Of all the Canadians sitting on the edge of their chairs Monday night watching the federal election results, it’s hard to imagine any who would be more anxious than the people of Alberta.
The ability of this province to pull itself out of an agonizing economic malaise hinges very much on the makeup of the next federal government. Any majority government – Liberal or Conservative – would provide the best bet to see the long-delayed construction of the Trans-Mountain pipeline. And Albertans know this new route to Asian markets will help free us from the murderously low prices we receive from the U.S. for our bitumen.
As the expected Tory landslide in this province will show, Albertans have the most confidence in the Conservatives to get the job done. That attitude, however, sells the Liberals short. After all, it was the Grits who had the guts to buy the pipeline to keep the project alive, knowing full well they would pay a political price, especially in the staunchly anti-pipeline stronghold of B.C.’s lower mainland.
The polls, however, tell us there is less than 20 per cent chance that either of the leading parties will form a majority. The real debate is whether the Liberals or Conservatives emerge with the most seats, and whether either party will be able to forge a working coalition.
Although the Liberals have the best chance of courting the NDP and Greens, the fate of Trans-Mountain looms as a major hurdle. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has already drawn a line in the sand – warning that a “no-pipeline” coalition is not on the table. Let’s hope his rhetoric is more than bravado.
For the Conservatives, the prospects of a coalition are even more daunting. Given hostile words from the Greens and NDP, the Bloc is seen as the only party with the potential to bring a minority Conservative government to life.
Yet, regardless of how this power game plays out, we need to be clear on what Albertans are looking for in this election. Despite ill-advised and frankly embarrassing protests against Greta Thunberg, most Albertans have accepted the oil sands are shifting under their feet. Leading oil patch executives and analysts tell us one pipeline will not bring back the heady days of $100 oil, and the new game is low-cost production. The bounce-back that ended previous recessions just isn’t in the cards.
This is most obvious in Calgary, home to 118 of the largest businesses in the province, according to figures from ATB. (The Edmonton region, by comparison, has 23.) Nearly three-quarters of Calgary’s top companies operate in the energy or oil field services sector, and their job cuts have left the city with a 26 per cent vacancy rate in downtown offices.
If only we could beam those tone-deaf Ontarians out west so they could see for themselves just what this downturn has done to us. I lived in a couple of auto manufacturing cities in Ontario when that industry was on the ropes a couple of decades ago, and I can tell you those hard times have nothing on what Alberta is going through right now.
Except for a few misguided loudmouths, Albertans are not looking for a government that will take us back to the mythical glory days of monster 4X4s and unlimited expense accounts. Instead, Albertans are looking for a government that can move beyond ideology to a clear-eyed vision for the future.
Alberta has exceptional assets. We have the world’s best energy expertise. We have the best engineers, and a proven track record of innovation. We have exceptional wind and solar potential. Most importantly, we have an overpowering sense of optimism that simply refuses to give up in face of at-times grim prospects.
A visionary federal government would recognize that Alberta needs to sustain its oil-and-gas industry as a vital economic driver for the nation. At the same time, it would create a regulatory regime that encourages our industries to accelerate innovation in clean energy production. The newly developed Proton Technologies process that extracts hydrogen from bitumen is just one small example of what can be done. Such discoveries will happen more often when governments at both the federal and provincial levels unreservedly encourage and reward innovation.
All Canadians have reason to be anxious about this election. Minority governments are unpredictable wildcards. The wrong alliance could set our country on the road to economic ruin, and fuel the regional resentments that threaten national unity.
But, with a little luck, a minority government will listen to Canadians and respond in a way that majorities don’t have to. Let us hope that if the polls are right – and we do indeed end up with a minority government – our federal politicians can set aside their regional biases and give Alberta the tools it needs to regain its rightful place as a key pillar in this federation.