To understand the cranky mood of Albertans in the spring of 2019, one small scene tells a big story.
Almost 1,000 people assembled mid-morning in downtown Calgary last week to protest federal Bill C-69 when Jason Kenney jumped out of his truck, was handed a bullhorn and scolded the forces trying to block pipelines and impede energy development.
The crowd responded viscerally, whistling and cheering his get-tough message.
“When I looked into the faces of the crowd when I was speaking, what I saw was a kind of sombreness and anxiety that is not typical of the optimistic Calgarian,” the United Conservative Party leader said in an interview.
“A lot of those people don’t know if they’re going to be the next ones to be laid off and unable to make their mortgage payment next month. I think there’s a deep sense of anxiety, but also being under siege.”
Throughout much of the 28-day provincial election campaign, Kenney channelled these feelings of frustration, exposing Alberta’s anxious psyche.
It worked, as the 50-year-old Calgarian won Tuesday’s election and will become Alberta’s 18th premier.
He gave voice to the front-line workers worried about their jobs, business owners troubled with the economic malaise and a province uncertain about its future.
Everywhere he spoke, Kenney hammered home his points on promoting jobs, the economy and pipelines.
“The background music for the election was economic anxiety,” said political analyst David Taras.
“He didn’t create the anger, but he certainly became a symbol of Alberta’s anger.”
Much of the business community has high hopes Kenney’s aggressive approach will reignite the economic fortunes of the province.
“It’s a TSN turning point for Alberta,” said Bob Geddes, president of Ensign Energy Services, one of the country’s largest oil and gas drillers.
“It gives us an opportunity to get back on track with the economy.”
The past several years have been marked by a brutal two-year recession, followed by a brief recovery that began to fizzle last fall amid declining oil prices.
Without enough pipeline capacity, the province mandated oil production limits to buttress the price of Alberta crude, something the new premier must skilfully wind down over the next year.
The unemployment rate sits at 6.9 per cent, and 172,000 people are without work.
“I personally don’t think we are in a recession yet, but we’re not far,” said economist Anupam Das of Mount Royal University.
On the campaign trail, Kenney framed the conversation around pocketbook issues, asking Albertans if they were better off today than they were four years ago.
For many, the answer was obvious.
“I feel like we’re living on top of a gold mine and we are out front of our house, asking for donations,” said Calgary businessman George Brookman, CEO of West Canadian Digital Imaging and a longtime conservative backer.
The incoming premier has an assertive agenda.
He’s pledged to institute a pro-energy strategy, slash government red tape, speed up regulatory approvals at the Alberta Energy Regulator, reverse the NDP’s oil-by-rail agreements and cut corporate taxes by one-third over four years.
His blueprint includes levelling much of the NDP’s climate plan by eliminating the carbon tax and removing the cap on greenhouse gas emissions from the oilsands.
He vows to freeze government spending and balance the books by 2022-23.
And then there’s the pipeline puzzle.
Kenney vows to fight for projects like Trans Mountain. But will adopting a tough stance with Ottawa compel it to expedite the pipeline’s expansion?
The former federal cabinet minister seems to relish the opportunity to drop the gloves with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, matching the mood of Albertans exasperated that other parts of the federation want to block energy infrastructure.
He threatens to turn off the fuel taps to British Columbia if its government obstructs pipeline progress, challenge Bill C-69 in court and battle environmental groups opposed to Alberta’s oil and gas resources.
One of the biggest problems in Alberta has been the decline in investment, which directly affects job creation.
Even with oil prices rising above US$60 a barrel recently, capital spending in the oilpatch — the largest private-sector investor in the country — is projected to fall by eight per cent this year, but industry supporters believe that will soon change.
“There is a belief that Jason Kenney will go to bat for Canadian energy and jobs,” said Whitecap Resources CEO Grant Fagerheim. “I think people will vote with their capital.”
Delivering on a pipeline will be key to unlocking future oilpatch spending, although the legal and regulatory levers on the file fall largely outside Alberta’s control.
“If we can finally see shovels in the ground on Trans Mountain, then that allows a number of other things to happen,” said Martha Hall Findlay, CEO of the Canada West Foundation.
Expectations are high for the new premier. The challenges for Alberta in a decarbonizing world are monumental.
The job ahead is formidable.
“He created a tower of expectation,” concluded Taras. “And he doesn’t have that long to deliver, because there is a sense of anxiety and deep despair in the province.”
Chris Varcoe is a Calgary Herald columnist.
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