Gil McGowan

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Many progressive Albertans who were shocked and troubled by the Notley Government’s dramatic reversal on petroleum royalty policy on Friday will now feel they’ve found a high-profile champion.

Just before midnight Saturday, a Calgary Sun columnist filed a story on the Internet in which Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour and a candidate for the New Democratic Party in last fall’s federal election, ripped the NDP government for its decision to leave the controversial royalty program it inherited from the Progressive Conservatives essentially intact.

The NDP decision left many, who had believed for years that Albertans are not getting their fair share from their province’s natural resources, suddenly adrift and leaderless in the face of a classical Canadian political elite consensus, in which all major parties in the Alberta Legislature take essentially the same position on a controversial issue.

As the Calgary Sun’s Rick Bell put it with his characteristic present-tense delivery: “When the cause you’ve been fighting for has been betrayed, you don’t take it sitting down. You stand up. On Saturday, Gil McGowan stands up.”

At the heart of McGowan’s critique of the government’s announcement and the panel report that recommended it is the view that it is both bad economics and bad politics. “Some people say the NDP have come face to face with reality. I say what happened can best be described as the government being captured by industry,” McGowan told Bell.

“I honestly think the government has made a profound political mistake,” he said. “We don’t believe progressive governments have to become conservative to deal effectively with economic issues or to succeed politically. That’s a fallacy.”

Insiders in the government of Premier Rachel Notley believe they had no choice, given the weight of public opinion against anything that might upset the province’s fragile economic teakettle in the face of collapsing international oil prices.

But no one was calling for a money grab while the economy is suffering, McGowan responded. “No one on the left or the right in Alberta is suggesting the government engage in a cash grab at this time when prices are near historic lows.”

Regardless, you can be confident the government will be extremely unhappy with McGowan for speaking his mind, especially his suggestion that the NDP has been captured and co-opted by the industry.

It remains to be seen where other leaders of Alberta’s labour movement will come down on this — whether they will side with McGowan’s public position or the NDP government’s. You can count on some animated meetings taking place in labour circles this week.

You can also be confident that despite his measured tone in the Bell interview, McGowan is pretty angry too. “Virtually none of our concerns or suggestions are reflected in the royalty report,” he told the Sun columnist. “Those ideas were passed over in favour of a plan that could have been introduced by a PC or Wildrose government.”

In fact, as McGowan emphasized in the interview, the AFL consulted well-known energy economists and “we put forward a case for creative, progressive alternatives to the ones put forward by the oil industry and assorted conservative parties. We had high hopes at least some of those progressive alternatives would have found their way into the final report.” None of them did.

Whether the government’s plan is the right one or not under current circumstances, it would be astonishing if Notley’s advisors didn’t try hard in advance to win the support of the AFL and other traditionally supportive stakeholder groups for the government’s position.

McGowan told the Sun he expects to meet with the government soon. “This is not the end of the issue for us,” he stated. Whether the government will now be receptive to his message is another matter.

Other union leaders who may also have doubts about the policy, but have their relationship with the government on other issues to consider, can be expected to proceed very cautiously before making public statements.

At least now no one who is being honest — and that, of course, excludes many right-wing critics of the Alberta NDP — can claim that Notley’s government is in the pocket of “big labour.” Au contraire, it would seem.

This story will be updated if new information becomes available. This post also appears on David Climenhaga’s blog,

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David J. Climenhaga

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 with the Globe...