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ANALYSIS | The Alberta (dis)advantage: Why a Liberal minority is what the province fears most

With polling showing a possible minority government after Oct. 21, what are the implications for Alberta?

Worries abound about NDP or Greens holding balance of power but don't rule out a Liberal-Conservative alliance

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, and Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer are seen in this composite photo. (CBC)

This story was originally published on Sept. 27.


Much of the talk among election watchers around in Alberta is about a Liberal minority, and what it would mean for the province and the oil and gas industry. 

Of course, polling makes it abundantly clear that a Conservative majority is by far the preferred outcome in Alberta (and Saskatchewan) but, hey, minorities are hardly uncommon anymore, and we could well see another one after the election on Oct. 21. So what would that mean for the conservative heartland?

If it's a Liberal minority — and that is the scenario most are tossing around in the province — the general consensus seems to run along the lines of "Alberta's Worst Nightmare," as a July opinion piece in the Globe and Mail declared.

More recently, a Calgary Herald column outlined "an awful realization," describing the death throes the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion (TMX) would likely succumb to with a Liberal minority.

The Liberals, it's assumed, would need to work with the NDP and the Greens to survive; that would mean compromise with parties with a pipeline aversion, which in turn would mean the end of TMX and more.

People here talk about the very survival of the oil and gas industry as being in jeopardy. 

That might sound alarmist, but the leap to that conclusion is easy to understand.

Tortured path

The path of the TMX has been a tortured one, and the uncertainty and volatility concerning its future could be on steroids in a minority parliament.

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May has made it abundantly clear that she won't support any minority government that continues with the construction of the TMX. She had previously said she wouldn't prop up any minority based on the current climate plans from any party, but this week, she took direct aim at the pipeline.

Before that, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh had said he wouldn't impose a pipeline on any province that says no to it. He's also said he won't work with a Conservative minority government.

So it's hard to see how a potential minority Parliament is supposed to work, with parties busy issuing ultimatums.

But why is it assumed the Liberals or the Conservatives would need to compromise with the NDP or the Greens?

Should the tails wag the dog?

Stephen Harper led two Conservative minority governments between 2006 to 2011 before finally capturing a majority.

His first was the longest minority Parliament in Canadian history. His second was, well, the second-longest.

Clearly, he found ways to work with the other parties.

Stephen Harper speaks at a campaign rally in Quebec City in 2008. He led two Conservative minority governments between 2006 to 2011, clearly finding ways to work with other parties. (Tom Hanson/Canadian Press)

The current dynamic with the Greens and the NDP would make that difficult to replicate, but why couldn't the Liberals work with the Conservatives — or vice versa — to finish building TMX?

Duane Bratt, a political scientist at Mount Royal University in Calgary, says he's a bit perplexed by the notion that two parties with a combined total of conceivably 300 seats would allow a major pipeline project to be trashed because of the opposition of roughly 10 per cent of MPs.

First, he says, there would be a recognition of the revenue implications for the federal treasury. But there would also be political calculations.

"The two parties could cooperate on TMX — the two big parties — because if the Conservatives don't form government, does Andrew Scheer survive? If the Liberals don't form government, does Justin Trudeau survive? And I think the answer to both of those is, no, they don't," Bratt says.

Political scientist Duane Bratt says he's a bit perplexed by the notion that two parties with a combined total of conceivably 300 seats would allow a major pipeline project to be trashed because of the opposition of roughly 10 per cent of MPs. (Roberta Bell/CBC)

So working together could mean survival: the most powerful of motives.

There would be other concerns for Albertans, however, if a Liberal minority came to pass.

Memories of the NEP

Bills C-48 and C-69 are major irritants for Premier Jason Kenney's UCP government. The B.C. tanker ban and the federal government's controversial overhaul of the environmental assessment process are seen as legislation targeting and impeding a struggling industry that is the backbone of the Alberta economy.

A minority (or majority) Liberal government guarantees that legislation survives.

Naturally, a Conservative majority would make it simpler and more predictable for the resource-dependent economy in Alberta.

But we don't live in simple times.

We are an increasingly polarized nation with polarized politics. There is a very real possibility that the next government might not have any representatives in Alberta and Saskatchewan, if the Liberals win.

We've seen this before. Pierre Trudeau won a majority in 1980 with goose eggs in both provinces. (They also came up empty in B.C.)

There is a very real possibility that the next government might not have any representatives in Alberta and Saskatchewan, if the Liberals win. It wouldn't be the first time: Pierre Trudeau won a majority in 1980 with goose eggs in both provinces (and was often greeted by crowds like this in Calgary.) (Glenbow Museum)

After that election, Justin Trudeau's father led the government that brought in the National Energy Program (NEP), widely seen in Alberta as a way to transfer its wealth to other parts of Canada, while exerting greater federal control over the oil and gas industry.

Sound familiar?

It's an echo that reverberates throughout the province even now, and helps inform the blowback here toward equalization, along with resentment that Alberta's wealth makes such an outsized contribution to federal coffers, largely on the back of an industry under attack and fighting for survival.

Scheer quiet on equalization

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer doesn't sound like he's coming to the rescue.

Fixing equalization — a rallying cry from Kenney — is not part of the Scheer stump speech.

Kenney has promised a "referendum" on equalization in October 2021. The Alberta premier has always included an overhaul of the formula on his list of priorities, a list that also includes repealing C-48 and C-69 and building the TMX.

A picker unloads pipe from a truck and stacks it in a Trans Mountain yard in Edson, Alta. (Terry Reith/CBC)

University of Calgary economist Trevor Tombe (who has not only written about equalization extensively, but actually does public seminars about it) was asked if Kenney was given a free hand to rewrite the formula, respecting the constitutional principles, what would he accomplish?

Tombe's reply: "There's no way to redesign the equalization formula that would lead any dollars from it to flow to Albertans. And so changes to the formula just affect the allocation of payments made to other provinces. It'll never pay out to Alberta."

A practical, academic view. But viewed through the political lens in this province, it represents unfairness.

The stakes for Alberta

Although a Liberal minority government doesn't guarantee Alberta's aspirations will be quashed, it does inject a high degree of uncertainty into the economic future of this province.

Uncertainty has been a stalking horse here for many years now. The risks of becoming collateral damage as a result of political calculations to preserve or disrupt power is a real fear.

The West wanted in. The West, or at least part of it, is increasingly signalling it might want out. 

That is a sentiment we'll explore soon on West of Centre.


West of Centre is an election-focused pop-up bureau based out of CBC Calgary that features election news and analysis with a western voice and perspective.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kathleen Petty

CBC Calgary's Executive Producer

Kathleen Petty is the one of the founding producers of what is now called CBC News Network. Petty created and produced several shows for the network while also hosting for more than 17 years. In 2006, she moved to radio and hosted the national political affairs program, The House on CBC radio along with national election coverage as well as hosting the local #1 morning show in Ottawa. Since then, Petty has written political analysis for cbc.ca and is now executive producer of CBC News in Calgary.

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