Alberta Premier Jason Kenney spent 2019 like he's spent much of his political career: on the attack.
In October, with its first budget, the UCP began its long-expected assault on the public sector, with cuts to universities and education at the same time big businesses got a corporate tax cut. Public sector unions are bracing for thousands of job cuts in the coming years, mostly in health care.
Kenney campaigned on three words: jobs, economy, pipelines. The NDP caused Alberta's economic woes, he said. The UCP would fix them.
It has yet to happen, and critics on both the left and the right agree it likely won't.
“I would characterize this era as a kind of massive fraud that’s being perpetuated on the people of Alberta,” said Alvin Finkel, a historian who has written at length about Alberta’s political past.
“You have a government that was essentially elected to fight the federal government, and the world, to try and preserve the oil and gas industry—which is not going to last.”
“The world is going in another direction.”
Alberta risks being left behind as its new government jabs everyone from tech startups to organizers of the X-Games in the eye. Under Kenney, Alberta is doubling down, a changing world be damned.
"I heard for two years, as executive director of the PCs, 'Unite, defeat the NDP,'" said Troy Wason, a political consultant and veteran of Alberta's now-defunct Progressive Conservative party, which merged with the Wildrose Party in 2017 to form the UCP. "Great four-word slogan, but that hasn't solved the problems. Defeating the NDP wasn't the magic bullet that just saved everything."
"So now you're in the serious business of applying policies, and the policy seems to be: cut as much as possible quickly."
And then what?
"That's where I think the problem is going to lie," said Wason, who quit as PC executive director immediately after Kenney won the party leadership in 2017.
Modest economic recovery is expected in 2020, but nothing like the oil booms of old. And the UCP, like the NDP before it, is steering clear of a provincial sales tax, even though it's been widely recommended across the political spectrum.
"If the jobs don't come back, the revenue doesn't come back," said Wason. "But there have been a lot of people that lost jobs. People have been affected in their day-to-day lives."
"Albertans will give you a certain bit of a honeymoon, but that honeymoon already seems to be a little bit gone," he added, referring to Kenney's low post-budget approval rating.
Defeating the NDP wasn’t the magic bullet that just saved everything.
'Enemies of the state'
Since becoming premier, Kenney has directly attacked his critics in ways both casual and formal, casting them as un-Albertan. In 2019, Kenney launched two official efforts to quell dissent: an inquiry into funding of organizations that are critical of Alberta's oil industry, and a state "war room," posing as a newsroom, that purports to "tell the truth" about Canadian fossil fuels.
But Kenney's propagandists don't even tell the truth about themselves. As the Globe and Mail revealed this week, staff at the Canadian Energy Centre have been conducting interviews posing as news reporters, obscuring their true function as Kenney's PR machine.
And while the $30-million war room has been embroiled in a comical scandal over its logo, the threats to democracy and freedom of expression in Alberta are less funny.
"There's a clear McCarthyism in what this government is doing," said Finkel, referring to the 1950s-era U.S. senator, Joe McCarthy, who villainized countless Americans by branding them as communist traitors.
"I think the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is being attacked."
There’s a clear McCarthyism in what this government is doing.
Numerous organizations, including Amnesty International and the Edmonton-based Muttart Foundation, have sounded similar alarms, warning that the Kenney government's actions are threatening democracy.
Amnesty said in September that Kenney's "fight back strategy," including the war room and inquiry, could not only undermine human rights, but worsen a "climate of hostility towards human rights defenders—particularly Indigenous, women, and environmental human rights defenders—exposing them to intimidation and threats, including threats of violence."
Similar red flags were raised this week in an article by the executive director of the Alberta Civil Liberties Research Centre, Linda McKay-Panos, and University of Calgary law professor Jennifer Koshan.
They warn that the government's efforts to quell criticism are having "chilling effects" on expression in Alberta, and that the government is overstepping its bounds.
"At the end of the day, we believe there are strong arguments that the Alberta Inquiry unjustifiably violates the freedom of expression of the Canadian organizations it is aimed at as well as those associated with such organizations, including their members and supporters," they write.
Melanee Thomas, a political science professor at the University of Calgary, echoes these concerns.
"This is not a government that, I think, takes seriously representing all Albertans as Albertans," she said.
"That's going to sound harsh, and I'm probably going to get some blowback about that. But I stand by that because of how we're seeing messaging about the public sector and how we're seeing messaging about individuals—private individuals—who are critical of what the government is doing to the public sector."
"The hostility towards the public sector is huge. And it's transitioning to hostility towards anybody who expresses any kind of hesitation with the plan.... It's marking regular folks as enemies of the state, effectively."
This is not a government that, I think, takes seriously representing all Albertans as Albertans.
In November, Kenney derided Thomas, who has been vocally critical of the new government, as an "NDP candidate" in the legislature because she ran for the federal party in 2004, when she was in her early 20s. In response, more than 600 academics across Canada signed an open letter condemning Kenney's comments.
Thomas says the Kenney government is intent on discrediting all critical voices.
"It’s not democratic. It reminds me of the Stasi," Thomas said, referring to the East German secret police that surveilled citizens during the Cold War. "And I cannot believe I’m saying this about politics in my own country, seriously."
"But it is very much designed to say: we’re going to pervert a democratic principle to make people who would be otherwise vocal critics fearful of the consequences of speaking up."
The premier's office did not respond to interview requests for this story.
Echoes of the 1930s and 1990s
Amid all of this, the UCP has yet to turn Alberta's economy around. Like Rachel Notley before him, Kenney has no power over the global economy. Alberta lost 18,000 jobs in November, according to Statistics Canada.
"Jobs are not coming back to the oil patch as he promised," said Liberal leader David Khan, whose party was shut out in the 2019 election, leaving the UCP and NDP as the only parties standing in the legislature. "And I think that’s just a product of him making all sorts of promises he simply can’t keep."
Finkel sees parallels between the present situation and the 1930s, when William "Bible Bill" Aberhart's Social Credit party came to power in Alberta. Aberhart, a radio preacher, tried to quash dissent and control the press with his 1937 Accurate News and Information Act, which was opposed by Alberta's newspapers—winning them a Pulitzer Prize—and ultimately deemed unconstitutional.
During the Great Depression, Aberhart railed against outside forces such as banks, proposing a new system wherein Alberta would solve its problems by printing its own cash.
"They promised an economic regime that no province can actually deliver,” said Finkel.
"They were lucky that a war came to their rescue and got rid of unemployment in the short term, and then oil came to their rescue afterwards—the discovery of oil at Leduc. So at a certain point, nobody even remembered that what Social Credit promised was to print money and give it to every family."
He also likens today's situation to the 1990s, when Premier Ralph Klein made his deep cuts to the public sector. "Suddenly, to be a teacher or a nurse or a professor or a doctor or a social worker was supposed to be a badge of shame," said Finkel.
Suddenly, to be a teacher or a nurse or a professor or a doctor or a social worker was supposed to be a badge of shame.
But Klein, like many an Alberta leader, was saved by the international market for oil and gas.
"That is almost certainly not going to happen for Jason Kenney," said Finkel.
Wason, the former PC party executive director, says he genuinely wishes the UCP government well. But he notes that while it's easy to come in and slash budgets, it's hard to figure out what to do after that—and even harder to catch up afterward, as the PCs learned.
"Bridges didn't get built; schools didn't get built," Wason recalled of the 1990s. "The infrastructure sort of had been let go for those years. So I get a sense that this is very reminiscent of it."
"One of the things that I learned over 35 years of being involved in politics is line items have people attached," added Wason. "And I think that's the thing they're going to find. Yes, you can do zero-based budgeting; it sounds like a really wonderful thing. But at the end of the day, every one of those line items has someone attached, whether it's education, whether it's health care, whether it's social services."
"Whatever it is always has people attached, and there will be people that will be hurt by it."
And history shows that when pushed hard enough, those people push back.
There is talk of a general strike in 2020, which could see Alberta workers across industries walk off the job in protest of Kenney's government.
"I think he's spoiling for a fight," said Finkel. "And he's going to get it."
Jeremy Klaszus is editor-in-chief of The Sprawl.
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