Alberta issues become wedge issues in 2019 federal election campaign
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, right, and Alberta Premier Jason Kenney make a campaign stop in Edmonton on Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
EDMONTON -- In the riding of Edmonton Millwoods, Amarjeet Sohi goes door-to-door explaining how his Liberal party is re-energizing Alberta's bedrock oil industry.
Meanwhile, rival Conservative candidate Tim Uppal goes door-to-door explaining how the Liberals are killing it.
It's a front line dichotomy that mirrors Alberta's quest to put petro-politics, and the value of its non-renewable resources, on the front burner of the federal election campaign.
Sohi, the federal minister for natural resources, is fighting Uppal for the second time in four years. In 2015 he edged out Uppal, a former minister of state under Stephen Harper, by just 92 votes.
Sohi says voters get it when he tells them that pipeline approvals, the Liberal government's purchase of the Trans Mountain expansion, and the passage of legislation such as Bill C-69, which overhauls the approval process for big projects, will prevent those projects from being stalled in the courts and boost energy development while protecting the environment.
"We fixed the broken process. That's what I communicate to people," says Sohi.
"And people get it. Albertans want good projects to move forward (while) at the same time they deeply care about the environment."
But Uppal says legislation like C-69, and the passage of a bill banning tanker traffic off the northern B.C. coast, are in fact strangling the industry and will make megaprojects difficult to get off the ground.
"A lot of people I'm talking to said well, yeah, they voted Liberal last time but they expected for them to stand up for Alberta. And they're just disappointed. They feel betrayed," Uppal says.
Alberta, under new United Conservative Premier Jason Kenney, is trying to leverage the heightened attention of a national election, to emphasize that a strong Alberta oil and gas industry boosts jobs across Canada, with higher equalization payments, spin off jobs and manufacturing work.
"No matter where you live, the Alberta economy needs to be a ballot question for you," Calgary Conservative candidate Michelle Rempel said in a video posted to social media last month.
"There are a lot of people on the doors that ask me, 'Do you really think the rest of the country cares about Alberta and our economy because it kind of feels like it doesn't."'
Calgary-based pollster Janet Brown says the answer appears to be that they don't.
"The top five issues of importance for Albertans don't overlap with the top five issues for other Canadians," says Brown.
"We're all about jobs, the economy, pipelines. But in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, it's the flip side. It's about affordability. It's not about, 'Let's get this economy moving.' It's about, 'How do I stay afloat in this booming economy?"'
Political scientist John Soroski say the polarization of the climate issue has challenged national parties trying to find middle ground between boosting the energy industry while going greener.
"There's a division that's becoming stronger, I think, between climate-oriented voters and people talking about the importance of economic development," says Soroski of MacEwan University in Edmonton.
Kenney and his government have done their part to sharpen that wedge.
Kenney has railed against high-profile eco-activists like Tzeporah Berman and is setting up an energy war room to fight perceived eco-funded lies damaging Alberta's core industry. When activists marched on the Alberta legislature last week to demand action on climate change, Kenney's communications staff silently provoked them by putting up "I love Canadian oil and gas" placards in office windows.
"Alberta issues do seem to be divisive issues or almost wedge issues," Brown says. "Parties are either for or against the pipeline, (while) everybody's for health care."
Within Alberta, experts say there is little division over the results come voting day on Oct. 21 in a 34-seat province that traditionally votes Conservative.
"Thirty-two seats minimum for the Conservatives," predicts political scientist Duane Bratt with Calgary's Mount Royal University.
"The Conservatives could potentially sweep Alberta," says political scientist Lori Williams, also with Mount Royal.
And if pipelines aren't resonating nationally, Brown says the Conservatives under Andrew Scheer can keep it a close race against Justin Trudeau's Liberals with those Alberta seats in their back pocket.
"Alberta's a big part of the math that makes the Conservatives competitive," she said.
Consider it Alberta's contribution: a close election and a policy wedgie.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 2, 2019.