For many months now, job cuts have been mounting; now we have an entire oil & gas company joining the roster of victims. Spyglass Resources, long ailing, has gone into receivership. The world is meeting in Paris for the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference where no doubt Alberta will be cast as a convenient villain. The province has finally unveiled its climate change plan, which is a mix of the expected – carbon taxation – and the less expected – a hard cap on oil sands emissions.
Understandably, people are looking for a way out. Opposition Wildrose energy critic and MLA Leela Aheer fairly recently introduced a private member’s bill that makes provisions for the recall of members of the legislature. The idea behind recall legislation generally is simple: 1) a petition is initiated to call a by-election in a given constituency and 2) if the petition crosses a certain threshold of support from eligible constituents, then the incumbent is compelled to stand for re-election. Put simply, recall legislation is a do-over. It allows for the possibility of a change of representatives before term expiration. The most dramatic example of a successful recall election was the 2003 California gubernatorial election, where former Governor Schwarzenegger defeated then-Governor Gray Davis in a landslide. In Canada, only BC has provisions for electoral recalls.
Recall legislation is a great idea. Alberta, a province governed by the NDP since May, voted overwhelmingly conservative in the federal elections in October. Sufficient popular support for recall provisions could very well exist; social media agitation for it appears to be picking up steam. But the cards are simply stacked against it. As a preliminary matter, debate is required. Ms. Aheer’s bill is a good place to start. But further debate would be warranted on the details. What should the threshold be? How should constituencies be defined? Should it be narrowed only to individual ridings or should the recall apply province-wide? The proposed bill favours the former, and there are pros and cons to each. But there is simply no forum to debate the matter. After all, the government has to vote on legislation to authorize recall elections. The NDP currently has a majority. If the assumption is that it is so unpopular that it would never survive re-election, there is no reason to think that the government would so endanger itself. Governments are in the business of self-perpetuation, not suicide. And that should underline how unlikely it is that this proposal will gain traction. It is simply so far down the agenda that it will never get the debate necessary to give it form, let alone win the votes necessary to enact it as law.
This is why concerned voters’ energy is best directed elsewhere, although voter discontent is certainly a very real issue.
After all, the government’s climate change plan is now a known quantity, mostly. Only mostly because the plan had some surprises and also because it leaves some nagging details to be resolved. Everyone expected the $30 per tonne carbon tax, but the hard cap on greenhouse gas emissions (GhG) for the oil sands was surprising. Indeed, by all appearances, this measure was adopted by the government of its own accord; the climate change panel did not make such a recommendation. As it stands, the emissions cap is a performance standard whereby oil sands GhG emissions are capped at 100 megatonnes (Mt) per year. Current annual emissions are at 70 Mt. According to an analyst at RBC Dominion Securities, this cap should leave room for around 1 million barrels of additional daily production growth, assuming current emission levels. Optimistically, oil sands growth could be above that if the stated aims of the performance standards are met, i.e. lowered carbon intensity. Truthfully, oil sands are very expensive to develop with fairly long payouts, so the more likely result is a lower rate of growth and capital diverted elsewhere. And because the cap is industry-wide, it is unclear which players will shoulder the responsibility for restraining project growth.
Either way, the oil sands – and Alberta – will bear a disproportionate amount of the burdens to be levied in the current climate change conference. According to FirstEnergy, while the oil sands account for only 8.5% and 0.15% of Canadian and global GhG emissions, it appears that the diffuse nature of GhG emission sources – practically every human activity contributes an incremental amount – means that the world requires a convenient scapegoat. Thus, Albertans are to be singled out and penalized for something in which everyone has had a hand.
Add the royalty rate hikes expected next year and the government’s puzzling decision to force poorly-designed workplace regulations on family farms – without adequate consultation – and you have a recipe for growing voter anxiety and discontent. Given the government’s propensity to issue soothing reassurances to concerned stakeholders before going ahead with its policies anyway, it should not be shocking that many voters want out.
That is why Ms. Aheer’s recall bill is getting so much attention, even if it will never leave the starting gate.