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OPINION | In Alberta, it's always the economy, stupid

If the NDP want to have any chance of forming a government in 2023, they’re going to have to become far more fluent in the language of jobs and economic prosperity.

If NDP want to speak to Albertans, they need to learn the language of the economy

Alberta premier Jason Kenney was just a former MP trying to unite the right when he shot a video of himself filling up his truck with gas on New Year's Eve 2016, the day before the carbon tax took effect. (Facebook/Jason Kenney)

This column is an opinion from Max Fawcett, a freelance writer and the former editor of Alberta Oil magazine.

Staged photo opportunities are common fare in Canadian politics, but few have been more widely mocked than the gas station selfies taken by Alberta conservative politicians on the eve of the Jan. 1, 2017, implementation of a carbon tax.

As the National Post's Tristin Hopper wrote at the time, Jason Kenney's Dodge Ram 1500 "carries a fuel capacity of about 98 litres, so if Kenney rolled in running on fumes, at 4.5 cents a litre he dodged just enough tax to buy a New Year's Eve Molson Canadian at the Legion (if it's on special)."

As it turns out, though, those MLAs — and especially Jason Kenney — got the last laugh. 

Yes, as Hopper wrote in his piece, nobody was saving any real money by front-running the carbon tax. But that was never the point. Instead, it was about framing the new policy in terms of its financial costs, not its environmental benefits.

The lesson, in retrospect, is clear: if you want to speak to Albertans, you need to be using the language that they're most familiar with: the economy.  

Moments of fluency

That lesson was driven home most recently on Monday, when the premier announced his "Alberta Recovery Plan." But while the NDP has already taken a swipe at its contents, which include an acceleration of an already announced corporate tax cut and some additional stimulus spending, it's not clear that they'll be forthcoming with a competing economic narrative of their own.

After all, that was something they rarely talked about when they were in government. 

Yes, there were moments, like premier Notley's speech in 2015 at the Stampede Investment Forum, where it flashed some fluency.

"We know there is only one way to succeed," she told the people in attendance. "And that's by supporting a free, open, sustainable and increasingly diversified economy."

But it became clear throughout the course of the next three-plus years that the economy was the NDP's second language, at best.

Instead, it preferred to talk about increasing supports for vulnerable populations, improving rights for workers and showing leadership on the environment — all important priorities, but ones that rarely spoke to Albertans' economic concerns that only grew as oil and natural gas prices continued to fall and pipeline projects continued to get stalled or cancelled outright.

That focus on social issues continued into their 2019 campaign, which focused on Jason Kenney's perceived shortcomings as a leader and the threat his government would present to certain Albertans. The results, in the end, say it all. 

If they want those results to be different in 2023, they're going to have to become far more fluent in the language of jobs and economic prosperity — and fast, if the latest batch of polls are any indication.

It became clear during Rachel Notley's time in office that the economy was the NDP’s second language, at best, according to Max Fawcett. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

Yes, the sample size on the Innovative Research poll that was taken in early June was almost laughably small at just 297 people, but its results should still serve as a warning to Alberta's New Democrats.

After all, despite its self-defeating war with doctors and a growing array of gaffes and missteps, Kenney's party is polling at 42 per cent — the same as the combined total of the NDP (28 per cent) and Alberta Liberals (14 per cent).

"They've struggled to find their footing in opposition, and particularly during COVID, just as any opposition party has. I think they've done better than Scheer, but that's a pretty low bar," says Duane Bratt, a professor of political science at Mount Royal University.

"They had gained momentum between the election and our poll in March. [But] they lost that momentum by May."

And while the province has been battered by bad economic news over the last few months, the recent bout of ultra-low oil prices could be seeding the ground for a much healthier economic environment in Alberta down the road.

Higher oil prices could be coming

Shale oil production, for example, may never recover to the levels it was at back in January, and it's entirely possible that oil prices could be far higher than where they are today by the time Albertans head to the polls in 2023.

JP Morgan, for example, recently published a note that suggests $100 oil isn't out of the question in the relatively near future, while Rystad Energy is calling for an oil spike "between 2023 and 2025."

Even if those prices don't materialize, the Trans Mountain expansion should still be nearing completion, Line 3 will be in service and Keystone XL could even be getting built. Fair or not, Kenney will be able to point to these developments as validation of his government's approach — and a sign of its achievements. 

That's why the NDP needs a competing narrative, one that directly challenges the UCP's double-or-nothing approach to economic development and its apparently unshakeable faith in the oil and gas industry's ability to turn back the clock. And as the CBC News-Road Ahead poll from March reveals, there's lots of opportunity there.

For example, when asked if "oil and gas companies have too much say in Alberta politics," 54 per cent either strongly or somewhat agreed. More importantly, those figures held in Calgary, with 26 per cent strongly agreeing and 27 per cent somewhat agreeing. That majority held across key NDP demographics, from younger people (indeed, 63 per cent of those aged 25-44 agreed) to lower and middle income families and the highly educated.  

Bill Clinton is shown, right, during one of the debates leading up to the 1992 U.S. presidential election. When progressive politicians win elections, it’s usually because they have a compelling economic message. (The Associated Press)

In a bit of a shocker, 54 per cent of Calgarians agreed that "Alberta should transition away from oil and gas." And here, again, this majority held across the young, the working and middle class, and the highly educated.

When asked if "Alberta should transition toward renewable energy," fully 80 per cent of Calgarians agreed. And when asked if Alberta should "do more to encourage the development of the technology sector," support in Calgary hit 95 per cent.

Yes, the sample sizes here aren't enormous, but they're big enough to lend some credibility to these results, which should serve as a roadmap for the NDP's economic message over the next 30 months.

And while it might be tempting to read these results as an invitation to talk about a "Green New Deal," the political failure of the Climate Leadership Plan speaks to the dangers of putting environmental objectives ahead of economic ones in Alberta.

A compelling economic message

Instead, they need to remember that when progressive politicians win elections, it's usually because they have a compelling economic message that connects with working and middle class voters. That was true of Bill Clinton's "It's The Economy, Stupid" campaign of 1992. It was true of Barack Obama in 2008. And to some extent, it was true of the NDP back in 2015. 

But those elections are the exceptions, not the rule.

"Typically," Bratt says, "the NDP owns the issue of health care and education. They don't [own] the economy."

Even with all of the health-care and education-shaped rakes that the UCP has stepped on lately, it's still polling ahead of the NDP — and that's before any potential rebound in commodity prices.

In a recent blog post, progressive organizer Scott Harold Payne argued that "as long as we're busy attacking Kenney on issues of his choosing, we're not busy building an alternative economic narrative that could unseat the UCP."

In other words, even if they can't truly own the issue of the economy, they have to find a way to not get owned on it again.

And if it takes a few silly staged photo-ops to do that? Well, it beats losing another election.


This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Max Fawcett is the former editor of Alberta Oil and Vancouver magazines. He worked in the Alberta government’s climate change office between 2017 and 2019.

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