Bill Paxton, the respected American actor, died Saturday at 61. His death got me thinking about his role as the Mormon polygamist Bill Henricksen on the HBO drama Big Love, and how NDP Premier Rachel Notley might learn a thing or two from the hardware store owner with three wives.
Notley’s climate policies – especially the carbon tax – are not popular, particularly in the oil patch.
The latest Mainstreet/Postmedia survey, released Feb. 23, found 51 per cent of respondents think the provincial carbon tax, in effect since Jan. 2, has had a ‘major’ impact on their lives (42% say the impact has been ‘minor’). Almost two-thirds of Alberta (64%) outright oppose the carbon tax, down slightly from a Mainstreet poll in Dec. 2015, while support is up five points (to 34%), according to a press release. The poll has a margin of error of +/- 1.93%, 19 times out of 20.
The numbers have improved a bit from previous Mainstreet polls, but not substantively. Nor are they likely to in the short run: 39 per cent of Albertans believe climate change is natural and humans play a small or no role in global warming.
So, what are her options?
Notley could emulate the BC Liberals. Then Premier Gordon Campbell introduced a carbon tax in 2008 that was initially much hated and fiercely debated, but once voters became accustomed to it turned into a political asset.
Time heals all wounds, right?
In this case, not likely. Prof. Sumeet Gulati of UBC says the BC NDP campaigned against the carbon tax in the 2009 election and partly lost because of their opposition. But West Coast voters are also more tax-friendly than Albertans and environmental issues have more support.
Hoping Alberta voters come around seems like a losing strategy for Notley. Conservative political opponents like Wildrose leader Brian Jean and presumptive heir PCAA heir Jason Kenney are fanning anti-carbon tax sentiment at every chance, especially in rural Alberta, where the carbon tax is least popular, according to Mainstreet president Quito Maggi.
“It’s Albertans who live outside major urban centres who are most likely to say that they have felt a major impact from the carbon tax (58%),” he said in a press release.
Mainstreet’s numbers show Edmonton, the NDP political stronghold, with the strongest support for the carbon tax and climate mitigation policies – 63 per cent of respondents saying the carbon tax has had a ‘minor impact’ on their lives.
The 2019 battleground is clearly going to be Calgary, which is politically more diverse, having elected several Trudeau Liberals (Kent Hehr, Darsan Kang) in the federal election, a feat almost as startling as the Alberta NDP victory a few months before.
Calgary is also home to the head offices of the Canadian oil and gas industry, traditionally not friendly to the Liberals and downright hostile to New Democrats, which miraculously elected 15 MLAs. Keeping them, or at least not losing any more than they can help, is critical to re-election.
The key for Notley in 2019 will be a Big Love strategy.
Just to be clear, I’m not advocating the Premier take more husbands, just that she show more political love to the oil and gas executive suites in downtown Calgary.
A charm offensive over the next two years can only pay electoral dividends.
And it’s not be as difficult as it might seem.
Big Oil – represented by the Canadian Assoc. of Petroleum Producers – has already begun to make its peace with the provincial government’s climate policies. Their members are in the best position to benefit from output-based allocations and new technologies designed to lower crude oil carbon-intensity. And if paying 30 to 70 cents a barrel for greenhouse gas emission compliance – calculations courtesy of Prof. Andrew Leach’s Twitter feed – begets new pipelines and higher oil sands output, then the tradeoff makes sense.
But Little Oil (Alberta’s mid-sized and junior producers), service companies (represented by the Petroleum Services Assoc. of Canada, Canadian Association
Which is odd because when I interviewed Environment Minister Shannon Phillips, who is responsible for the Climate Leadership Plan, ago she spent most of the 30-minute webinar talking about how the Alberta government was committed to helping producers lower costs, access new markets, adopt new technologies, etc.
NDP environment ministers are supposed to be the enemies of oil and gas, fire-breathing environmentalists who balance the energy minister at the cabinet table.
She believes explicitly that the global economy has begun the transition to clean energy technologies but it will be many decades before wind, solar, and electric cars supplant oil – if they ever do. In the meantime, Phillips says the government she represents is committed to growing the Alberta economy by expanding the oil sands, energy infrastructure like pipelines, and kick starting value-added manufacturing like petrochemicals.
“I think that what you’ll end up seeing over time is just like in the modernized royalty framework where what we’re trying to do– the push is towards lower cost of extraction – lowering the cost overall, whether it’s on the labour side or on the exploration and production side, etc.,” she said.
A lovely sentiment, but one that hasn’t filtered down to most of the sector the NDP is trying to support. Some of that is due to a long history of conservative politics in the Alberta oil patch, especially the head offices of Calgary. But some of it is due to the Notley government not communicating the message strongly enough.
The Alberta NDP is still seen as anti-oil and gas by many industry leaders, even though Notley has made many supportive public comments, lobbied hard for pipeline approvals with the federal and BC governments, and Phillips seems to be a friend
That political disconnect is going to cost the NDP votes in key Calgary ridings.
Why not show industry and its workers more love, actively and loudly courting their votes? If Notley and the NDP are going to be pro-industry around the board table, why not be conspicuously pro-industry and gain some political advantage where it counts, at the ballot box?