Tuesday, 23 October 2012

The Lougheed Legacy: Christy Clark, and a Divided and Uncompetitive Nation

The Lougheed Legacy: Christy Clark, and a Divided and Uncompetitive Nation

 You will note that I did not make this post at the time of Peter Lougheed’s death and the celebrations of his life.  People who knew him seemed to feel he was a good man.  I’m hardly here to dispute that—never met the man.  However, he was in a responsible public position for a long time, so it’s fair to take a clear-eyed view of elements of his record, rather than resorting to the self-congratulatory hagiography of most commentators.

 The process of decentralizing Canada, the acceleration of “executive federalism” in Canada after WWII, is well known.  As we know, while America began with a constitution designed to limit federal powers, Canada began with a constitution designed to ensure a strong national government.  As history has played out, America has seen more power gravitate to Washington, and Canada has seen power diffuse into the provinces. 

In terms of the diffusion, or rather, dissolution of federal powers in Canada, Lougheed played a key role.  We don’t really have to revisit the controversies of the National Energy Program (NEP—or do we, I would read what anyone has to say), but it’s fair to say that Pierre Trudeau, as a national leader, wanted to have national programs.  That meant that if Canada had resource wealth, Canada should benefit from it first.  Lougheed, with an eye on his own electorate, wanted to ensure that he was seen as a defender of Alberta against Ottawa, even if it meant selling out to Houston first.  Thus the “blue-eyed sheikh.”

Today, Christy Clark has been arguing that, if Alberta wants to build a pipeline, then British Columbia better get a huge share of any economic benefits that flow from the oil flowing from an Alberta pipeline.  Alberta premier Alison Redford more or less scoffed at such a notion, saying that that was not how Canada worked, that the constitution of the country would have to be rewritten before Clark’s demands could be entertained.  Who have we to thank for this?  Peter Lougheed.  For the balkanized confederation we now inhabit, Peter Lougheed bears striking responsibility.  Grandstanding against the feds became a key, if not the sole, way that premiers could justify themselves to their own electorates.  So we had Clyde Wells sinking Meech Lake, which might have brought Quebec into the confederation in a definitive way, Danny Williams, a hard-right hockey lover like Stephen Harper, lowering the Canadian flag at public buildings.  And Christy Clark essentially saying ‘no pipeline unless we get a huge chunk of the revenues.’  Peter Lougheed’s chickens have come home to roost.  Stephen Harper, who advocated a “firewall around Alberta” in a past life, won’t even meet with the premiers anymore.  Clark wants to cut a deal that, she generously allows, would involve British Columbia, Alberta, and the federal government in negotiations.  No mention of several territories and eight other provinces and what they might think about affairs of the “nation.”

And besides, has anyone who might read this ever actually been to a place such as Edmonton (no, no, not the Lougheed mansion in downtown Calgary--and also, anywhere else in the world—that, I’m sure you have)?  For all the wealth that has streamed out of Alberta (and Canada—many did say Peter Lougheed was a “great Canadian,” but I couldn’t gauge the level of irony), to the United States and China and Japan and innumerable countries, has anyone ever actually seen Edmonton?  The streets of Edmonton should be paved with gold.  Not just in theory, but in practice, Edmonton should be home to the grandest opera houses, the most immaculate churches, the most stunning public edifices, the most tended parks—basically that the world knows.    

Not very long ago at all, the West Texas Intermediate wallowed around $15/barrel; now it’s $90+.  And oil companies, and Alberta, still can’t find a way to profit enough?  I think there is an answer to that: the oil companies have.  But they don’t live in Alberta, and they sure don’t live in Canada.

 We keep hearing the boasts about how much oil Alberta has relative to other countries, but at least Arabs can build a skyscraper, and impoverished countries with 1/1000th of Alberta’s budget can be magnets for people from all around the world because they have found a way to develop and maintain their legacies and emblems thereof.  Edmonton?  Oh dear, oh dear.  Coming back to the theory/practice theme, I won’t even go there.  (Unless I want to find a pawn shop or payday loan franchise or liquor store within 20 sq. ft. on virtually any point of the compass that I should choose to stand and look out from.)

Pipelines happen.  They exist.  They’ll keep existing.  Interestingly, a few voices, even Conservative ones, have recently suggested that building a pipeline to eastern Canada might not be such a bad idea.  You know, jobs, access to eastern seaports, oil refining in central Canada, etc.  Hm.  Turns out Trudeau wasn’t such a wild-eyed communist after all.  For those really, really way out there, there have actually been businesspeople who’ve suggested doing oil refining right on the west coast, and keeping jobs and upgrading revenues right here in Canada (!!).  Predictably, such notions were quickly shot down by Conservative politicians, who argued that other nations had so much refining capacity, and that refining capacity costs so much to get going in the first place, and returns on it are so small, that we should never ever consider such a scheme in the first place.  Rather, just get that dirty crude on tankers and off our shores as fast possible, like cattle through an XL plant.  So much for secondary industry.  So much for Canadian companies.  So much for “knowledge jobs”—jobs that would attract people from around the world and Canada’s own university graduates to stay here and make Canada an energy world leader.  For short-term gain and long-term pain, best just to sell out to China.  Who knows what the next 10, 20, 30 years will bring—but who cares—let’s rip and run with the tar sands while we’ve got them, and when the Americans and Chinese and Norwegians and Japanese and French and British and who knows who else intriguing in the tar pits have gone, we can look up at them with teary dirty faces and ask if they can’t give us a crust.  This, this is the Lougheed legacy.  If Canadians can’t refine oil in Canada—which was ultimately what Lougheed was saying by pre-paraphrasing Ralph Klein saying let the “eastern bums and creeps” freeze in the dark—then how come other countries could and can?  Mini-minds like John Ibbitson have recently swooned before Tory handlers who told him that Canada has to stand back and pause and figure out how to deal with “state capitalism” such as that of Indonesia.  Er, Virginia, anyone?  Does anyone really think that, when deciding who to source rivets and panels for a U.S. Navy ship from, the U.S. actually thinks, ‘well, gee, we better get the Chinese to do that’?  No, Americans have a country, and they do it themselves.

In most advanced countries, it’s a knock-down dead-straight self-evident no-brainer that you take care of your own country first.  You build up and from within.  Yes, Norway again—can you imagine Norwegians, whose version of the Heritage Fund dwarfs that of Alberta by multiples even theoretical mathematicians can barely glimpse (again, the Lougheed legacy) saying “oh, well, we can’t possibly refine or develop anything—we just have to sell it off as fast as possible to everyone else so that we can maintain an illusion of fiscal solvency while we stupidly cut taxes like the GST”? Even the Conservatives, when they want to buy 35-billion-dollar jets, at least insist that a sop has to go to Canadian companies to build, what, fabric seats for the jets?  Why do we not think this way when it comes to our “natural resources”?

So.  The Lougheed legacy.  A country so divided that its national leader won’t even speak with its provincial leaders (the U.S. looks like Woodstock, by comparison), premiers increasingly and really quite astonishingly trying to set up their own countries-within-a- country in order to stay elected, and a primitive, uncompetitive nation incapable of engaging in a world economy.  That’s the Lougheed legacy.


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