Rachel Notley

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The acerbic public disagreement between Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall and Alberta Premier Rachel Notley at the annual premiers’ gathering in St. John’s is not merely a spat about tactics as portrayed by the media.

Rather, their war of words about how energy development should proceed at the national provincial and territorial premiers’ meeting this week reveals a significant rift over how Canada ought to be governed that is important to the future of the country.

The yearly summer premiers’ conference yesterday yielded an “aspirational” agreement on a “Canadian energy strategy,” which, despite being labelled “monumental” by its authors is not likely to be particularly earthshaking, unlike, say, hydraulic fracking in northern Alberta. Indeed, the long-term impact of Wall’s sniping may turn out to be more pronounced.

On Wednesday, Wall blew a gasket and accused Notley of offering a “veto” to Ontario and Quebec on bitumen pipelines from the West. Dismissed as “ridiculous’ by Notley and most of the other premiers in St. John’s, the Saskatchewan conservative’s outburst was approvingly parroted by Alberta mainstream media throughout the day yesterday.

Notley kept her cool and her trademark charm, shrugging off Wall’s tantrum as ‘a little bit of showboating” and expressing the view ‘you don’t get things done by picking fights with people gratuitously. You do get things done by having good conversations …”

However, it’s said here Wall’s frustration reflects the opinion of many on the right, including his ideological fellow travellers in Ottawa, at the challenge mounted by Notley and Alberta’s new NDP government to their neoliberal approach to governance. No doubt they are particularly vexed by what this might mean for their attempts to eliminate the ability of citizens within the Canadian federation to control the energy industry in their own jurisdictions.

Wall and like-minded conservatives elsewhere in Canada, including here in Alberta, have long attempted to erect, if readers will forgive me, a Saskatchewan Wall between the public face of democracy and the ability of citizens to influence fundamental policies undertaken by their governments.

In other words, in the neoliberal worldview, democracy is only about the periodic selection of leaders expected to carry out economic policies already determined by an “expert” leadership consensus.

While leaders remain important according to this mindset, if only to keep things operating as smoothly as possible for the leadership class, recent conservative governments in Ottawa and Canada’s provinces have attempted to put in place such mechanisms as interprovincial and international trade agreements to ensure any variation from the elite consensus is impossible, even if by some fluke the “wrong” politician manages to get elected.

This would explain why Wall, the Alberta mainstream media and MLAs from this province’s Opposition Wildrose Party are all so appalled by Notley’s efforts to build consensus with other provinces to facilitate export of Alberta’s petroleum resources.

From their perspective, the very notion of consensus building is dangerous because it opens the door to the expectation participants in Canadian democracy may have some role other than merely electing powerless representatives who know enough to behave themselves and abide by the elite consensus.

Take this to its extreme — which would presumably be fine with both Wall and Prime Minister Stephen Harper — and you have Greece, at least in terms of the negotiability of policy decisions that have already been decided elsewhere behind closed doors. In this sense, recent Harper Government social media advertising about the NDP has it exactly backwards — it’s the Conservatives who want to turn Canada into Greece!

For this reason, any argument Notley has a clear mandate to keep the promises she made during the campaign leading up to her government’s election on May 5 seems nonsensical to many conservatives. From their perspective, she has no more of a mandate than, say, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras!

From Wall’s point of view, building pipelines to all points of the compass and catering to every whim of the energy industry is not just sound policy, it is simply non-negotiable. Asking other provinces — or, God forbid, their ordinary citizens — what they think about it must seem deeply subversive to someone who believes such perspectives ought to be irrelevant.

The idea Notley was seeking consensus to help Alberta apparently appeared so outrageous to Wall he let his mask of congeniality slip in public. Well, he wouldn’t be the first person to mistake Notley’s engaging manner for a lack of steel. This is a serious error, as some have discovered already.

Notley, by contrast, has a fundamentally different, much more traditional, view of democracy in which political parties are needed to act as brokers of conflicting ideas to build consensus on policies that a majority of voters can support.

That means for Alberta to succeed with its wish to benefit from the province’s oil resources — which Notley shares, despite the ravings and rantings of some right-wing newspaper columnists — then social licence must be granted by citizens of the parts of Canada through which those resources flow on their way to market.

As noted, this is deeply threatening to neoliberals, for whom democracy is only a cosmetic tool. All the worse, from Wall’s point of view, if Notley’s plan works better than his alternative, which may well turn out to be the case.

Of course, there may also be a personal side to Wall’s barbs. Some have suggested he may harbour ambitions to play larger role than possible on Saskatchewan’s tiny stage, and that could be upset by Notley’s example. If so, his snarky resentment is showing through, surely doing no good to his reputation as the Mr. Congeniality of Canadian politics.

Nor will it help Alberta’s opposition very much to claim Wall has this province’s interests at heart when he has just proved he doesn’t by using the NDP’s plans for a badly needed royalty review to try to purloin businesses away from our province.

But the exchange between the two premiers should remind all Canadians that an opportunity may soon arise for them to choose between the neoliberal view of democracy represented by Wall and his friends in Ottawa and the traditional interpretation represented by Notley and Thomas Mulcair’s NDP, in which citizens actually have a meaningful role.

That is scheduled to happen on Oct. 19.

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

David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...