The prime minister and the premier: Agreeing to disagree about agreeing

As the prime minister arrives in Calgary for a cabinet retreat this week, Anthony Sayers writes about the delicate political dance of support and condemnation he and Rachel Notley must do around the carbon tax, and the future of the oilsands.

Alberta is an easy whipping boy for politicians outside its borders, writes Anthony Sayers

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, left, shake hands during a meeting on Parliament Hill after the federal cabinet gave the green light to Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain expansion, and Enbridge's Line 3.

Political leaders are forever asked to achieve the impossible.

To provide better services for lower taxes or protect jobs while preventing damage to the environment from economic activity. Tall orders.

Symbols and images help politicians smooth over the impossibilities of politics.

This is why Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is bringing his cabinet to Calgary starting on Sunday — to help balance his critique of the oilsands as a mark of his commitment to the environment, with his need to support a thriving Alberta economy. 

But that support complicates Premier Rachel Notley's goal of appearing to be the lone defender of Alberta's interests.

Squaring the political circle

Many Canadians want Canada to play a leadership role in dealing with climate change. Voters also prefer to enjoy the benefits of policies without bearing the costs.

We are blowing past the conditions predicted to raise global temperatures by two degrees, and the Paris targets look dangerously like a hill too far. Current carbon pricing is too low to affect consumer behaviour. Even if we were to shut down our economy, it would have nearly no effect on predicted climate change.

To win re-election, the Liberals need to sustain the green credentials that helped them displace the NDP. They also need to protect jobs and the taxes that support programs and a precarious budget — keeping the Conservatives at bay.

How can a prime minister square these circles?

Demonizing oilsands

Justin Trudeau knows that demonizing the oilsands helps him to do just that.

Alberta is an easy whipping boy for politicians outside its borders.

The home of anti-environment rednecks driving gas-guzzling trucks, hunting wildlife while complaining about transfer payments to other provinces, all resting on a bed of bitumen. 

No matter that Albertans have responded rationally to the resources they found. Or that Alberta looks comparatively wanton — in part because the three other largest provincial economies were gifted relatively clean hydroelectric resources. Or that the life-cycle of cars built in Ontario results in as much carbon gas production as the oilsands. Or that Vancouver's largest export by tonnage is coal.

Demonizing the oilsands distracts Canadians, and strengthens the apparent force of modest policy moves such as fiddling with the National Energy Board and placing a floor on carbon pricing. It's a price so low that voters in the most populous provinces will not initially bear the cost of federal climate change policy. Thus, the Liberals won't need to bear possible national political damage.

Helping the planet without imposing costs. Perfect. A circle squared.

The federal government also gets cover as it approves pipelines that might protect economic growth and generate larger tax revenues in the future. How many and whether the calculus changes by the time they come to be built are open questions.

Given the Liberals limited strength in Alberta and a provincial NDP willing to bear the political costs of a carbon tax, the electoral stakes are relatively slight.                                                                                         

Yet, there are challenges.

Symbolic tough talk and the slow release of programs that keep the environment front and centre should work in the short term. But alienating a cooperative NDP government, Alberta voters, or the oil and gas industry, would not be good. 

Hence the trip to Calgary, where Trudeau can be seen to talk directly to Albertans about the challenges they face. And also be seen to sympathize with a provincial government willing to relieve him of the political cost of a carbon tax. He'll also talk about strategic investment with the oil and gas industry, and the need for change —  at some unspecified time in the future. 

It plays to the meme that Trudeau cares for all Canadians while at the same time protecting his government's delicate balance between environmental and economic policies.

For her part, Premier Notley and her provincial government have their own challenges during his visit.

Demonizing Ottawa

Demonizing Ottawa has been a staple of provincial politics, helping to sustain long-standing political regimes. But when it comes to the environment, Alberta's NDP and the federal Liberals share many concerns.

So Notley must find a way to label its carbon tax as a "made in Alberta" solution to an Alberta problem. A way to honourably keep pumping oil while avoiding policy congruence with Ottawa. She has to play nice, but not too nice.

It is a fascinating challenge: two fellow travellers manipulating symbols to get the distance between them just right. One made more so by the peculiar nature of their support.

Rachel Notley, the leader of a group of neophyte New Democrats who abruptly displaced a 40-year-old PC dynasty and are learning on the fly. Justin Trudeau, the leader of a type of political party — centrist — that is all but extinct in the democratic world. It reveals a distinctly Canadian approach to democracy.

It should be an interesting visit.

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