Jason Kenney should not be allowed to dictate federal agenda

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Premier Jason Kenney announces the launch of a public inquiry into foreign-funded anti-Alberta energy campaigns in July 2019. Image: Government of Alberta/Flickr

On election night, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau portrayed the result as a victory for the progressive side of the political ledger. 

Trudeau said, in effect, that the combined force of Canadians who voted Liberal, NDP and Green (and to some extent even Bloc Québécois) expressed a desire for a government that would work for social justice and the environment.

In particular, the new minority government would have to double down on the challenge of climate change. The majority of Canadian voters had clearly indicated that's what they expected, Trudeau told his supporters.

Since that night, however, those who want to minimize the importance of the environment, and portray the oil and gas industry as innocent victims, have sucked almost all the oxygen out of the political atmosphere. 

Jason Kenney and his empty threats

The most noisy and insistent political voice since the election has been that of Jason Kenney, Alberta premier and former senior minister in Stephen Harper's Conservative government.

Kenney does not care that the Trudeau government is so staunchly pro-pipeline that it bought one. Kenney doesn't show appreciation when Liberals talk about balancing the economy and the environment. 

Instead, the Alberta premier portrays the centrist, pro-big-business federal Liberals as a hostile force, dedicated to destroying Alberta's main industry. And he threatens a series of incoherent and mostly meaningless retaliatory measures if the rest of Canada does not change its tune on climate change and fossil fuels.

One of Kenney's threats relates to equalization payments, which come from federal consolidated revenues and go to provinces below a certain revenue level. Their aim is to provide roughly equal services across the country. 

We do not have province-to-province equalization in Canada, as they do in some other countries. Equalization is entirely a federal enterprise here. And so, Kenney's bluster on the subject is not much more than empty rhetoric. He has no leverage, and his case is weakened by the fact that the Alberta government starves itself of revenue by refusing to impose even the most minimal sales tax. 

Another of Kenney's hobby horses relates to policing in his province.

Like many other provinces, Alberta rents the services of the RCMP as its provincial police force. If, as Kenney threatens, Alberta were to follow Quebec's and Ontario's example and set up its own provincial force, that would only cost the province money. It would not in any way punish the rest of us.

The same is true of the threat to collect Alberta's provincial income taxes -- again, following the example of Quebec. 

Currently, the (federal) Canada Revenue Agency collects income and estate taxes for all provinces save Quebec. That is the result of a series of agreements, starting in the 1940s, whereby the federal government provides a service to provinces, without significantly limiting their fiscal capacity. 

Quebec did not go along with that idea at its inception, in 1941, nor when the agreement was renewed in 1962. 

The premier of Quebec at the time of the original accord was the ardent, almost fanatical, proponent of provincial autonomy, Maurice Duplessis. His motives in turning down the Ottawa offer had little to do with giving Quebec any more fiscal decision-making power than other provinces. Collecting its own taxes did not mean Quebec had more say over how it spent its money than did, say, Ontario.

Duplessis simply did not trust the federal government. The Quebec premier of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s even turned down federal money in aid of post-secondary education, arguing that schools were exclusively provincial territory. After his death, Duplessis' successors quickly recognized his refusal of federal funds to be cutting off one's nose to spite one's face and enthusiastically accepted the virtually-no-strings-attached money from Ottawa. 

If Jason Kenney aspires to be a latter-day, Alberta version of Maurice Duplessis, the rest of Canada should tell him: "Fill your boots. It will be no skin off our backsides."

Government should finally tackle oil and gas subsidies

Sadly, Kenney's aggressive manner, coupled with the rise of a fringe separatist movement in Alberta, have too many Ottawa insiders doing a lot of hand-wringing. After all, didn't Kenney's federal Conservative allies just win all save one seat in Alberta and Saskatchewan, leaving the two provinces with no place at the federal table of power?

That's true, although the results are as much artifacts of the first-past-the-post electoral system as of popular will in the two provinces. 

Hundreds of thousands of voters in Saskatchewan and Alberta voted NDP, Liberal and Green, with very little to show for it, just as, in 2015, hundreds of thousands of Atlantic Canadians voted for parties other than Trudeau's Liberals, with nothing to show for it. The Liberals won every Atlantic seat in 2015.

In any case, the current Liberal government is not shut-out in western Canada. It has, in fact, 15 seats in the west, 17 if you include the Yukon and Northwest Territories. The Liberals have seats in both Manitoba and British Columbia. That's a lot more than Justin Trudeau's father had in the 1980 election, in which the elder Trudeau's entire western contingent consisted of two seats in Manitoba.

Canada somehow survived. 

Once the federal Parliament gets going again, and we hear voices from the progressive opposition as well as the truculent climate-change-who-cares gang, we can hope the national political discussion will focus as much on the need to do something for a burning planet as on Jason Kenney's exaggerated claims of victimhood.

Indeed, if the Liberals really mean it when they say they intend to ramp up their game on climate change, they might take seriously the issue they avoided during their first term, that of federal subsidies for oil and gas. 

Those subsidies are controversial. The petroleum industry says they do not even exist, because they do not take the form of funds directly doled out to oil and gas companies. 

Oil and gas subsidies are, for the most part, tax measures, such as write-offs for exploration; but objective observers, such as the federal environment commissioner, consider them to be genuine subsidies all the same.

In her spring report, the last in her tenure in the role, Environment Commissioner Julie Gelfand expressed extreme disappointment at the lack of progress on climate change. 

"Slow action on climate change … is disturbing," she said.

Gelfand, in essence, set out a clear challenge for the new government. 

"For decades," she wrote, "successive federal governments have failed to reach their targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and the government is not ready to adapt to a changing climate. This must change." 

Will the new minority Parliament bring the change we need?

Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble's politics reporter.

Image: Government of Alberta/Flickr

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