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Jason Kenney’s winds of anger

This op-ed by Parkland Institute director Trevor Harrison appeared in the Lethbridge Herald on May 1, 2019.

The dominant narrative since Alberta’s election is that the New Democrats lost because their campaign was based on fear. There is undoubtedly some truth in this.

But the basis of the United Conservative Party’s victory should not be left unexamined. Some might think that its central theme was “hope.” And, again, hope was part of it.

But the UCP’s central theme throughout the campaign was not an uplifting Obama-like call to one’s better angels, but rather a Trump-like encouragement to populist anger. Jason Kenney re-emphasized and embellished this anger in his speech on election night.

Far from a victory speech, Kenney’s speech had an Old Testament quality; a stern tone of anger and vengeance to be visited upon Alberta’s enemies. Kenney quickly worked his supporters into a near frenzy with repeated promises to go after such, environmental organizations first among them. Many observers, this scribe included, found Kenney’s comments that night singling out these organizations for retribution, and the angry response of his followers, frightening, and frankly far too close to extremist parallels elsewhere, both recent and past.

Alberta has a long and sordid history of going after various groups – what former Premier Ralph Klein never failed to term “special interests,” among them (besides environmentalists), social activists, unionists, and academics. Defining the enemies without – e.g., Quebec, B.C., or Ottawa – is often matched with efforts to seek out the enemies within. Primed with dollops of conspiracy-laced Kool-Aid, Kenney’s supporters drank even more deeply on election night of the anger served up by Kenney.

Anger is not, in itself, a necessarily bad thing. There are many things we should be angry about: child poverty, pointless wars and – yes -global warming.

The anger and fear felt by thousands of unemployed Albertans or by others whose wages have been constrained is understandable. But one should always be certain – factually accurate – in who or what should be the cause of anger and measured in one’s response so that the problem is not made worse.

Much of Kenney’s campaign deliberately spread falsehoods regarding Alberta’s current financial difficulties and those of the oil sector in particular. Economists and others, from across the political spectrum, pointed out repeatedly these falsehoods. Equalization is not a theft of money from Alberta. The carbon tax is not a left-wing conspiracy. (It is, in fact, a policy endorsed by conservative economists and large oil companies.) And Alberta is not saddled with a crippling debt. (It has a debt-to-GDP level the envy of any other province in Canada and most national states).

On the issue of pipelines itself, the hold-up on their construction is not due to a cabal of environmental groups, whose funding is greatly dwarfed by that of oil companies. The idea that American environmental groups worked to lock in Canadian oil so that American oil companies would not face competition is loopy on the face of it.

The causes of a delay in getting pipelines built, which motivated many UCP supporters, are many: technical, jurisdictional, environmental and financial issues. There is also the Supreme Court-mandated need for broad consultation, especially with Indigenous peoples. For many Albertans, the process has seemed slow, too slow. But that’s how modern societies and economies function; indeed, it is how democracies work. Promises to make the trains run on time by merely snapping one’s fingers and cutting all regulations are the lifeblood of authoritarians and con men; see Donald Trump. And, in addition to being politically dangerous, such promises also too often miss the complexities of the real problem at hand.

Anger obscures the serious issues underlying Alberta’s recent elections, notably the province’s continued dependence on oil at a time when global forces – overproduction, slumping prices, and the growing prominence of other sources of energy – make that dependence even more problematic.

Both fear and anger, if unchecked, can have unintended and dangerous consequences. Having tied his promises so heavily to the winds of anger, will Kenney – and Alberta – now reap the whirlwind?

Trevor Harrison

Trevor W. Harrison is a professor of sociology at the University of Lethbridge and director of Parkland Institute, an Alberta-wide research organization, of which he was a founding member and first research director. Dr. Harrison is best known for his studies in political sociology, political economy and public policy. He is the author, co-author or co-editor of nine books, numerous journal articles, chapters, and reports, and a frequent contributor to public media, including radio and television.

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