion of Alberta separatism might have worked too well, and the UCP could face an electoral threat from its own loony far-right fringe.

Recruiting Preston Manning and throwing the Wexit nuts a few bones from the firewall days seemed like a good way to nip it in the bud.

By now, of course, COVID-19, the vigour of the federal government compared to Edmonton's pallid response to the pandemic, and public realization of just how unsavoury some Wexit leaders are, has rendered this unnecessary.

Distracting from the UCP's ideological project

Neoliberalism is in disrepute around the world. Even in Alberta, now might seem like a bad time to be pushing a radical neoliberal legislative program like the UCP's. Releasing this report with a certain amount of hoopla, though, sucks the oxygen out of Alberta's already stunted political discourse.

After all, it's apparent that even a global pandemic can't keep the citizens of the West's faltering democracies from protesting in the streets when the stakes are high enough. Why take a chance on Energy Minister Sonya Savage's misplaced optimism that COVID-19 will keep most folks from protesting the UCP's radical program?

Getting rid of Naheed Nenshi

You may wonder why the Alberta government would be so foolish as to spend millions on a referendum demanding a change to the Canadian constitution that has zero chance of happening. To get rid of Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, of course.

Nenshi is despised by the Calgary sprawl cabal and many more at the old Manning Centre, not because he's a squishy liberal, but because he's an effective one.

Astute observers of Alberta politics noted that the referendum on Canada's equalization program would be timed to take place during next year's province-wide municipal elections.

The UCP base in Calgary might not bestir itself in sufficient numbers merely to vote in most municipal elections, but a referendum on equalization might motivate enough of them to topple Nenshi.

This is likely why the Canadian Taxpayers Federation -- would-be donors in the rest of Canada take note -- got on board with this sovereignty-association guff!

Discomfiting Justin Trudeau

Nothing annoys Premier Kenney and his mentor Harper more than Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, particularly now that a lot of Albertans are starting to realize how little their provincial government has been doing to help them through the COVID-19 pandemic compared to the feds.

It goes without saying that anything that discomfits Trudeau is considered worth doing by Kenney -- no matter how much it costs us Albertans in cash and credibility.

Manufacturing consent for policies Albertans don't want

University of Calgary political scientist Melanee Thomas wrote a useful thread on Twitter yesterday arguing that the "fair deal" panel is "an exercise in disinformation" intended to build support for "policies Albertans have clearly said they don't want."

The "fair deal" panel's attack on equalization -- genuinely unpopular and widely misunderstood in Alberta -- is nothing more than a deceptive wedge to achieve this goal.

"No one province can unilaterally amend the constitution," Thomas explained -- a point sure to be lost on the UCP base.

It is a small irony that the equalization formula disdained by Albertans was put in place by Harper's Conservative federal government, the one served so ably by Kenney.

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: Photo by David J. Climenhaga

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