A moment of parochialism

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For decades now the right wing in Alberta, which has been in control of the province for that whole time, has made no bones about not giving a damn about the rest of the country. They've been very forthright about it--firewalls, letting the Eastern bastards (and incidentally any stray non-Albertan Western bastards) freeze in the dark, all that.

So now we have Mulcair talking about Albertan oil causing Dutch disease for the rest of Canada, which it clearly does, and suggesting that we need to take measures to defend the country and its non-oil industries from this. And we have British Columbians not wild about a pipeline which will benefit Albertans but impose mainly costs on BC, costs the Albertans won't have to bear or, most likely, even help with in the event of a major spill.

What strikes me as bizarre is the Albertan right's response: Utter shock that other parts of the country would fail to prioritize Albertan interests. They seem amazed at the mean-spiritedness of other parts of the country in failing to cheerfully support Albertan money-making at their expense. Suddenly now because it's for them, the country must pull together; a benefit to Alberta must be seen as a benefit to all. Uh, guys, if you wanted anyone to give a shit about your welfare you might have thought about giving a shit about anyone else's welfare any time in the last thirty years. Really, why should I give a flying fuck whether their oil makes it to market?

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Before you go condemning my province, try and see things from our point of view.

From the National Policy advocated by Macdonald and Laurier through to only getting control of our resources in the 1930s to bilingualism to the NEP and modern-day things like climate change and the long gun registry, many Albertans have long felt that federal policy was usually tailored to meet the desires of Ontario and Quebec, oftentimes at our expense. We frequently felt like people from out East didn't understand our needs or care about our welfare, which led to what's now known today as Western alienation. The perception was that federal governments with their bases in Ontario and Quebec were symbolically telling us to go pound sand when we tried to make our concerns known in Ottawa or otherwise assert ourselves. Thomas Mulcair’s comments about the “Dutch disease” produced by the oilpatch are seen as just the latest in a long line of Alberta-bashings.

Hence the rise of the Reform Party and its slogan about how “The West Wants In”. It spoke to a lot of Albertans’ concerns about the direction Canada was going in, although sadly it was marred by members who sometimes made bigoted “bozo eruptions” that ended up tarring the whole party with that negative image. That image was then seized on by federal Liberals who implied that everyone in the Reform movement was a bigot, which again got under Albertans’ skin.

Things like the “firewall” letter and the references to “Eastern bastards” freezing in the dark came in reaction to the sense that an Ottawa dominated by Ontario and Quebec interests didn’t understand our interests, and more than that didn’t care to understand. Mulcair’s statements have only reinforced that belief in many parts of Alberta. While “Dutch disease” might be a factor in Ontario’s manufacturing problems, surely the ongoing woes of some of the province’s biggest customers south of the border have something to do with it too? How much did Mulcair talk about that?

And it’s worth considering how Albertans responded to those statements-the “firewall” letter, for instance, was more or less ignored by our then-Premier Ralph Klein. What’s also worth noting is how the Wildrose Alliance party adopted several of the firewall ideas into its platform and ended up getting shut out of Alberta’s major cities and the northern part of the province during last month’s provincial election. Smith noted that several of her party’s policies were rejected by Albertans and needed to be revisited. The “bozo eruptions” were also cited as a major reason why the Wildrose lost support among Albertans:

http://www.canada.com/Chastened+Wildrose+must+revisit+controversial+policies+Smith+says/6511905/story.html

As I’ve said before on this blog, I think that a lot of the support the Wildrose did get in Alberta, especially in the rural areas, came from public anger over things like the “money for nothing” committee, the Heartland transmission line controversy, the deficit and the new drunk driving law, in other words the kinds of internal issues that all Canadian provinces deal with on a regular basis.

In regards to Alberta “not giving a crap about anybody else’s welfare”, that argument falls flat when you consider things like the large interest-free loans the Peter Lougheed government gave other provinces in the 1970s, the transfer payments that Alberta contributes to on a regular basis, the Centennial Scholarships we established in 2005 for students who wanted to come study in Alberta, our contributions to the Constitutional patriation of 1982 and the money sent back to their home provinces by Easterners who come out here for work. Alberta’s been contributing through a judicious combination of both public and private action, which in my mind is in keeping with the best of Canadian tradition and something that makes me proud both as an Albertan and as a Canadian. Nor do many Albertans necessarily mind lending a hand to the rest of the country this way-you guys have been there for us when we’ve needed you in the past, but comments like Purple Library Guy’s come like a slap in the face.

I should also point out that the Alberta right is not a homogenous bloc. Not only did we have two conservative parties duking it out here, but Ralph Klein gave the firewall letter the cold shoulder. Preston Manning has been making an effort to warn people in the West about the dangers of Eastern alienation, showing his concern about that part of the country as well:

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/ottawa-notebook/as-political-centre-shifts-manning-now-fears-eastern-alienation/article2312763/

This article about the relations between Manning and Harper also provides some interesting food for thought:

http://www.dennisgruending.ca/2009/04/preston-manning-and-stephen-harper-uneasy-alliance/

Sadly, it looks like Manning’s fears are coming true. It used to be that we Albertans complained about being steamrolled by a government based in the East that didn’t seem to care about our needs or interests, but now the sad irony is that the shoe’s on the other foot. The Harper government is going full speed ahead with resources extraction, but as POGGE pointed out in our discussion of my progressive narrative essay Harper doesn’t seem inclined to do much to help out Eastern manufacturing. Now the Albertans who are in the driver’s seat, who originally ran against a government that imposed policy on them and symbolically told them to go pound sand when they tried to assert themselves, are the ones imposing policy on people and regions who don’t support it and symbolically telling segments of the population who don’t support them to go pound sand.

I hated it when it was being done to Alberta, and I don’t like it any more now that Albertans are the ones doing it to other Canadians. Stephen Harper is giving my province a bad image it doesn’t need, and he’s also setting an extremely dangerous precedent with many of his actions. With all the new powers that are being given to Cabinet ministers, for instance, who’s to say that a future government won’t use them in ways that could burn Alberta?

And if the NDP wins the next federal election, and Mulcair becomes prime minister, what then? If Alberta is in for now, does that mean it could find itself back outside again?

That’s the million-dollar question right now-how do we get around these old regional conflicts and try and find a more workable solution that benefits all Canadians, not Ontarians at the expense of Albertans, or Albertans at the expense of Ontarians?

Thomas Mulcair’s comments about the “Dutch disease” produced by the oilpatch are seen as just the latest in a long line of Alberta-bashings.

Then somebody's buying into the spin from Conservatives and their water-carriers because Mulcair isn't bashing Albertans.

Mulcair isn't suggesting that the tar sands be shut down; he's suggesting a more sustainable pace of development and domestic refining rather than just shipping the raw bitumen and all the value-added out of the country as quickly as possible. If people want to debate that proposition on practical grounds, let them. But suggesting that he's attacking Albertans is spin.

What he's suggesting is arguably better for Albertans in the long run. What he's bashing is the greed of the oil industry and the way Harper is pandering to it by adopting such a narrow view of what's good for the country.

As for the suggestion that the environmental costs should be internalized, there's nothing at all new in that. The view that environmental costs of production should be factored in at the source should apply to everything and not just the oil patch.

Again, if you want to create a progressive narrative the first step is to stop buying the right's propaganda. Stop accepting the crap they push at face value. Stop letting them frame the discussion.

Incidentally, I saw a couple of links today to reports that discussed the negative effects of "Dutch disease" on Canada's manufacturing sector. The reports dated back to 2006 and 2009. They were both parliamentary reports. This isn't new.

Then somebody's buying into the spin from Conservatives and their water-carriers because Mulcair isn't bashing Albertans.

Are you referring to me specifically? Because this isn't how I feel personally. It's how Mulcair's comments are coming across to many Albertans.

Mulcair isn't suggesting that the tar sands be shut down; he's suggesting a more sustainable pace of development and domestic refining rather than just shipping the raw bitumen and all the value-added out of the country as quickly as possible. If people want to debate that proposition on practical grounds, let them. But suggesting that he's attacking Albertans is spin.

In that respect, he's actually not too far off from what many of us are actually thinking here. Peter Lougheed, the guy who got the Conservatives into power in the first place, has been banging the drum for slowing down the development of the oilsands for a long time now. Not only for environmental reasons, but for how oil booms can "overheat" the provincial economy when oilpatch wages go up and other sectors of the economy can't keep up as much.

More generally, many of us agree on the value of refining more of our oil here, or at least in Canada, instead of just shipping the raw product overseas. I believe it was TransCanada Pipelines that was proposing to reverse the flow of one of its pipelines to carry Alberta crude to be refined in your neck of the woods, which would probably create more jobs and create more profits in Canada than the current approach.

Incidentally, if it provided a reliable supply of fuel to you guys, it would make the East a lot less dependent on foreign sources. This is the king-sized hole in the Ethical Oil campaign-neither Ezra Levant nor anyone else has ever seemed to give any thought as to how to make Eastern Canada less reliant on supposed "conflict" oil imported from the Middle East, Venezuela or wherever.

As for the suggestion that the environmental costs should be internalized, there's nothing at all new in that. The view that environmental costs of production should be factored in at the source should apply to everything and not just the oil patch.

What most people seem to realize is that Preston Manning, of all people, has been advocating for putting a price on carbon for years now, in addition to trying to warn about the danger of Eastern alienation replacing its Western counterpart. Manning has a much broader view of the country than his former protege, who has adopted many of the very same habits that he used to deplore.

Again, if you want to create a progressive narrative the first step is to stop buying the right's propaganda. Stop accepting the crap they push at face value. Stop letting them frame the discussion.

What I'm trying to figure out is how to broaden the appeal of progressivism beyond its base, which is what the Harper Conservatives have successfully done. Freedom, in the minds of some of the loudest conservative voices, seemingly has to do only with "free markets", and are trying to claim a monopoly on freedom as a concept. In my mind, progressives could not only point out the conservative policies that have been making people less free, but show the progressive ideas that actually make people more free as a whole. That can subvert the attempts of some elements on the right to try and claim a monopoly on "freedom", and attacking progressive ideas as somehow harming people's liberty, when in fact progressive ideas can do just the opposite.

Not to mention that it wouldn't hurt to find areas that progressives could act on and that would appeal to the political right. Take the tax code, for instance-progressives like Mel Hurtig have been complaining for years about all the loopholes in it, while I've had business owners complaining to me about the hassle they have to go through to file their taxes. Streamlining the tax code could both provide a lot of extra revenue, while also making life easier for business owners. Compare that to what Harper has done to the tax system-in my original essay, I cited Jim Flaherty's admission that the tax system has actually become more complicated on the Conservatives' watch!

Who knows, from there it could even be a basis for common ground and cooperation between different parts of the spectrum on some issues. That's the twofold goal I'd ultimately hope to accomplish.

One part of the goal is undermining and subverting the right's attempts to frame the discussion as if their policies were the only ones capable of bringing about things like freedom or economic prosperity, and showing that these concepts can be just as easily be achieved with progressive policies.

The other part of the goal, though, it would be a way to try and build more understanding between different parts of the country and where they're coming from. Not every conservative is Ezra Levant, just like not every progressive is Canadian Cynic. Do we really want our politics to end up as hyper-partisan as they've become south of the border?

Incidentally, I saw a couple of links today to reports that discussed the negative effects of "Dutch disease" on Canada's manufacturing sector. The reports dated back to 2006 and 2009. They were both parliamentary reports. This isn't new.

Care to post them?

Are you referring to me specifically? Because this isn't how I feel personally.

If you don't agree with the opinions of those Albertans, then I'm a bit at a loss to understand why you keep speaking for them. You spend so much time speaking for them that I really don't know where you stand. Nor do I know what you expect from the rest of us.

Meanwhile, links:

2006 Parliament of Canada report: ENERGY RESOURCES: BOON OR CURSE
FOR THE CANADIAN ECONOMY?

2009 Report -- not Canadian parliament after all but Center for Research in Economic Analysis, University of Luxembourg: Does the Canadian economy suffer from Dutch Disease?

2011 Vancouver Sun article: New Study Diagnoses Dutch Disease in Canada

What Mulcair really thinks -- pdf of an article he wrote in March of this year: TAR SANDS: DIRTY OIL AND THE FUTURE OF A COUNTRY. The title is a play on the title of a book by Andrew Nikiforuk.

Some of the pundits are claiming that "economists" are contradicting Mulcair but it's not nearly that simple. The consensus of opinion seems to be that the factors commonly referred to as the Dutch disease are having at least some effect on the Canadian economy though there are other factors at play as well. How is that an argument against a different approach to development of the tar sands? And how does an argument in favour of a different approach become Alberta bashing?

I'll give Mulcair credit for at least getting us talking about it and I haven't been a big Mulcair fan.

And one more link and a quote, from what appears to be a letter to the editor from an Albertan printed in the Edmonton Journal:

Dutch disease exists, and we are not well served by pretending it does not. The question is not how to reduce activity in the oilsands, which benefits the whole country, but how to develop the oilsands in a way that does not ruin the competitiveness of other sectors.

In the long run, reducing activity in the tarsands is exactly what we need to do because it's good for the planet and good for all of us. In the long run, we need to find alternatives that will allow us to leave some of that goo in the ground.

In the short term, this is a much more reasonable attitude than all the bluster we're hearing about poor Albertans being under attack.


If you don't agree with the opinions of those Albertans, then I'm a bit at a loss to understand why you keep speaking for them. You spend so much time speaking for them that I really don't know where you stand. Nor do I know what you expect from the rest of us.

Okay, here's my position:

I think that Northern Gateway pipeline could be a good idea...but I want to tear my hair out at the Harper government's approach of steamrolling anybody who tries to voice a dissenting opinion, much less anybody who speaks out against the pipeline. The concerns people have raised about tremors in the areas where the pipeline will pass through and the treacherous waters the oil tankers will have to pass through are in my mind very serious concerns that have to be addressed before the pipeline goes ahead.

Unfortunately, as I said the Harper Conservatives seem to have adopted the same tactics they used to decry in the federal Liberals when the Liberals were the ones establishing things like the NEP-condemning anyone who disagrees, ramming things through without regard to the people who would be affected by these developments and caring solely about their own base. Nor does Harper seem very interested in helping other parts of the country that are under strain and that aren’t already fully supporting it. While things are looking up for Alberta and Saskatchewan, provinces like Ontario and Quebec still have very good reason to worry, as does B.C. when it comes to the potential environmental risks of the pipeline.

This is incredibly frustrating for me, since not only is Harper leaving other parts of the economy and the country to go hang, he’s also giving Alberta a very bad image it doesn’t need. How many people are now seeing Alberta the way Albertans used to see Ontario or Quebec? His actions are obscuring the likes of Preston Manning (who’s advocated for putting a price on carbon and warned about Eastern alienation), Peter Lougheed (who’s advocated for slowing down oilsands development) and the various Albertans who’ve expressed support for refining more of our bitumen locally and have called for the development of a “national energy strategy.” POGGE has pointed out that these elements are at the crux of what Mulcair was really trying to get at, and so there’s actually more common ground on policy than most people realize.

The problem, though, is with how Mulcair has phrased his argument, making it sound as if oilsands development were the overriding reason for the erosion of manufacturing in Eastern Canada. Critics have pointed out other reasons, like cheap imported goods from China and the economic problems in the U.S. (the destination of most of our manufacturing exports). I myself also think that all the foreign ownership in our economy is a problem, particularly when you look at the less-than-stellar records companies like U.S. Steel have of living up to their commitments to keep jobs here when they buy Canadian companies and factories. Citing all these factors would, in my mind, have strengthened Mulcair’s argument. Instead, he comes across like he’s scapegoating the West and made it that much easier for the Conservatives to attack him as bashing this part of the country, even though that wasn’t Mulcair’s intent. It also obscures the fact that people out here are advocating many of the same policies he is. Arguing in favour of a different approach is not Alberta-bashing, as POGGE points out, but Mulcair’s emphasis on “Dutch disease” is what got so many peoples’ hackles up.

This is really too bad, since there’s a lot more common ground on this issue than people realize. What I’d have really liked to see is a more constructive dialogue between the different groups that shows that Western resource development can be a net benefit to Canada as a whole, and showing just why we’ve been so twitchy about criticism in the past, while people out West get a better idea of where Ontarians and Quebecers are coming from-hard work and entrepreneurialism can just as easily be Eastern Canadian traits as Western ones, after all!

From there, we might have been able to get the different parties at the table and working out a more integrated strategy for our economic troubles, one that takes into account the needs of both Eastern manufacturing and Western resource development, and the common ground and common interests we share. Perhaps it was wishful thinking under a Harper government, but it would have been better than the acrimony flying back and forth over the issue, which has only reopened old wounds. The letter writer cited by POGGE in the fifth comment sums up the issue quite nicely, as does this editorial:

http://www.thestarphoenix.com/news/Politicians%2Bpull%2Bcountry%2Bapart/6634983/story.html

Now, as to why I keep speaking for these Albertans, it’s because I’m trying to show the underlying perspective in Alberta that’s made Albertans react the way they do. My original post came from my wanting to rebut Purple Library Guy’s claims that Alberta’s never done anything to help the rest of the country, that it doesn’t care about the rest of the country, and that its positions have been taken purely out of greed. The simple fact is that they haven’t-many people out here have interpreted Mulcair’s comments as just the latest in a long pattern of our being treated as a second-class province by an Ottawa currying favour with the East.

It’s created a circle-the-wagons mentality in many parts of the province, one that unfortunately overlooks the times we’ve benefited from being part of Canada and the help we’ve gotten from Ottawa and the Eastern provinces over the years. Just look at Diefenbaker’s National Oil Program, for example, or the federal tax credits implemented in the 1990s to encourage resource development, the time Quebec bailed us out during the Great Depression or when Ontario farmers sent some of their hay to help out their Western counterparts during the droughts we had out here about a decade ago.

I also wanted to show that Alberta is actually more nuanced than our support for Harper might indicate. The firewall proposals received a lukewarm response at best from both the provincial government and the public as a whole, while some of the better oil companies are making an effort to clean up their act. Elder statesmen like Manning and Lougheed, as well as the Alberta public at large, have adopted stances that have much more in common with Mulcair than most people realize. This is what I’m trying to make people, both in your neck of the woods and in mine, more aware of.

Not all of my views are necessarily popular out here, either. The fact that I support bilingualism, a positive role for Ottawa in certain policy areas, Aboriginal self-government and detest most aspects of NAFTA doesn’t exactly mesh with what many Albertans think.

In the end, I think POGGE and I, as well as the more general populations of our provinces, actually have more common ground on these issues than we realize. Unfortunately, we don’t always understand where the other side is coming from in these debates, which is something I’m trying to change.

I'd like to note here that I'm a British Columbian. All this East vs West talk leaves me cold. One thing that's been annoying me about Alberta for decades now is their insistence on using the term "West", "Western alienation" etc. when pushing agendas which are generally purely Albertan or sometimes Prairie.
British Columbia was never responsible for any of Alberta's woes. British Columbia was a province Alberta in theory wanted to enlist as an ally against centralizing Ottawa. But Alberta politicians and pundits generally just appropriate BC as part of "The West" in the service of arguments that do BC no good and quite often cause harm. And now they want to fuck up our environment without compensation. We've never really existed in the eyes of Albertans, and it's always seemed pretty much a given they'd dump us over the side without a second thought (mind you, this generally applies to Ontario as well). So IMO Alberta's political culture does not involve disdain only for those they have historical grievances against.

Now the funny thing is, I don't necessarily have a major problem with all that. My position is just, if that's the way you want to play it, you don't have a complaint coming if someone else decides they want to play that way too. And yet the very Conservative politicos who have been the most vehement about riding roughshod over all other interests, are precisely the ones all horrified that anyone else might prioritize their own interests. How divisive, chorus these guys, in between branding anyone who disagrees with them about anything as extremist traitor money-launderers. Well, really, what a bunch of fucking whiners.
Your own discourse seems to be less about the substance of Mulcair's positions than the fear that Albertans might be offended if anyone says anything to or about them that's less than completely celebratory of everything they do. Well, maybe Albertans need to grow up a bit; there are serious issues confronting us and if everyone just tiptoes around the poor sensitive Albertans they are not going to get dealt with. It reminds me of certain extra-sensitive approaches that have been historically taken to dealing with Quebec--approaches that Alberta has been particularly impatient with.`

On the actual question of Dutch disease, near as I can make out the bottom line is this. It's true that multiple factors operate in economies, duh. But there are strong economic analyses supporting the conclusion that "Dutch disease" and the overvaluing of the dollar are a major factor in ongoing manufacturing job loss--sufficiently major to have caused job losses considerably greater than the entire employment in Alberta's oil industry. So from a utilitarian perspective, even if Mulcair were suggesting a complete halt to Alberta's oil industry in return for getting those jobs back, it would be a net benefit. Unfair, but a net benefit--that's the problem with utilitarianism.

But in fact it's almost the reverse. The "Dutch disease" problem is largely caused by Albertan insistence on leaving so much money on the table. It isn't caused by the actual export of oil--it's not a matter of high positive balance of trade pushing up the currency. To the contrary, our balance of trade has deteriorated even as oil sales and prices increased. But Alberta--near as I can make out from a bit of back-of-envelope calculation, Alberta sells more oil per capita than Saudi Arabia. Alberta's prosperous, kind of, but if you guys controlled the resource you wouldn't be just prosperous you'd be filthy stinkin' rich. At current and foreseeable future crude prices, the oil sands would still be profitable even if there were big royalties and a big-ass carbon tax and regulations and environmental remediation and who knows what all. And Alberta's public purse would be way fatter and there'd be more jobs rather than less 'cause someone would have to do all that environmental stuff plus you'd be paying more teachers and nurses and stuff. But no, Alberta politicians being bought and paid for, they insist on keeping royalties low and letting foreigners make off with all the money. The resulting extreme attractiveness of the investment to those foreigners has a lot to do with the Dutch disease thing--the inflow of investment money pushes the dollar up.
Personally, I advocate a federal floor to resource royalties. Provinces can collect whatever they want, but if they collect less than the floor rate, the feds take the difference. Note that the scheme does not involve collecting any money the province would otherwise have had, and the province is free to bump their royalty rate to match or exceed the federal floor, in which case the feds take zero. But no more competition between provinces for who's got the lowest 'cause it wouldn't matter. And if Alberta insisted on continuing to throw away money, at least someone other than foreign billionaires would still benefit.

On a side note, Lougheed's not that bad, by our modern debased standards. But don't talk to me about Manning, he of the Democracy-Sabotaging Institute. I could wish he did back "firewall" proposals; you start talking about Manning it reminds one of the massive harm that Alberta political exports have done to the rest of the country. Not that Ontario's been any slouch in the harmful-politics department. Our bunch in BC have mostly followed the trends Alberta and Ontario pushed, and hasn't that just been working out beautifully.

On a side, side note, as I understand it the NEP would actually have been better for Alberta than not having it during most of the eighties and nineties, as the world price spent much of that time very low, and the NEP involved both a ceiling and a floor for sale price to Canada.

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