Conservative politicians stoke Western alienation to deflect attention from their failures

Feature | by Gregory Beatty

Got your Wexit membership yet? I know I’m certainly saving up my cereal boxtops so I can send away for mine. Hope it comes with a decoder ring!

All kidding aside, Wexit is just the latest spasm in conservatism’s ongoing crisis in Canada and around the world. From the U.K.’s Brexit troubles to impeachment hearings in the United States, Conservative politics is now synonymous with scandals, chaos, anger and general dysfunction.

In Canada, Conservatism seems to be walking a tightrope between incompetence and misconduct — just look at Conservative leader Andrew Scheer’s embarrassing “missed empty net” in the recent federal election, or Alberta Premier Jason Kenney firing the election commissioner who’s been investigating his United Conservatives for shenanigans in the party’s 2017 leadership race (which Kenney won).

Right now, Wexit is a fringe movement. But it’s a fringe movement that, through the Yellow Vesters, United We Roll and other recent western protests, has ties to the Scott Moe and Jason Kenney governments in Saskatchewan and Alberta. And with their bellicose rhetoric toward the re-elected Liberal government, it’s arguable Moe and Kenney are fanning the flames of Wexit anger.

The two Western premiers were quick out of the gate following the Conservative’s Oct. 21 election defeat, sending sanctimonious letters to the prime minister full of unreasonable demands — including optouts for the federal carbon tax, a non-starter.”.

“The letter Moe sent to Justin Trudeau was absurd,” says University of Saskatchewan political scientist Charles Smith. “He basically demanded that Trudeau adopt Andrew Scheer’s policy platform. It was never about Trudeau doing that. Instead, Moe was throwing down the gauntlet to his base about standing up for Saskatchewan.

“Kenney’s line was that the left doesn’t get to rule, so essentially anyone who didn’t vote Conservative was illegitimate,” says Smith. “There was no policy statement, it was just partisan politics.”

Strong-arm Tactics

With the federal Liberals having signalled a willingness to work with Saskatchewan and Alberta to find common ground, Simon Enoch, Saskatchewan director of Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, is curious whether Kenney and Moe will be able to extract any concessions.

“It looks like they might,” he says. “But if Trudeau does agree to renegotiate equalization or make Bill C-69 not as robust with environmental assessment, it tells them this is the way forward and they need to use the most heated and polarizing rhetoric. I’d be very wary of that becoming a precedent.”

Since Alberta and Saskatchewan only have 48 seats in a 338-seat Parliament, it’s debatable how far the Liberals will be willing (or able) to bend.

“The Liberals have to be careful about their own backyard,” says Smith. “They’re not going to try to appease the west where they’ve never been popular, and then alienate their base in Ontario.”

Of course, there’s more than federal politics in play. In Saskatchewan, the Moe government has a date with the electorate next October. And after 13 years in power, highlighted by scandals and bungled files that have cost the province billions, the Saskatchewan Party seems increasingly tired and out of touch.

As for Kenney in Alberta, he’s busy pushing a social conservative agenda and slashing funding to public schools, universities, hospitals, libraries, arts groups, municipalities and more.

What better way for both governments to rally support and divert attention from their own shortcomings than by tag-teaming to try to beat-up the Liberals?

It’s an old adage in provincial politics, says Smith, that when your domestic agenda is weak you campaign against Ottawa.

“That can work,” he says. “But it can also backfire. It will likely work for Moe in 2020 because it plays to his base, and right now rural Saskatchewan is firmly in the driver’s seat.

“But what does that mean when schools are crumbling, when university tuition keeps going up, and when infrastructure needs aren’t met?” Smith says. “The domestic agenda has to matter too, and right now that’s where the Sask. Party is vulnerable.”

Regardless of short-term political gains, Moe and Kenney are playing a dangerous game, says Enoch.

“There’s a danger those flames can go out of control. The very last thing they want is western separation,” he says. “But right now, it serves their narrative and political interests to say, ‘Look how alienated the west is and you better bow to our demands or there’s going to be even more fury.’”

Reverse Alienation?

While the term “Western alienation” gets bandied about in media, it’s telling, says Smith, that the anger is concentrated in Alberta and Saskatchewan, with B.C. and Manitoba much more balanced in their political outlook.

“That suggests it’s tied to a specific industry, oil, which dominates the political agenda here like no other place in Canada,” says Smith. “So it’s not really about western alienation, It’s more oil alienation. Conservatives — both provincially and federally — are talking about old economies at a time when the world economy is moving in a different direction. And they’re not willing to adapt. In the short-term, I don’t see any real challenge to the conservative hegemony. But long-term, that attitude is going to pose real challenges for Alberta and Saskatchewan.”

Unless Moe and Kenney revise their thinking on climate change and the environment, Ottawa won’t end up being their only foe, Enoch predicts. “The rest of Canada could say, ‘Why are we making this effort and you’re not doing anything?’ You could turn the alienation argument around and say ‘When are Saskatchewan and Alberta going to get onboard with the rest of the country? Why should we continue these good faith efforts when you guys are just going to wipe them out?’”

The fallout might not be limited to Canada either, says Enoch.

“It’s already been floated by the European Union that they’re going to start considering carbon content in imports. So what happens when Ontario manufacturers try to get products into the European market and the EU slaps on a big tariff because emissions are so high in Saskatchewan and Alberta?

“It’s hypothetical now, but we might start being punished for our lack of progress on climate change,” says Enoch. “If that happens, you’re going to see a lot of animosity.”

While countries around the world are transitioning away from fossil fuels, the Moe and Kenney governments are doubling down. And that short-sighted strategy is starting to cause real economic harm to both provinces.

The Moe government whines incessantly about the challenges of transitioning away from fossil fuels, yet it blew an opportunity to sign on to a federal plan in 2018 that would’ve provided $62 million for emission-reduction programs. And they’re running around litigating every carbon tax challenge they can find, running up millions in legal bills in what will surely be a failed quest to have the tax declared unconstitutional.

With a carbon tax challenge of his own, a $30 million war room to promote fossil fuels and deny climate change, and a recent $4.5 billion corporate tax cut, Kenney has gone all-in in a last-ditch effort to develop Alberta’s tarsands. So far though, he’s come up mostly empty.

In late October, Husky Energy announced a major curtailment of its Alberta operations, laying off hundreds of workers at its Calgary headquarters. “If I’m Kenney, I’d be so embarrassed by that response,” says Smith. “‘Thanks for a couple of hundred million in tax cuts Jason. But the world market is changing, and we’re moving away from labour intensive oil extraction. We’ll be sure to reward our executives and shareholders though.’”

At the same time, the Moe and Kenney governments seem intent on knee-capping the burgeoning green energy sector and restricting opportunities for sustainable 21st-century industries based on knowledge, creativity and innovation.

Will Saskatchewan and Alberta voters buy it? Perhaps. But voters in the rest of Canada won’t.

Where does that leave Saskatchewan and Alberta, not to mention the federal Conservatives, with Scheer inextricably linked to Moe and Kenney via the infamous “Meet the Resistance” Macleans cover last November?

Yep, I really hope my Wexit membership comes with a decoder ring.