But, Premier Notley won a mandate from Albertans, and one would expect her NDP government to take steps to assure business leaders and ordinary citizens that it has a viable plan to manage Alberta’s economic woes. What is troubling is that it does not appear that the provincial NDP has moved beyond campaign mode.
This is exemplified in part by the NDP’s attack on the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER). Simply put, the government is seeking to split the AER into two separate bodies on the grounds that its apparent mandate to both promote and regulate industry is inconsistent. Further, the government argues that the AER cannot be trusted to perform its function objectively given that the AER Chair, Gerry Protti, has a background in the oil & gas industry.
The first claim is tenuous. According to the AER’s own website,“The [AER] ensures the safe, efficient, orderly, and environmentally responsible development of hydrocarbon resources over their entire life cycle.” That hardly amounts to a mandate to promote industry.
The second claim is more interesting. For a start, there is nothing strange about having industry insiders staffing government bodies. President Obama’s National Labor Relations Board – a government body set up to arbitrate disputes between management and organized labour – has substantial union representation, yet its objectivity remains largely intact. Such appointments make sense: Insiders provide valuable expertise. But more to the point, Premier Notley’s choice of target appears strange. Mr. Protti is the AER Chair and leads the board of directors. But neither the Chair nor the board have any involvement in day-to-day regulatory activities; that task belongs to the CEO. It is the CEO and the CEO’s agents who are responsible for the AER’s adjudicative decisions.
If Premier Notley were concerned about guaranteeing regulator objectivity, she would be relieved to find that such safeguards were already built into the AER. A split of the body would needlessly increase red tape and bureaucratic overhead. It is bad policy, but makes for excellent talking points in a heated election campaign.
Indeed, much of the NDP’s policies amount to little more than talking points. Take for example Premier Notley’s stance on pipelines. She ostensibly supports Kinder Morgan’s TransMountain as well as Energy East, but opposes Northern Gateway because she thinks “’It’s not going to go ahead.’” Yet she continues to support increased domestic refining, which even the Huff Post – hardly a bastion of anti-Notley opinion – considers impractical, given that the high upfront costs – a roughly $10 billion-range initial outlay per facility – do not even begin to stack up to the economic and infrastructure challenges to developing a refining industry on the scale the premier envisions. Never mind trying to figure out how the government plans to attract the necessary capital given the message that it sends potential investors with its unsupportive stance on pipeline projects. Taking her faith in refining at face value, it seems odd that Premier Notley is so pessimistic about Northern Gateway’s chances. It is worth noting, however, that her position on both refining and pipelines mirror that of the federal NDP.
Tom Mulcair’s own noncommittal answer regarding his support for TransMountain is both an illuminating and troubling indicator of the federal NDP’s stance on pipelines. Mr. Mulcair avoided giving a straight answer, and instead talked about “rigorous review” to determine if TransMountain is in “Canada’s Interest.” In short, the NDP has no real stance apart from the one that it thinks will turn off the least amount of voters. Premier Notley has certainly shown no willingness to deviate from this strategy.
Even outside the context of the oil & gas industry, the big picture suggests that Premier Notley’s NDP is very much focused on Mr. Mulcair’s election campaign. The Alberta NDP quietly postponed its vaunted student employment program. That hardly bodes well for the government’s more ambitious jobs program. That program is predicated on a tax credit system whereby government refunds 10 percent of a new employees’ salary to the employer, up to $50,000. Leaving aside the propriety of modern 21st century governments directly taking on the burden of job creation, the program will not do much to replace the many high-paying jobs lost in the oil & gas sector. But it does not need to be effective; the program’s value is chiefly electoral. In case there is any doubt, the minister in charge of developing and administering this jobs plan is campaigning for a federal NDP candidate in B.C.
Even more bemusing is the provincial government’s response to the Syrian refugee crisis: A pledge of up to $250,000. Germany’s projected €6 billion spending on refugees should put that piddling figure into perspective. Leaving aside the obvious jurisdictional issue, the provincial government’s commitment is a drop in the proverbial bucket, and cannot be anything other than the Alberta NDP’s desire to pander to its base and to appear proactive while the refugee crisis remains in the news cycle.
Actions speak louder than words, and the government’s actions, taken together, indicate that Premier Notley’s team is focusing its energy on helping Mr. Mulcair win the upcoming October 19 election, and not on protecting Albertans’ continued prosperity. Its statements lack substance and appear to be calculated to stir up segments of the NDP base. Despite the best hopes of the government’s supporters, its actions reek of pure political theater.
Premier Notley should take notice. The last provincial election saw Premier Notley’s NDP swept to power, but 53 percent of the popular vote still went to Alberta’s two right-leaning parties. That voters’ moods are liable to shift was amply demonstrated by the recent Wildrose by-election win in Calgary-Foothills. In May, the NDP finished second there with 32 percent of the vote; this time they captured a mere 25 percent of the vote, with right-leaning voters uniting behind the opposition Wildrose.
This is not to deny Premier Notley won the election. It is to point out that her mandate is to govern in the best interest of Albertans, not to subordinate those interests to the interests of the federal NDP. With Tervita, Penn West, and ConocoPhillips being the latest companies to announce layoffs, with only 13% of surveyed employers planning to hire for the remaining year, and with no end in sight for the downturn, the Alberta NDP should really ask itself if it wants to unleash the same forces that swept the PC’s from power.
– Petur Radevski, J.D., is a business development consultant in the oil & gas industry