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How do you solve a problem like Alberta?
In the bitter aftermath of an election in which the Liberals failed to win a single seat between Winnipeg and Vancouver, the country is divided over why the country is divided.
Albertans, and to a lesser extent Saskatchewanians, have convinced themselves that the government that famously bought a pipeline rather than see it fail has it in for them and their largest export. Some have gone so far as to conclude that the country with one of the highest standards of living on earth, in which they enjoy the highest standard of living of all the provinces, does not work for them.
On the other hand, some commentators have seemed to blame the two provinces for rejecting the Liberals so massively — just 13 per cent marked their ballot for the governing party — as if it were not the government that had failed to win their support, but they who had failed to support it. Are Alberta and Saskatchewan shut out of the Liberal caucus, without a voice at the cabinet table? You should have thought of that when you voted!
“By eradicating the Liberals from the provincial map on election day,” writes the Globe and Mail’s Eric Reguly, “Albertans stand to punish themselves as much as they punished Justin Trudeau.” Alberta, he writes, should have been “strategic,” like Quebec, whose voters “will endorse any party they think will keep the federal favour train rolling.” Instead, having “rendered itself defenceless in Ottawa,” the province should “prepare itself to take a few lashings.”
This idea of the federal government as a kind of national protection racket (“nice little province you have here — pity if anything should happen to it”), has a certain logic to it, you’ll have to admit. Faced with a government that placed a special tax on their primary export; that banned its shipment west by tanker and east by pipeline (or would, if anyone were proposing one); and that passed legislation, Bill C-69, that, as the new Liberal MP for Laurier-Sainte-Marie, environmentalist Steven Guilbeault, has been candid enough to admit, makes it unlikely that any pipeline will ever be built in Canada again, the people of the country’s two biggest oil-producing provinces, far from expressing their unhappiness at the ballot box, should have cuddled closer — to avoid further beatings.
No, the federal government is not to blame for the post-2015 decline of the Alberta economy, or the perilous state of the province’s finances: the world-wide collapse in the price of oil did that. Yes, the federal carbon tax is good policy in the national interest, and may even prove to be in the oilpatch’s in the long run. Yes, it is the courts and activist groups, not the Trudeau government, that have been the primary obstacles to construction of the Trans Mountain pipeline project, and no, there wouldn’t seem to be much of an economic case for another, probably for some years.
This idea of the federal government as a kind of national protection racket has a certain logic to it
But for goodness sake: it is hardly unreasonable for Albertans to feel themselves besieged — blockaded on either side, so it seems, by their fellow provinces, only to be subjected to a non-stop, six-week campaign of vilification of their major industry (aka “the oil lobby”) in which the Liberals, not to be outdone by the NDP, the Greens and the Bloc Québécois, took eager part.
Perhaps some of their anger will dissipate once Trans Mountain is built. But the sense of having been treated unfairly — or worse, disrespectfully — will linger. If, after all, the oil were in Quebec and not Alberta; if it were Quebec that wanted a pipeline built through Alberta, and not the reverse; if it were Alberta in favour of a carbon tax and Quebec opposed, I think we can guess how different the federal response would be.
Still, there is the “problem” of Alberta not being represented in cabinet — if not exposing it to “lashings” from a vengeful Liberal government, then at least leaving it without a “seat at the table.” This is a problem, that is, if you accept the prevailing view, that the purpose of cabinet is to mirror the country, rather than to govern it; that cabinet ministers are to be selected not for their talent or competence but their geo-demographic representativeness.
That this is accepted practice in Canada, as it is not elsewhere, is revealing. When we are choosing something really important, like the national hockey team, nearly everyone agrees: pick the best people, representativeness be damned. It is only because we have long since ceased to see cabinet as being of any importance — a focus group for the prime minister, in Donald Savoie’s memorable phrase — that we allow it to be debased in this way. Or perhaps it is because we have allowed it to be so debased that we no longer see it as important.
At any rate, so far as the government lacks a cabinet minister from Albertchewan, that is a reflection of a deeper and more genuine problem: the absence of any elected Liberals from either province. That remains the case, whatever trick, such as a Senate appointment, may be devised to make it look otherwise — to pretend, that is, that what we all saw on election night was an illusion, that the Liberals elected representatives from provinces where they manifestly did not.
All that would be achieved is further harm to the foundations of cabinet government. Cabinet ministers do not derive their legitimacy merely from the point of a prime ministerial finger, but from a popular mandate; they are supposed to be elected, not just selected. (Yes, a prime minister can appoint someone who is not elected; that does not mean he must.)
If the prime minister feels he is not sufficiently informed on western issues or plugged into western public opinion, he is always at liberty to hire an adviser on western Canadian affairs. The only point of making him or her a cabinet minister, in the circumstances, is public relations, which is to say deception.
Or if he is that concerned at the absence of western voices on the government benches, he can try a little harder to elect a few.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019