Politics·Analysis

Why Justin Trudeau can't afford to write off Alberta

No part of the country looks more daunting to the federal Liberals now than Alberta. And yet, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau is spending a considerable amount of time campaigning here, for reasons that have a lot to do with climate change and a little to do with his father's political legacy.

His Liberals are tanking there, but he keeps coming back - because he knows he must

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks with workers at the Trans Mountain Terminal in Edmonton on Friday, July 12, 2019. (Jason Franson/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

On the second day of his re-election campaign, Justin Trudeau went to Alberta.

It's something of a tradition now. Trudeau went to Alberta on the second day of his campaign for the Liberal leadership in 2012, and went back on the second day of the federal election in 2015.

As prime minister, he has made nearly two dozen trips to the province. His most recent visit was in July, when he dropped by the Edmonton terminal of the Trans Mountain pipeline — the pipeline his government bought for $4.5 billion in 2018 so that a multi-billion-dollar expansion project could proceed.

If he makes a point of going there, it's not because Albertans are particularly keen to see him, or because a Liberal majority hinges on winning a significant number of the province's 34 seats. Matching the four seats the Liberals won in 2015 would be considered an achievement for the party. Current projections say the Liberals would be lucky to retain even a single seat in the province.

But for Trudeau, Alberta still looms large — and keeping two or three seats there might mean more than just a slightly larger parliamentary caucus.

Working the toughest room in the country

In Trudeau's own estimation, his father's political legacy cast its largest and darkest shadow in two provinces: Quebec and Alberta. In Quebec, he has largely slain the beast — the Liberals won 40 seats there in 2015 and could win 50 this time.

In Alberta, the stigma persists. And not even the purchase of a pipeline has done much to shake the majority view there that Justin Trudeau, like his father, is one of those "eastern bastards" who feels a callous disregard for the West and its resources.

But Trudeau also has said that he can't claim to be a prime minister for all Canadians and a leader who listens if he doesn't spend time in Alberta — that doing so is part of the work of holding the country together.

And the province isn't quite the electoral wasteland for Liberals it's sometimes alleged to be. The party still has hopes of retaining at least a few of the four seats it won in Alberta four years ago. On Thursday evening, Trudeau was in the riding of Edmonton-Strathcona, where the NDP incumbent, Linda Duncan, is not seeking re-election.

In this spring's provincial election, Rachel Notley's provincial NDP won 24 seats, most of them around Edmonton. All other things being equal, those voters should be a natural constituency for Trudeau's Liberals.

Pro-pipeline demonstrators protest outside Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's address to the Calgary Chamber of Commerce on Thursday, Nov. 22, 2018. (Tony Seskus/CBC)

But the last four years have seen not only another Trudeau in the Prime Minister's Office but also a downturn in the global oil market, the cancelling of the Northern Gateway project, an interprovincial fight over pipeline jurisdiction, new legislation to govern project approvals and new policies to curb greenhouse gas emissions. All of which has made it easier for Western politicians to reanimate voters' feelings of resentment and alienation.

Less than a week before the writs for the federal election were drawn up, Abacus Data noted a distinct split between the West and the rest of the country. In Alberta and Saskatchewan, the Conservatives out-polled the Liberals by 58 per cent to 20 per cent. Everywhere else, the Liberals led 35 per cent to 30 per cent.

Trudeau can win a majority with that split. But a prime minister who wants to transition the country toward a low-carbon future might hope to have at least some representation between Manitoba and British Columbia — even if only to avoid the symbolic slap of being shut out.

Trudeau's larger vision for the future of the Canadian economy rests on what some have described as a grand bargain: pricing carbon and reducing emissions in the long term, building a pipeline to maximize profits from the sale of oil in the short term. The proceeds from the latter would be used to fund the former. (And stringent environmental policies would make it easier to win the "social licence" necessary to proceed with the construction of a pipeline.)

No low-carbon future without Alberta

The pipeline part of that bargain also functions as a bridge to Alberta.

All roads to a low-carbon future in Canada go through oil country. Alberta has the highest and the fastest-rising emissions among the provinces, thanks in large part to an oil and gas industry that is central to its economy and its identity.

The Notley government's successful negotiation of an emissions cap for the Alberta oil industry went a long way toward putting Canada on a serious path to a low-carbon future, but (as Notley herself was moved to say at one point) a national climate plan for Canada isn't worth the paper it's written on if Alberta isn't involved.

The federal NDP and Greens both have positioned themselves against the Trans Mountain expansion and take the dimmest views of future fossil fuel development. At some point in this campaign, they might detail their counter-offers to Albertans. But as of now, neither party seems to have much hope of winning a seat in the province.

Trudeau might never persuade a majority of Albertans, or even a significant minority, that they should vote for the Liberals. But if he's lucky enough to be prime minister for another four years, Alberta will continue to be central to the major policy debates that face him. He will need to keep coming back.

If Canadian voters choose to give Trudeau another four years, both he and the cause of national unity might be much better off if he can stand beside a few Liberal MPs when he's there.

About the Author

Aaron Wherry

Parliament Hill Bureau

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.

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