Governing this province should be an honour, not an inheritance

I suspect that the platform the UCP is presenting is built on little more than fear, anger, and wishful nostalgia.” political columnist Jen Gerson on the Alberta election.

‘This is the rage of a province that knows the world is changing around it'

Jason Kenney addresses a crowd of about 500 UCP members at an event in Edmonton in February. (Scott Neufeld/CBC)

Those who read my columns regularly will have already surmised that my politics lean centre, centre-rightish, depending on the day.

To use the banal stereotype, one might class me as closer to the right on fiscal issues, and to the left on social ones. But, like most voters, it's all a touch a la carte when it comes to specific policy.

This would make me inclined to support the UCP, I suppose. And certainly, I can find fault with several NDP policies, but I have to confess that this whole election doesn't fill me with any elation at the thought that Alberta's "rightful rulers" are about to be restored.

Indeed, I'm left picking at a lingering sense of discomfort.

Deserved to lose

It's a lurch I feel when Jason Kenney describes the NDP as an "accidental government."


As if Albertans didn't know their own minds when they shunted the old boy Progressive Conservative circle from power in 2015. As if the last four years have been some kind of temporary fit of socialist mania — with order and identity, love of God and country, soon to be re-established. There's no doubt that Rachel Notley, progressive premier of Alberta, (Alberta!), lingers on as psychic wound for conservatives, both in and outside of the province.

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The problem I have with the word "accidental" is that it glosses over the fact that the Progressive Conservatives deserved to lose. Those conservatives had grown entitled, complacent, profoundly lacking in any kind of vision, absent new talent and entirely too comfortably entrenched in power.

The 2015 election should have served as a tonic for the right in this province — an opportunity for reflection, reform and generational change. Is that what we wound up with? Is that what this United Conservative Party represents?

Premier Rachel Notley waves to supporters at her swearing-in ceremony in 2015. Jason Kenney waves to his supporters after winning the UCP leadership in 2017. (Terry Reith/CBC News, Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

What are the pillars of the platform Jason Kenney has announced so far?

He wants to can the job-killing carbon tax (even though the federal government has promised to impose a backstop if the provinces fail to take action on climate change). Well then, he'll sue Ottawa! (and likely lose.)

He wants a war room to defend Alberta's resource sector (because the taxpayer should be funding corporate public relations campaigns?) He will cut the corporate tax rate (a gamble on boosting the province's economy at the risk of increasing and making the province even more dependent on resource royalties.)

He will hold a referendum on equalization (that will do absolutely nothing beyond maybe forcing Justin Trudeau to attend a meeting to discuss the matter). He'll cut off the oil (and our own nose to spite our face).

These aren't necessarily bad ideas, and I get that chum like this wins elections, but is this the best the conservative brain trust can come up with in 2019?

Broiler-pit rage

Alberta's economy is in fair, if not great shape; some of its cities are still among the fastest-growing in the country, even if the unemployment rate remains high.

The vast majority of the pain being suffered by Albertans right now is the direct result of macroeconomic factors that no government can control.

The anger — the broiler pit rage — and the fear that many in this province feel toward the NDP can't be explained by the party's policies alone — by a moderate carbon tax, or a hike in the minimum wage, a bill on farm worker's rights, or even the delay facing the TransMountain expansion (which, by the way, was held up in a federal court, beyond the jurisdiction of either the provincial, or federal governments.)

This is the rage of a province that knows the world is changing around it.

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The economy is shifting — a global effort is underfoot to reduce our dependence on oil and gas. We can't control it, and we are, as of yet, undecided on how best to manage that transition.

The desire to blame all this on the government is as old as the need to sacrifice the king to the god of grain when the crops fail.

Simultaneously, in times of uncertainty, we reach for what is familiar and tried. And what is familiar in this province is conservative rule — a rule that coincided with generations of prosperity and growth.

There is an assumption behind all this inchoate rage that if we bring the old kings back, the economy, cleansed of its orange-hued heresies, will flourish again like wildflowers in desert after rain.

Will it?

Fear, anger and wishful nostalgia

Is there anything the conservatives have proposed to date that will fix the global price of oil, overcome First Nations constitutional challenges that are delaying pipeline construction, or mediate the broader macroeconomic realties that are going to hamper a jurisdiction too dependent on oil and natural gas?

Is there anything, here, that will bring 2005 back? Or the '70s? Or the '80s?

I have a doubt.

The platform the UCP is presenting is built on little more than fear, anger, and wishful nostalgia. Well, the dogs that you set loose upon your enemies eventually find their way back home.

At this point, very few doubt the inevitability of a UCP victory.

If polling bears out — and a moment of silence is necessary here to note that polling rarely seems to bear out in Alberta — then we will have a government facing the same economic problems, with no apparent plan for minimizing our dependence on oil and gas royalties, reducing the deficit, or preparing for a future in which the resource industry is likely to be less important.

Those corporate tax reductions won't hurt, but they are unlikely to restore Alberta to the levels of prosperity it enjoyed in decades past.

That war room to defend our oil and gas industry against scurrilous attacks will lead to nothing but endless tit-for-tat oil and gas PR. And pipelines are still going to be thwarted by perfectly legal challenges rooted in First Nations consultation and environmental review.

Albertans will go to the polls on April 16. (CBC)

The feel-good referendum will get everyone riled up for a few months, but it won't make a dent in equalization. And unless Andrew Scheer is made prime minister come fall, I'm not sure how any of Alberta's interests are advanced by a premier who scores points at home by perpetually antagonizing other provinces and the federal government.

This isn't a plan for governance, it's a mandate for endless, pointless political drama.

As a journalist, all this political warfare will keep me in business. But as a voter, I confess I'm eyeing a remote plot of land on Vancouver Island with a distant view of the rising sea where I can tend a chicken coop and grow tulips and pickles well into November.

Entitled assumption

Maybe these are minor concerns. The sort of nits grumpy journalists fret about during election season. It's all theatre, after all. 

We all know that politicians on the hustings become different creatures in the legislature. My real concern, perhaps, is that this is a party that hasn't learned the lessons of 2015 — one that seems to bask in the extraordinarily entitled assumption that this province belongs to conservatives, rather than the other way around.

That the very health of Alberta itself, its identity and fate, is inextricably linked to their personal electoral fortunes. That any government that is not run by them can be explained away by unfortunate "accident."

Governing this province should be an honour, not an inheritance. Whatever anger I can dredge up at the NDP, the UCP has not yet convinced me that they deserve to win.

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Jen Gerson is a journalist, political commentator, and co-founder of the online newsletter The Line.