Elite-driven calls for separation and a referendum on equalization will only stoke divisiveness, setting the stage for lingering conflict with Ottawa.
Alberta’s politics can be perplexing for Canadians outside the province. It is and isn’t a conservative place. Outside of 2015, voters here have cast ballots overwhelmingly for conservative parties and identify more strongly with them, yet when asked how they think and feel about issues, Albertans are consistently pretty moderate and sometimes pretty left-leaning.
Alberta’s two most recent provincial elections — 2015 and 2019 — were surprising, albeit for different reasons. The common thread across them is the economy. There is good reason to expect it to be the lens many Albertans use when they approach how they see Alberta’s place in Canada, the federal government in general and the upcoming federal election in particular. And the economy is making some Albertans angry.
The surprise victory of the Alberta New Democratic Party in 2015 was arguably motivated by the anticipated economic downturn brought on by the global collapse in the price of oil in 2014, helped by the fact that Albertans liked Rachel Notley and didn’t appreciate that the Progressive Conservative premier, Jim Prentice, had suggested that Albertans “look in the mirror” for someone to blame for the province’s financial mess.
The 2019 election presented an entirely different context. The PC dynasty had been rolled into the new United Conservative Party (UCP), led by Jason Kenney. A tepid economy was presented as a distinct issue, divorced from social concerns. This was effective for the UCP: despite its vulnerabilities on questions of equity, diversity and ethics, many Albertans were sufficiently angry about the economy to support the UCP in spite of these problems. A large part of the reason is that conservative parties in Canada are perceived to be more competent at economic issues than are other parties, especially the NDP.
A few weeks after the provincial election, an old friend of mine spontaneously said about a relative, “I thought he’d be less angry after the election, after Kenney won. But he’s just as angry now as he was before.” This relative is successful. He has never worked in oil and gas. He weathered the recession brought on by the drop in global oil prices pretty well, as did his kids. And yet he remains really fired up.
This anger appears to be rooted in the economy, or at least in economic expectations that aren’t being met. Even though Alberta continues to lead Canada in average weekly earnings, a position it’s held since 2005, the recovery after the most recent oil bust has been uneven. Men benefited disproportionately from the last oil boom; as the economy improved in 2018, however, Alberta’s women benefited in jobs and earnings.
While some previously employed in oil and gas have successfully transitioned to different work, others have struggled; transitioning away from oil, gas and coal is for many Albertans an existential threat. No effort seems to have been put into a just transition for oil and gas workers (at least not one that matches programs for those employed in coal), so it’s not surprising that Albertans in 2019 sound a distinct note of boom nostalgia. Comments about how Alberta is “behind the curve,” waiting for higher-paying oil jobs to come back, could be angering for some. Add to all this the critiques directed at some Albertans who turn away from jobs in other sectors that still pay well, albeit much less, or the alarms that the province’s anger might scare away investment, and the talk about anger has got some talking heads hopping mad.
What does this anger have to do with the upcoming federal election? In addition to the standard expectation about economic voting — Albertans angry about the economy won’t vote Liberal in the fall — the gendered economic recovery helps explain why some Albertans are angry: Albertans who think that oil and gas will remain Alberta’s strongest industry in the future are more likely to support Conservative parties. They are also more likely to be men, between the ages of 45 and 64, who have a high school education or less and think the economy is getting worse. In contrast, the Albertans who think the economy is recovering (and who, thus, might be more willing to vote for Justin Trudeau’s Liberals in the fall) are more likely to be women, NDP supporters and holders of postgraduate degrees.
Drawing attention to these gendered elements of the economy, as Trudeau has done in the past, also sparks ire from some conservative politicians in Alberta; some voters may couple this indignation with their unmet economic expectations to further inform their federal vote. This is also arguably one of the reasons why masculine symbols were ubiquitous in the UCP’s 2019 campaign.
It would be foolish for federal parties and Canadians in other provinces to dismiss the power that economic anger can have in structuring election results. When the economy was booming in Alberta in 2012, it was unthinkable that a party courting homophobes, white nationalists and climate change deniers would form government. Remove the safety of a strong economy, though, and the issues that voters prioritize change. While it might be tempting to argue that Canadians outside of Alberta are more progressive on these issues, research consistently shows that western Canadians are about as socially and fiscally progressive as Ontarians. Supermajorities of Albertans think that more should be done to reduce the pay gap between men and women (82 percent); to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor (78 percent); to bring more women into politics (74 percent); and to help Indigenous people (55 percent). These views simply weren’t activated during the provincial election campaign. There’s no good reason to expect that the voters prepared to overlook a party’s vulnerabilities on social equality are confined to Alberta, nor is there good reason to expect that this pattern would be any different in other provinces or during a federal election.
What is different is where Alberta’s anger about the economy manifests in federal politics. From the 1915 “Milch Cow” cartoon to schadenfreude across Canada as Alberta’s economy cooled, anger is also the motivating emotion in western alienation. Some Albertans perceive that condescending elites in central Canada want to take Alberta’s money while, paradoxically, keeping the province from making it; or they think those elites are making it easy for British Columbia to build a liquefied natural gas pipeline while blocking pipeline access for Alberta.
None of this alienation is very new. What is new, though, is an elite-driven call for a referendum on equalization, coupled with an elite-driven call for Alberta to separate if it doesn’t get its way. Interestingly, the groups of Albertans most likely to support calls for a referendum on equalization are the same as those who are most angry about the economy: men, and those with a high school education or less.
Playing on Albertans’ economic insecurities and feelings of alienation clearly produces a short-term political payoff. It was very effective for the UCP’s 2019 election campaign, in part because the party could link Rachel Notley directly to Justin Trudeau, given the Notley government’s choice to work collaboratively with the federal government. This anger and alienation will likely continue to be activated during the 2019 federal election campaign, both by Kenney and by the Conservative Party of Canada’s campaign.
The difficulty is that, once activated, these emotions cannot be easily dissipated. This should temper assumptions that once western premiers like Kenney can work with a prime minister of the same bent, like Andrew Scheer, equalization will cease to be an issue. The Albertans who think that other parts of Canada get looked after first, before Alberta, regardless of who’s in government, are the same demographic group as those who are most likely to be angry and alienated. While partisanship may do some work to blunt the anger of these voters – already, some appear to accept Kenney’s claims that the federal carbon tax is “better” than the provincial version and that Bill C-69 (with the Senate’s amendments) is now acceptable – it is plausible that they may turn on Kenney if their economic expectations continue to go unmet, regardless of who is prime minister. Worse, if the Alberta government loses the federal government as a punching bag while boom-time oil and gas jobs remain elusive, Kenney could be accused of “misguided diplomacy” as easily as Notley was.
An additional challenge comes from the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal’s decision to uphold the federal government’s power to price carbon in provinces unwilling to impose their own carbon tax. By citing the Constitution’s peace, order and good government clause, the court’s decision either creates a precedent that broadens the scope of the federal government’s power or marks climate change and global warming as a crisis that merits emergency powers. It would be reasonable to expect any federal government to use the authority the court gives it, regardless of its partisan affiliation. Given the willingness of some political actors to stoke the flames of western alienation, this context creates greater potential for conflict between Alberta and the federal government, regardless of the outcome of the 2019 election.
This article is part of the Provincial Dynamics and the 2019 Federal Election special feature.
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