Trudeau's corporate-welfare reflex won't help Alberta


National Post, 29 November 2018

The energy sector is not looking for subsidies. It is simply asking that governments stop preventing what private companies are seeking to do

CALGARY — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had 2,000 angry protesters in the streets here last Thursday, one-third as many as the Calgary Stampeders got on Tuesday for their Grey Cup victory party. An impressive showing on short notice; the Chamber of Commerce kept his visit under wraps until the last minute. For those who find Trudeau’s handling of the energy file to be both hapless and patronizing, the prime minister gave his listeners heaping servings of both.

Perhaps impressed by Bill and Hillary Clinton’s fundraising tour — for their favourite cause, themselves — in Toronto and Montreal this week, Trudeau looked fretful and assured all concerned that he felt their pain.

It’s a routine that doesn’t match the mood in Alberta. The general view here is that the federal government is the cause of the pain, so badly mismanaging the pipeline issue as to have prevented two from being built, and paying $4.5 billion to purchase the third, also not being built. And when I say “general” view, that now includes Premier Rachel Notley who, with an election six months off, is running as fast from Justin Trudeau as she spent the first three years of her mandate running toward him.

The juxtaposition of the General Motors plant closure in Oshawa with the crisis in oil prices caused by lack of pipeline capacity was striking. Oshawa used to have some 23,000 GM workers in its heyday; it now has about a tenth of that. The loss of those remaining jobs is not only an economic hit, but psychological one, too. Autos are central to Oshawa’s identity, even if the decline has been pronounced and protracted.

In Calgary, it has been widely remarked that some 20 times as many jobs have been lost in recent years in the energy sector, in a much smaller provincial population. There was no one-year notice that the jobs were going. They were just gone. Attention was paid, but not quite like what Oshawa got.

The Oshawa story explains why the federal government does not seem to “get” the pipeline crisis in Alberta. It doesn’t quite fit the way that flagship industries are treated in Canada.

The script is well known. Pick your flagship sector, one that is economically vital and, more important, carries deep regional and cultural significance: the automotive industry in Ontario, aviation in Montreal, dairy in rural Ontario and Quebec, shipbuilding in Nova Scotia, fisheries in Newfoundland. A crisis hits and governments scramble. If government money will do the trick, shovels of it will be dumped on the relevant companies. If that won’t work, the affected workers will be assisted directly, usually through expansion of unemployment benefits.

The actors know their roles so well that Ontario — then governed by the “green energy” McGuinty Liberals — gave GM $235 million in 2006 to build the not-so-enviro-friendly Camaro in Oshawa. A national crisis was declared in the 1990s when fisheries minister Brian Tobin wrapped himself in the flag and denounced European overfishing on the nose and tail of the Grand Banks.

The Alberta energy sector is not looking for subsidies, or enhanced unemployment benefits, or even a flag-waving champion. It is simply asking that governments stop preventing what private companies are seeking to do, namely build pipelines so that Alberta oil and gas can get to world markets, and not be held hostage by an American market that demands a deep discount.

“World” markets here refer, by the way, to Ontario and Quebec, which purchase oil from the state oil companies of various odious regimes around the planet, brought by tanker to the East Coast. The Energy East pipeline would have given Canada’s major population centres the option of using Canadian oil, produced to Canadian environmental, labour and human-rights standards, but Energy East was killed by the federal government changing the regulatory approval rules.

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