Tories push 'Alberta Agenda'

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Among the many ironies in this federal election is the notion of Stephen Harper as the man to turn to in an economic crisis.

Harper's economic tool box is limited, consisting of tax cuts and more tax cuts — a proven formula for funneling resources to the rich, but less reliable as a means of stimulating the economy.

The notion of Harper as economic fixer is particularly ironic in Ontario, where Harper has helped push the economy to the brink of — if not into the lap of — recession.

Harper has been a big supporter of the unbridled development of Alberta's oil sands, refusing to take any serious steps to rein in the heavy oil projects by clamping down on their mammoth greenhouse gas emissions.

This is not only devastating for the environment and for any prospect of Canada meeting its Kyoto commitments, but it's also been key to driving up the Canadian dollar. (Foreign money flows into Canada to buy up stocks in highly profitable energy companies here, pushing up our dollar in the process.)

That high dollar, more than anything else, has been killing our manufacturing jobs by making our exports uncompetitive, notes Jim Stanford, economist for the Canadian Auto Workers Union, whose ranks have been heavily hit by the loss of more than 200,000 manufacturing jobs since Harper became Prime Minister.

Manufacturing is the backbone of the Ontario economy. The erosion of our manufacturing base risks transforming the province into a much less rich and vibrant place.

So while Harper's vigorous pro-oil agenda has helped turn the Alberta economy red-hot, it's left Ontario's deeply cool.

Yet, oddly, in this election campaign, Harper has managed to shake his image in Ontario as an Alberta-centred politician, part of a Calgary political and academic cabal that is distrustful of Central Canada, and that in 2001 publicly advocated an "Alberta Agenda" with a "firewall" built around the province.

In less academic circles, this same anti-Central-Canada sentiment is sometimes expressed more simply as "let the Eastern bastards freeze in the dark."

There's been no Western rancour evident on the campaign trail in Ontario these days, however. With Ontario potentially key to Harper winning a majority government, gone is any whiff of an Alberta-centric hard edge. Now, in the softer, airbrushed, sweater-draped version of Harper, "Family is everything."

But Harper hasn't abandoned his Alberta Agenda. Rather he's simply brought it to Ottawa.

Actually, what Harper has brought to Ottawa isn't so much an Alberta Agenda, as an Alberta Oil Money Agenda.

It would ultimately be in the interests of Albertans, as well as other Canadians, to slow down the pace of oil-sands development — a point eloquently made in recent months by no less an Alberta champion than Peter Lougheed, the legendary former Alberta premier.

Lougheed argues for a brake on oil-sands development until it can proceed in a more orderly fashion, with more jobs being created in the province to refine the oil, not just get it out of the ground and ship it south.

A recent poll by the Alberta-based Pembina Institute found that half of Albertans believe oil-sands development has been too fast.

But for those in the oil patch, it can't be fast enough. And having Harper waving them on, making common cause with them in their attempts to side-step any responsibility for saving the planet, has made for a thrilling and profitable ride.

For Ontarians, on the other hand, trusting our economy to Harper is a bit like trusting it to Exxon.

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