Braid: Future of Alberta PC party looking a lot like its past

By Don Braid, Calgary Herald June 2, 2014

So far, the Progressive Conservative leadership race makes you wonder if anything new will ever happen around here.

Jim Prentice’s core policies, especially on finance, environment and energy, are pretty much Alison Redford’s policies.

His “new” stuff — cracking down on entitlement, etc. — is only what Albertans have deserved all along.

If restoring a 43-year-old government’s lost integrity is the best the PCs can offer, they’re cooked, no matter who wins this race.

Ric McIver, trolling for votes in the party’s deep end, says Archbishop Desmond Tutu is the latest in a string of “celebrities” who blast the industry without knowing what they’re talking about.

Calling Tutu a celebrity is like saying Mozart was a songwriter. The South African anti-apartheid icon — more like a demigod to millions, actually — is one of the most revered humans on the planet.

Tutu’s comment about the oilsands being world-threatening “filth” made Neil Young look like an industry lackey, to be sure.

Even the Fort Chipewyan First Nations chief, who was co-hosting Tutu, seemed uneasy with the archbishop’s cry to shut down the ’sands.

So, really, what was the percentage in an Alberta peanut like McIver taking on a world personality like Tutu? All that does is revive the old bozo image.

The question for these candidates isn’t what political angle they’ll take on the latest attack, but what they’ll do about the fundamental problems — the shattered reputation of the oilsands, and resulting failure to get new pipeline approvals.

The answer appears to be — not much.

Prentice wisely took a milder line on Tutu’s remarks, but his environmental promises have the same look as Redford’s; lots of windy talk about excellence, but not much action.

Prentice makes it absolutely clear what he won’t do, though.

He’ll take no action that doesn’t “harmonize” with measures from Ottawa or the United States. He’ll do nothing that hurts the industry’s competitive position.

Here it is in a nutshell, from the notes for a speech Prentice gave in Medicine Hat last week: “My government will support rigorous and beneficial environmental standards while ensuring the continued responsible expansion of the oilsands and our oil and gas industry.

“We won’t damage the competitiveness of our oil and gas industry by unilaterally imposing costs, carbon charges and regulations.

“Instead, we will work with the federal government and with the U.S. to build a greater advantage by harmonizing our environmental standards.”

That’s exactly what Redford and her ministers said. It amounts to a dreamland promise that Alberta can continue to develop unchecked with no special cost whatever.

But the oilsands industry is a special case. It always has been. For many years, projects were developed with special royalty and tax policies for them alone.

Now that their future might demand a special cost, though, the PC candidates are silent. Nobody wants to disturb Alberta’s sacred cows — the industry and growth.

One premier tried it. Ed Stelmach brought in the $15-per-tonne charge on extra greenhouse gas output by big emitters.

Although that took some courage, many economic experts always felt the levy was too low to be an incentive for change.

But Redford refused to raise the charge, using Ottawa’s foot-dragging and the unique nature of the levy as her excuse. Now the candidates for her job go right along with that.

Prentice’s fiscal line is also completely familiar. He wouldn’t borrow for government operations, but will incur debt for capital works. His savings policy is a bit more aggressive than Redford’s, but that’s the only distinction.

There have been a couple of interesting ideas. Thomas Lukaszuk, lifting one from Wildrose, wants an independent budget officer to oversee spending. Prentice shows more concern for property rights than any PC before him.

For the most part, though, the early race to be premier boils down to this: They’d do the same stuff, but without airplanes.

And Archbishop Tutu’s a celebrity.

Don Braid’s column appears regularly in the Herald

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