The results of Alberta’s tumultuous election once again demonstrate how petrostates can shift political baselines.
And Monday night they shifted mightily in the bitumen-rich province and in this mining republic called Canada.
A radio show host who liberals dismissed as a wonky and shallow figure handily won a majority government despite conflicts of interest, a careless disregard for the rule of the law and a record of rhetorical outrageousness that would have slayed any politician 30 years ago.
But her revolutionary political party, which is neither united nor conservative, ran a slick and assured campaign. It also used the resources of the petrostate advantage to great effect.
History shows that the window for political change only opens in petrostates when oil prices collapse, depriving the state of its big spending habits. The Soviet Union, a major oil player, tellingly fell apart following a persistent drop in oil prices.
Oil revenue often supports long and careless rule. In Alberta it miraculously kept one party in power for 43 years until oil prices plummeted in 2015, putting thousands out of work and straining government coffers. That’s when the New Democrats surprised themselves and actually won power. Divisions among the right helped, but the oil price crisis truly exposed the rigidity and incompetence of a one-party state dependent on the world’s most volatile resource.
Now, Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has changed that entire dynamic again by driving up global oil prices.
Buoyed by the windfall, the United Conservative Party promised to Take Back Alberta with calls for freedom, affordability, public safety and low taxes.
The social contract of every petrostate is seductive: let us spend the oil loot to secure your loyalty and we’ll give you low taxes in return, thus breaking the bonds of representation from taxation. The Alberta election displayed the whole rotten drama with flair and then some.
Smith’s government used a massive 2023 budget, bloated by unearned oil revenues, to shower the electorate with the promises of services that it recently axed when oil prices were low.
In Canada’s new age of revolutionary politics it is getting harder and harder for the electorate to connect the dots between unfettered oil production, rampant wildfires and a government that mindlessly cuts wildfire programs when oil prices drop so it can recklessly spend on oil propaganda such as the Canadian Energy Centre.
‘Misinformation won over truth’
“Politics in Alberta are strange and they’ve gotten weirder and weirder,” says journalist Paul McLoughlin, who has wisely observed Alberta’s politics for 30 years. “Misinformation won over truth in this election.”
And he’s right about that. Though the New Democrats picked up more urban seats, the party didn’t really run an aspirational or daring campaign.
“The progressives have to admit they were outgunned in this election,” McLoughlin says.
They were outgunned because they lacked imagination and focused on Smith’s character, just as the media did.
Throughout the election journalists wondered just when and how Danielle Smith’s explosive comments as a radio host or leadership candidate would dislodge her campaign and explode the UCP.
An ebullient Smith has soft-pedalled Russia’s Putin, praised anti-vaxers, championed odd medicines, supported Donald Trump, advocated for Alberta sovereignty along with separate pensions and police, denied climate change, lionized oil and gas companies, and challenged the rule of law. In the eyes of some traditional conservatives, she was a dangerous outlier.
But most journalists failed to grasp, just like their U.S. peers, that right-wing populists are popular not despite, but because of, the bullshit they spew.
To many Alberta voters Smith’s imperfections seemed more genuine than the dry pablum coming from Canada’s other elites. What counts in a polarized society is the extremity and emotive power of what is being said, and the fact it is always changing. The internet not only prizes cycles of anger and anxiety but rewards them. And Smith, a consummate salesperson, knows and keeps that company. It is her outrageous currency.
Her wackiness serves another distinct purpose: it distracts Albertans from the real issues, which neither the UCP nor the NDP really want to debate. During the campaign the media virtually ignored every single critical issue facing Alberta’s dysfunctional petrostate, from climate change to royalties.
The government, for example, has no real plan to deal with $260 billion in unfunded liabilities in the form of abandoned pipelines, tailing ponds and uneconomic wells. (Smith, a former lobbyist for big business, has suggested that taxpayers fund the cleanup with reduced royalties — a totally corrupt proposition that rewards her oil and gas cronies.) If industry is allowed to dump these liabilities onto taxpayers, Alberta’s future could become a singular hell.
Meanwhile royalties remain outrageously low for bitumen compared to other oil exporting jurisdictions. That means foreign actors get to take home more money, leaving Albertans, the owner of the resource, with less and less. In fact, Albertans are actually seeing fewer jobs and benefits from oil and gas activity as the industry matures.
The government has no diversification plan to save for the rainy day when bitumen revenues and exports decline.
And no political party wants to talk about the government’s crazy boom-and-bust budgeting, which can only be corrected one way: take oil revenue off the table, save that money for future generations, and run the government on a stable tax regime including a sales tax.
The representation issue is not an idle one. A recent study on Alaska, another petrostate, found that a “decision to repeal state taxes prompted a decline in government responsiveness, as measured by whether changes in citizen preferences cause changes in government policies.” The researcher added this bomb: “While we do not expect the state of Alaska to succumb to dictatorship, the loss of government representation as a consequence of natural resource wealth is troubling.”
The elite behind the curtains
Another big question dogs Alberta. How can anyone expect a petrostate to rationally respond to climate change by reducing production as long as its bloated budgets, designed to buy votes, depend on volatile revenue streams now boosted by Putin’s imperial war against the Ukrainian people?
Smith, a devoted servant of the oil patch, will not likely address any of these issues. Her political presence is actually designed to obfuscate them. Instead, Albertans can expect to experience the freedom of her rhetoric — which is not the same as freedom of speech.
The so-called "Take Back Alberta" movement founded by David Parker in the wake of COVID also played a sizeable role in mobilizing support for the UCP in rural Alberta during this election.
It is not clear who took over Alberta or when this shattering event happened. But the TBA painted New Democrats as an “alien” threat to the province’s future because they would increase government spending and lower standards of living. Yet the record shows those supposedly un-Albertan activities all happened under Smith’s government.
Parker may have sold an anti-elite, right-wing populist message throughout rural Alberta, but he sits on the Canadian board of the elite-driven Ditchley Foundation. (Beware elites with populist messages for they do not serve the people.)
The Ditchley Foundation says it works with “people” around the world “to help sustain peace, freedom and order.” Eric Newell, the former head of oilsands giant Syncrude Canada Ltd., is one of those people and is an honorary director.
Newell has a specific oily agenda for Canada: expanding pipelines, hydrogen infrastructure and rare metal mining along with messages about Canada’s pristine environment. A significant streamlining of bureaucratic regulatory and approval processes is also necessary. According to Newell’s corporate agenda, economic growth that relies on fossil fuel energy will end climate change, a signature of economic growth.
No one knows where the volatile UCP will go next in its volatile province, but you can expect Smith’s rhetoric to faithfully echo Newell’s vision of the future — more energy for everyone all the time.
In addition, Smith and the UCP could also explore other political extremes that fire Smith’s imagination as she indulges her preference to roam the internet’s most far-right corners.
Consider, for a moment, that Alberta is now determinedly led by a right-wing libertarian whose favourite philosopher is Ayn Rand and whose favorite politician is the jaunty Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Yes, that same DeSantis, the politician who aspires to dethrone Trump as the leader of the Republican party. Many commentators have described DeSantis as an American drawing from the fascist playbook.
Fascism, of course, doesn’t necessarily mean swastikas or black boots.
It is a way of thinking and responding to social and political trauma that can manifest itself in many ways. The Italian writer Umberto Eco, who experienced fascism firsthand, notes that it tends to reject the rational and embrace the tribal. It shuns complexity and salutes simplicity. It eschews any kind of perceived weakness and worships might. It invents and demonizes enemies within the society. And it sees no distinction between state and industry.
In his attacks on COVID policies, education, abortion and the woke crowd, the Yale-educated DeSantis has shown nothing but disdain for the importance of critical debate. In his Florida, disagreement borders on treason. DeSantis now markets a hyper-nationalism obsessed with plots by global elites; and he uses TV internet populism to appeal to the ever-frustrated middle classes.
COVID illustrates the tyrannical nature of his politics. At one point DeSantis even proposed to ban cruise ships from requiring vaccines in the name of freedom. But as social critic Nassim Nicholas Taleb correctly noted, “Cruise ships are PRIVATE entities free to protect their interests and passengers in the way they see fit. You are FREE to not board. The Trumpist COVID approach is beyond incoherent.”
Meanwhile DeSantis keeps things simple for his followers. “We defied the experts. We bucked the elites. We ignored the chatter. We did it our way, the Florida way,” DeSantis recently chanted. “And the result is that we are the number one destination for our fellow Americans who are looking for a better life.”
With Smith’s victory, Canadians can expect to hear more and more of that rhetoric.
How extreme this wildfire will go is anyone’s guess. But the smoky consequences will travel way beyond Alberta’s borders.