OPINION | Kenney cursed by bad luck like no other Alberta premier

Peter Lougheed had luck on his side. So did Ralph Klein. Jason Kenney most definitely does not.

Political luck used to swing back and forth like a pendulum, from one extreme to the other

During his first year as Alberta premier, Jason Kenney has been bitten by bad luck time and again. (Dave Chidley/The Canadian Press)

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Peter Lougheed had it. So did Ralph Klein.

Jason Kenney most definitely does not.

It is that most precious of qualities that has defined Alberta's successful premiers and, by its absence, damned the rest.

I'm talking here about luck.

And when I say "luck," I mean high prices for oil and/or natural gas.

Conversely, "unlucky" pretty much defines what's happening to Kenney, who's struggling with an economy hit by negative oil prices.

In a masterful bit of understatement on Wednesday, Kenney said 2020 has been a "very challenging year."

And it's going to get worse.

"We anticipate that the provincial deficit will move from a projected $6 billion to something in the range of $20 billion," said Kenney. "And we're not even halfway through the year. 2020 is throwing a lot of unknowns at us."

The lucky/unlucky rhythm of Alberta premiers has swung like a pendulum from one extreme to the other.

Let me emphasize I'm not trying to be flippant or facetious.

Luck depends on energy prices

Because of our outsized reliance on energy, Alberta's political fortunes have risen and fallen on the price of oil and gas. In other words, luck.

Lucky Lougheed rode an oil boom to fame and provincial fortune in the 1970s. He was followed by luckless Don Getty who was premier during an oil-price recession and became so unpopular he lost his own seat in Edmonton in 1989. 

Then came Lucky Klein, who had so much natural gas money flowing into the provincial treasury that he paid off the provincial debt and gave away more than $1 billion worth of "Ralph-bucks" to Albertans on a whim. 

He was followed by hapless Ed Stelmach, who became premier just in time for the 2008 world financial crisis, and faced so much pressure he quit the premiership less than two years later.

Then the pendulum became stuck on "unlucky" for subsequent premiers.

Not only were recent premierships hit by faltering energy prices, they were also hammered by a series of natural disasters. It seemed a climate-changed Mother Nature was rubbing salt in the wounds.

For Stelmach, it was the Slave Lake fire.

For Alison Redford, the Calgary flood.

Jim Prentice tried to warn Albertans that bad luck was on the way via an oil-price recession in 2015. He was rewarded by being kicked out of office by the NDP in that year's provincial election.

Alberta's first-ever New Democrat premier, Rachel Notley, was in turn hit by a double whammy of bad luck: an oil-price recession and the Fort McMurray fire.

Notley seemed to be the unluckiest premier of all.

Until Jason Kenney.

Plenty of blame to go around

His premiership has been hit by a triple whammy: a pandemic; a looming recession; and, incredibly, oil prices that have gone negative.

And now he is dealing with the Fort McMurray flood.

Of course, you can't blame Kenney for pandemics or floods or low oil prices.

But …

There is plenty of blame to go around for allowing Alberta to be the most vulnerable province in the country during the pandemic.

For decades, Alberta governments — supported by Alberta voters — relied too much on revenues from oil and gas, didn't set aside money during the good times, and refused to embrace a sustainable tax regime. We spent too much and saved too little.

The fate of the Alberta Heritage Savings Trust Fund is a microcosm of what we've done wrong.

When first set up in 1976, the government pumped 30 per cent of revenues from oil and gas into the fund as a long-term savings account. When bad times hit a decade later, we stopped putting money in. Then we began stripping the interest earned each year from the fund. Even during the years we were awash in record surpluses, we kept taking money from the fund.

In 1985, the fund was worth about $14 billion. Today, it's worth about $18 billion. What would it be worth if we had simply left it alone? That number differs depending on how you do the math but it would be much more than $100 billion.

'We made a mistake ... '

In 2002, Alberta's former finance minister Jim Dinning acknowledged the government had mishandled the fund: "We made a mistake of drawing too much out of the fund, to use it as a buffer to avoid making some tough decisions. As a result, we spent a lot of the revenues that could have made the fund worth $80 billion today."

If we didn't take saving money seriously, we did the same with climate change.

We were shocked when the Slave Lake fire devastated the community in 2011. We were still learning our lessons about fire mitigation when an inferno ravaged Fort McMurray in 2016.

We continued to build homes near forests and on flood plains. Seven years after the Calgary flood, construction has yet to begin on an upstream reservoir project to protect the city from future disasters.

Fort McMurray residents deserve our support and sympathy. They also deserve more government funding and planning to mitigate against future disasters.

No, we can't blame a premier for having bad luck — even though Alberta voters tend to do just that.

But we can blame Kenney for continuing to focus too heavily on oil and gas as our economic saviour, for continuing to downplay the threat of climate change, and for continuing to reject an overhaul of our taxation system.

The time to rely on luck yet again to save us has long passed.

About the Author

Graham Thomson is an award-winning journalist who has covered Alberta politics for more than 30 years, much of it as an outspoken columnist for the Edmonton Journal. Nowadays you can find his thoughts and analysis on provincial politics Fridays at cbc.ca/edmonton, on CBC Edmonton Television News, during Radio Active on CBC Radio One (93.9FM/740AM) and on Twitter at @gthomsonink.


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