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Doublethink is alive and well in recessionary Wild Rose Country

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Brian Jean

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The year 1984 may be long past, but doublethink is alive and well in here Alberta, especially on the political right, but in other circles as well.

The central venue for this doublethink -- or, to stick with author George Orwell's metaphor from his 1949 novel, its subcategory duckspeak -- is the increasingly bitter commentary in this province about the interconnected issues of how Alberta's oil will get to salt water so it can be refined and sold more easily at higher prices to foreigners, Ottawa's widely misunderstood Equalization Program, and Alberta's role in the recent past as the market-fundamentalist preacher-man of Confederation.

Now that things are not booming in Alberta, we regularly hear demands from the Wildrose Opposition and other conservatives that the federal government of Justin Trudeau immediately implement a key provision of an earlier Trudeau government's energy strategy, to wit, that it encourage, nay, demand, the use of Alberta oil in Central and Eastern Canadian refineries.

I speak, of course, of the government of Pierre Elliott Trudeau and the National Energy Program it adopted in 1980, the literal first principle of which was "security of supply and ultimate independence from the world market." This was a policy it was imagined at the time would be implemented partly through the construction of pipelines to carry Alberta petroleum to the refineries of Central and Eastern Canada.

As is well known by readers of this blog, the policies of Trudeau the Elder, in particular the NEP, are almost universally reviled in Alberta, most of all by the Wildrose Party.

And yet here is Jean, the Wildrose Party's leader, huffing in a tweet last week, "If Quebec won't back #EnergyEast, they can send back their equalization payments & explain why they prefer Saudi oil over Cdn oil"!

This was in reaction to the insistence of the Quebec government it is prepared to go to court to ensure its environmental regulations are considered before any pipeline from Alberta to New Brunswick passes through its territory.

Actually, I assume Jean and his advisors know perfectly well that in the market-fundamentalist Canada Albertan conservatives have successfully demanded and built in the years since the elder Trudeau left office, Quebec has nothing to do with determining whether refineries within its borders or anywhere nearby use Saudi or Alberta oil.

That decision is made by private oil companies, based on the signals of the almighty market, just as Jean and his fellow ideologues demanded.

To make matters worse, as a writer in iPolitics pointed out, considering the vagaries of that wonderful market, the economic case for the Energy East Pipeline may have just fallen apart anyway.

Energy East, wrote retired oil industry manager Ross Belot, "was a brilliant idea for the Canadian oil industry … in 2013. But if you're a Canadian oil producer in 2016, it doesn't look like such a good idea anymore. It may not be a good idea for another 10 years. If ever."

"It's pretty obvious Canada's oilpatch won't need any more pipeline capacity until after 2025," he explained. To put this another way: It's the market, stupid!

Since resources belong to provinces under the Canadian Constitution, the Government of Canada has very little influence over this situation because we have no national petroleum company -- another goal of the elder Trudeau's NEP that was dismantled as quickly as possible by Jean's neoliberal fellow travellers in Ottawa as soon as Brian Mulroney came to power.

Petro-Canada was sold off because it didn’t fit the prevailing ideology of the right. Canada became the only major oil exporter without a national oil company to influence the activities of other companies, which typically respond only to the impulses of the market, not the needs of the country and its regions. This reality appears to only now have dawned on Jean!

So Jean, long-time advocate of the pure market system that Alberta and Canada are suffering under now that international oil prices have turned south, and show signs of staying that way, demands Quebec be forced to accept Alberta oil.

How? Other than protecting its environment, Quebec too has virtually no influence over the oil companies operating within its borders, let alone nearby. Nor does Ottawa.

All thanks to the policies advocated -- still advocated -- by Jean and his friends.


Which brings us to the matter of interprovincial equalization.

We should assume that Jean and his advisors also understand perfectly well that not a single dime of equalization funds comes from the Alberta government and that a considerable number of equalization dimes come from Quebec.

This is because, as appears not to be widely understood in Alberta, all the money for equalization comes from federal taxpayers, principally income-tax payers. This is why -- since the program began 59 years ago -- the largest provincial contributor to equalization has always been Ontario, which has the largest population.

Alberta doesn't pay more than other provinces, except insofar as it has a larger population than some provinces and, until recently at least, there were a lot of extremely well paid people here who were in the highest income tax brackets.

Make Quebec "send back" all the money back to suit Alberta -- money that mostly came from Ontario and a lot of which came from Quebec?


"Ultimately," George Orwell wrote of his imagined invention of duckspeak, "it was hoped to make articulate speech issue from the larynx without involving the higher brain centres at all."

Which brings us to Alberta's self-appointed role as the market fundamentalist preacher-man of Canada, once made incarnate in the person of Parson Manning.

An awful lot of us Albertans were quick, back in the days when we were making money hand over fist, to argue that because of the Equalization Program, other provinces in general and Quebec in particular had no business spending "our money" on social programs we didn't approve of in Alberta.

This notion was regularly trotted out by the usual suspects in Thinktankistan, the Astro-Turf sector and the rest of the Conservative Perpetual Outrage Machine to demand that Quebec cease subsidizing, say, affordable child care forthwith.

Needless to say, this didn't go over particularly well elsewhere, which may account for some of the schadenfreude we are observing in other parts of Canada at Alberta's current economic predicament.

So, what will happen if, God forbid, things get to a point at which Alberta is in a position to receive payments under the Equalization Program?

I will tell you: It won't take long before some politicians in Eastern Canada remind us that we have no business taking "their money" if we're not prepared to implement a sane taxation policy like the ones they have. You know, one with a substantial sales tax and higher income taxes. They'll ask: "Why should Albertans' low taxes be subsidized by our province’s taxpayers?"

And you know what? They'll be making a better case than the one against subsidized child care.

Can you imagine what will be said then by Jean and his ilk?

I'll tell you one thing: It'll be double-plus ungood!

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

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