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Alberta's throne speech was an exercise in contradictions

In the Westminster model of constitutional democracy, the speech from the throne has two official functions: to symbolize the opening of the parliament or legislature via a representative of the monarch, and to present the government’s anticipated themes and objectives for the forthcoming legislative session. As such, it might seem to be little more than an appetizer for the main course to follow, the budget.

But the throne speech serves another purpose: it is a direct intervention into the political discourse, intended to shape and influence how we, the voting public, view the political challenges of the present, and how we respond to them. The language of the speech—what is said and how, as well as what is not said—are powerful tools in the wider war that is politics.

The choice of words or a slip of the tongue can vastly change the meaning of what is said: for example, when Lieutenant Governor Lois Mitchell misread the statement on rural crime as the government’s pledge to "protect people with property," rather than the scripted "protect people and property." Such subtleties matter, especially in a speech such as this one, in which the government was not just setting out its legislative agenda, but actively attempting to rebrand, reposition, and reframe.

For a government dogged by the conflict between principle and pragmatism, this throne speech epitomizes the contradictions at the heart of its current agenda.

Women’s Day, man’s economy

Delivered on March 8, International Women’s Day, casual observers might be forgiven for assuming that gender equity would be a central focus of the speech, perhaps building on the gender-based analysis of the recent federal budget which, pundits were quick to point out, used the word "gender" 358 times.

In contrast, the Alberta throne speech did not emphasize gender at all: aside from opening with a few token examples of inspiring Albertan women (some of whom remain problematic for other reasons), there were few substantive initiatives to address the challenges faced primarily by women in this province. Those that were highlighted—the continued gradual expansion of the $25 per day childcare pilot and increased investment in support services for survivors of sexual assault and harassment—are significant and laudable. Yet there remains a contradiction between the government’s previously demonstrated priority of achieving gender parity and gender equity in positions of leadership, and the lack of emphasis placed on tangible efforts to redress the gendered imbalance of Alberta’s economy.

Instead, the speech invested heavily in that most masculine of images, the almighty pipeline.

Pipelines and "diversification"

The necessity of "ensuring Canadian tidewater access for Alberta energy" has been a common refrain for this government since it took office in 2015, and the throne speech took the rhetoric to bellicose levels. Juxtaposed to boasts about Alberta’s climate leadership, the myth of the pipeline continues to trump the realities of climate change.

To play word bingo with the speech, eight direct and another dozen indirect mentions of that troublesome trail of pipe are contained within the text."Diversify," however, comes in with 19 distinct hits.

Herein lays a perplexing contradiction: since the price of oil began its inexorable slide below $29 US/barrel in 2015, Albertans have known that we must diversify our economy. The only alternative to getting off the "resource royalty roller-coaster" is the old PC party standby of hoping and praying for another boom. And yet, after three years of talking about diversification, the flagship legislation of this legislative session is to be centered around diversifying … the fossil fuel sector.

Bill 1, the Energy Diversification Act, essentially doubles down on fossil fuels by incentivizing investment in petroleum upgrading. Based on the recommendations of the Energy Diversification Advisory Committee, $1 billion in subsidies and loans for partial upgrading were announced on February 26. Bill 2, the Growth and Diversification Act, professes to address diversification across the economy through tax credits, education and training subsidies, but is mainly limited to the tech sector and digital media. Bill 3 will "focus on laying the groundwork for new renewable energy jobs and an electricity system with more stable prices"—a sideways reference to the Wild West that ensued when former premier Ralph Klein deregulated the electricity market.

The wine wars

The speech was not only heavily invested in the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, it was couched in increasingly aggressive and antagonistic rhetoric that serves to frame the dispute as a bitterly fought battle: "The dispute British Columbia triggered with its attack on Canadian workers will not stand. We won’t let it."

Rather than resolute, such discourse risks painting Alberta as intransigent, and plays on the belief of Alberta exceptionalism that has led to renewed calls for cutting off the oil to our fellow provinces, reneging on transfer payments, and striking out as an independent state—proposals that, while popular in the Klein years, are neither feasible nor reasonable.

Declaring that "A new Canadian pipeline to the Canadian coast must be built"—not the BC coast—denotes a sense of national ownership and discursively strips BC of its right to protect the lands and waters within its jurisdiction. At the same time, it casts BC as the party not working for the best interests of Canada as a whole.

But the speech's rhetoric went even further: "Some people have asked how far we are willing to go. Today, we reaffirm we will do whatever it takes."

"Whatever it takes" can be a dangerous carte blanche to write.

Indigenous rights versus the fossil fuel industry

"Whatever it takes" directly and defiantly conflicts with the government’s professed respect for the principles of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). Stating that "we made a government-wide commitment to make sure that the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was respected in all policy deliberations" does not reflect a full concession of the rights of Indigenous peoples to free, prior, and informed consent (as per UNDRIP Article 19) over decisions that impact their land, livelihoods, and well-being. These rights may be endorsed in principle by the provincial government, but it is worth noting that Alberta has not actually implemented UNDRIP, as doing so would impose potentially onerous obligations on the government, especially if they get in the way of pipelines. Corporate Mapping Project co-investigator Angele Alook suggests that this selective interpretation of Indigenous rights conflicts with the government’s commitment to a fully realized process of reconciliation.

Alook also highlights the jarring contradiction of opening the speech with an acknowledgment that the legislature sits on Treaty 6 territory while closing with the colonialist symbolism of "God Save the Queen." It is not just symbolism, she points out, as much of the speech reiterates a colonialist mindset in its repeated claims of ownership to "Alberta’s resources"—resources that are meant to be shared under the treaties. Furthermore, under Article 32 of UNDRIP, "Indigenous peoples have the right to determine and develop priorities and strategies for the development or use of their lands or territories and other resources. … States shall provide effective mechanisms for just and fair redress for any such activities, and appropriate measures shall be taken to mitigate adverse environmental, economic, social, cultural or spiritual impact." This balance of Indigenous rights and state responsibilities over land use and resources is also reflected in Articles 26–29 of the declaration.

Protecting public services on the path to balance

In line with the NDP’s continued emphasis on avoiding brutal cuts to essential services during the downturn, the speech reaffirmed the government’s intention to protect public services, while continuing wage freezes for teachers, nurses, paramedics, and other auxiliary medical staff. The throne speech explicitly ties the quality of those services to the unimpeded success of the oil industry, stating that since the crash, "Billions of dollars for schools, hospitals and public services have evaporated, thousands of good jobs have been tossed aside, and money that should be in the pockets of working Canadians has been redirected south of our border."

The government’s efforts to reduce income inequality stand in sharp contrast to the not-so-subtle foreshadowing of "compassionate belt-tightening" purportedly required to reduce the deficit. There is no hint of addressing the revenue shortage faced by our province. Instead, while providing stable and predictable funding for services (with no guarantee that this will be sufficient to meet growth and inflation needs), the government reiterated that it is "committed to making sure taxes on people and businesses remain the lowest in Canada."

The fabled Alberta Advantage has already become a disadvantage if it means our only options are cuts or crossed fingers.

Unity versus factionalism

Underpinning it all was the government’s repeated invocation of unity among Albertans, which appeared a half-dozen times in the speech.

The repeated emphasis on unity, as one learns from studies of political conflict, is often a projection of a divided polity, a fear of fracture and factionalism. Beneath the assertion that "Albertans are united," those who oppose pipelines, or the expansion of the oil sands, or the continued pandering to the fossil fuel industry, or those protesting the elision of Indigenous rights, are written out of the picture. There is "us" and "them," and as that paragon of unity, former US president George W. Bush famously proclaimed, "You're either with us or against us." When we are truly united in purpose, we don’t need to enforce our unity.

The jingoism and flag-waving are, on the surface, part of a strategy of stealing from the traditional conservative playbook to mobilize the "Alberta Strong" contingent and thereby undermine the United Conservative Party’s ability to do so first. It is also necessary to forestall opponents, and paint them as "those who want us to fail." In this speech, it appears it is more than a tactical strategy, it is a full-scale rebranding of the Alberta NDP intended to cast the party as the staunch defenders of Alberta’s interests:

Let no one in this chamber, this province or this country cheer for Alberta to fail.

We must stand united in defence of our collective security and well-being.

Together, we will get a pipeline built to the coast.

Together, we will diversify our export markets.

Together, we will unleash the potential of this province and its people.

Yet, as evidenced by the rest of the speech, Alberta’s interests are narrowly defined as oil’s interests. And in that sense, the NDP isn't so very different from its political predecessors. As political commentator David Climenhaga pointed out in his blog, "Conservatives and New Democrats alike will probably take issue with me on this, but this was, in philosophy and concept, a good, traditional progressive conservative Throne Speech." Here, the "progressive" and "conservative" are more at war with each other than, say, two provinces fighting over a pipeline.

The contradictions inherent in the 2018 speech from the throne are not rooted in hypocrisy. They are an attempt by the government to square the impossible circles (some they have been handed and some they have created): environment versus energy versus economy; equity versus austerity; the desire to lead on climate change action and reconciliation versus the inertia of the status quo; the right to diversity versus the dangers of dissent. Yet, if Alberta is to be truly defined by "courage, resilience, generosity, and openness," the first and biggest step may mean refusing to be defined by the size of our pipelines.

Rebecca Graff-McRae

Rebecca Graff-McRae completed her undergraduate and doctoral studies at Queen’s University Belfast (PhD Irish Politics, 2006). Her work, which interrogates the role of memory and commemoration in post-conflict transition, has evolved through a Faculty of Arts fellowship at Memorial University Newfoundland and a SSHRC post-doctoral research fellowship at the University of Alberta. She has previously worked with the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland and Edmonton City Council.

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