Policy experts look at how Alberta could prosper with a Liberal minority

With a Liberal minority set to govern Canada for the foreseeable future — and Alberta having zero representatives in cabinet — what does the future look like for this province, and what strategies can its leaders employ during a time of transition?

University of Calgary School of Public Policy panel discusses potential paths forward

From left: Calgary Chamber of Voluntary Organizations president David Mitchell, president of the Calgary Chamber of Commerce Sandip Lalli and pollster Janet Brown discussed ways to move Alberta forward in a post-election Canada. (Dave Gilson/CBC)

With a Liberal minority government set to govern Canada for the foreseeable future — and Alberta having zero representatives in cabinet — what does the future look like for this province, and what strategies can its leaders employ during a time of transition?

That was the overarching question posed to panellists during a post-election panel hosted Thursday by the University of Calgary's School of Public Policy.

Despite the ideological polarization rampant in the discourse after Monday's election, the president of the Calgary Chamber of Voluntary Organizations, David Mitchell, said there were actually positives to be drawn out of the current configuration.

"The new governing arrangement actually makes us more important. It makes Alberta and Saskatchewan more important for a minority Liberal government that desperately needs allies," Mitchell said. "It desperately needs the credibility of serving as a national government for all Canadians."

Mitchell cited recent comments from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau vowing to be more sensitive to the needs of Albertans and Saskatchewan as evidence of a way forward.

"I think there is a possible opportunity. However, it takes two to tango," he said. "If the provincial government is unwilling or, for some reason, unable to work with the federal administration, then other Albertan voices become very important at other levels of government, at civil society and in business."

Janet Brown, a pollster and political analyst, said Alberta needs to put aside its current distaste for the Liberal party and determine what its "ask" is.

"It's one thing to come home every night and bang the pots and be mad at your spouse, but if you never articulate to your spouse what it is that you need to have a happy marriage, you won't have a happy marriage," Brown said. "That's the piece that's missing from Alberta right now. We're just saying things like, 'We need to be listened to. I want you to listen to us.'

"OK. But what do we need the rest of Canada to do for us before we get back on speaking terms with the rest of Canada?"

Energy strategy

Sandip Lalli, president of the Calgary Chamber of Commerce, said Alberta needs to offer the federal government policy ideas that address both the climate and natural resource development.

"We're part of a transition into a lower carbon economy — that's the economy conversation Alberta is having," Lalli said. "How do we play in this global market with a country that is set on going a different way?

"You offer up solutions, which Alberta has been doing."

Lalli said innovations in oilsands development and carbon capture are among those solutions.

"Those are things we need to put up to say, 'that's how we move forward,'" she said. "We have to be very, very deliberate about how to do it, because they don't know how to do it, but they're asking us for actual steps on how to do it. If we miss that opportunity, they'll go ask somebody else."

Through her work, Brown said she constantly hears concerns about a need for diversification in the province, calling it the "single biggest preoccupation of the average Albertan."

"But how do we get from point A to point B?" Brown said. "People on the left like to talk about a 'just transition' [away from oil and gas], but it doesn't feel like a just transition when all they're saying is, 'Your industry has to be shut down.'

"People tell me all the time in focus groups, 'why does our industry need to be shut down, but why doesn't the auto sector need to be shut down? Why doesn't the aviation industry need to be shut down?'"

Brown said a "serious" climate policy in Alberta would need to focus on more than one industry, focus on consumption and not just production.

Building from here

Despite the fierce rhetoric lobbed during the election campaign, Mitchell said, the Liberals and the Conservatives actually formed a natural alliance on at least one issue: the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.

"That's job No. 1. That pipeline, which has been approved twice by the federal government, requires a big push," he said. "But it really doesn't require multi-party agreement."

Lalli said local politicians and those in business would have to think strategically, approaching discussions with the federal government with mutual benefit in mind.

"We have to say, 'What's at play for them?' If we take that burden off of them and present them with a solution — and, guess what, we've got Quebec and British Columbia on side — that's where the premier's strength has to show up in leadership, to build these relationships," Lalli said. "If [Premier Jason] Kenney and [Quebec Premier François] Legault propose something, there's no way that Liberal minority government is not going to listen."

With files from Dave Gilson


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