Managing our own affairs is good for business. That, at least, is what Alberta’s premier would like us to believe, following a policy speech delivered to a conservative crowd in Red Deer on Saturday.
But is it?
It depends on how you turn the coin.
Premier Jason Kenney said he was up all night writing his speech to the Alberta Manning Networking Conference. And if the ideas sound familiar to you, there’s good reason.
Kenney said a new panel will look at whether Alberta should pull out of the Canada Pension Plan and form its own pension fund, create a provincial police force to replace the RCMP, and opt out of some cost-sharing programs with the federal government.
The premier also vowed to try to retroactively lift the cap on fiscal stabilization back to 2014-15. That could generate an equalization rebate of $1.75 billion – no chump change.
Longtime Alberta residents will recognize a lot of these themes. Many were included in the “firewall letter” penned in 2001 by Stephen Harper before he was prime minister and Ted Morton, a University of Calgary academic who would become a cabinet minister during the late 2000s in Alberta’s then-Progressive Conservative government.
Kenney told the delegates that he’s seeking “a fair deal” for our province, after years of neglect from what is commonly known as Laurentian Canada – essentially the entitled elites in southern Ontario and Quebec.
He took the federal Liberal government to task for overregulation and a seeming ambivalence toward the province’s oil and gas economy. Federal policies, Kenney argued, have driven investment out of Alberta and to the friendly fields of the U.S.
This is pretty standard stuff, and certainly balm to the ears of frustrated Albertans who have witnessed a steady decline in our fiscal fortunes with the troubles in the oil and gas industry. But, as cathartic as it may be, it’s unclear that anything Kenney has prescribed will do much to improve the business climate in this province.
Along with a steady source of revenue, businesses like certainty and predictability. Pulling out of the Canada Pension Plan, for example, does nothing to advance us toward greater certainty. Nor does the creation of our own police force. If anything, those two moves would actually add a level of uncertainty because of the complexities and possible costs associated with the transition.
Could we make better investments with our own pension plan? There’s little evidence to support it. Could we police our small towns and rural communities better with an Alberta-based police force? It seems doubtful and more likely to simply introduce new administrative costs.
The same applies to raising the cap on equalization. It may feel good to ask for a break but what in heaven’s name would lead us to believe the other provinces will agree?
The purpose of these actions, of course, is to start to distance this province from the federation, in the faint hope that such newfound activism will grab the attention of other Canadians. This, it’s hoped, will lead to more proactive support for our ailing province. Faint hope indeed.
While a new pipeline would certainly improve our fortunes, Alberta remains at the mercy of global developments. For example, the New York Times reported on Nov. 3 that a flood of crude oil is coming even as worldwide oil demand is slowing – from Brazil, Norway, Guyana and, yes, Canada. On Sunday, Iran’s president announced that his country has discovered a new field with more than 50 billion barrels of crude oil.
These challenges are likely to mean that it will be many years before Alberta returns to the good old days of $100 oil. Probably never.
Kenney said Saturday that Alberta is well on its way to becoming “the most responsible barrel of oil produced in the world.” We’ve learned through bitter experience, however, that much of the world is indifferent to our “ethical oil” pitch. As is so often the case, price trumps principles.
To his credit, Kenney once again declared his commitment to the federation. After all, there isn’t much of a business case for Wexit. Kenney wisely knows that Alberta stands a better chance of recovering faster if the federal government finally recognizes our hour of need and gives us a hand up.
Are Kenney’s tactics likely to help Alberta climb out of its economic malaise?
Not unless the federal government and other provinces respond with real compassion and recognition of the vital role the province plays in the federation. In other words, don’t hold your breath.
They will, however, help us work off some frustration. Maybe that alone makes them worthwhile.