Opinion

Danielle Smith Is No Sarah Palin

Palin was braver against Big Oil. And more political truths Alaska reveals about Alberta.

By Andrew Nikiforuk 21 Apr 2012 | TheTyee.ca

Award-winning journalist Andrew Nikiforuk writes about energy for The Tyee and others. Find his previous Tyee articles here.

The Wildrose Party, a political upstart made up of largely angry white people, sketchy Tories and climate change deniers, seems posed to replace the incompetent bunch of Conservative libertarians, panjandrums and climate change skeptics who have run Alberta into the ground.

Alberta's media have compared Wild Rose leader Danielle Smith to Sarah Palin, but she's no grizzly momma. Smith, a Fraser Institute libertarian, fronts a party that raises money by declaring: "Only when the government of Alberta supports and trusts its most important industry -- oil and gas -- will Alberta's future be truly secure."

Palin, the original "Drill, Baby, Drill" girl, knew better and acted accordingly. In her recently released emails the rogue Republican regularly expressed disgust with the way Big Oil bullied the state's politicians and electorate.

As governor, Palin once stood up a group of Exxon officials by going off and reading to a kindergarten class instead. In a more gutsy move Palin increased the share of royalties for Alaskans by maturely working with Democrats.

Alaska's new governor, a former oil lobbyist, is now working to reverse these gains.

Which does confirm that, while Smith isn't Palin, Alberta's debased political weirdness can't really be explained without some references to nearby Alaska. That wild and crazy petro state has not only been there and done all that. It also boasts parties more wonky than the Republicans, including Tea Party Republicans and the Alaska Independent Party ("Alaska First: Alaska Always.") The Alaska firsters, too, offer a Wildrose platform: less government and more oil.

Alaska or Alberta, you decide

Since the development of Prudhoe Bay oil field and the construction of the multi-billion Trans Alaskan Pipeline System (TAPS) in the 1970s, Alaska has lived the oil curse large.

Petroleum taxes from BP, ExxonMobil and Conoco Philips account for four-fifths of the state's revenue. That means that the state's politicians are dogged by an army of well-funded oil lobbyists. Their job is to secure fewer environmental regulations and lower taxes at almost any cost as the FBI have well documented. Alaska is a petroleum welfare state.

With its $200-billion tar sands mega-project (a development five to 10 times bigger than TAPS), Alberta breathes the same poisonous political fumes. Hydrocarbons account for a third of the government's revenue, most of its exports and a quarter of GDP.

Albertans will happily note they now pay among the lowest taxes in the nation. But their politicians routinely do a much better job representing the interests of Suncor, ExxonMobil, CNRL, Husky, Cenovus, Enbridge and EnCana than they do Alberta taxpayers.

Alaska's political parties, like Alberta's immature offerings, stand further to the right than those in most oil-less jurisdictions and are primarily focused on pumping oil or getting rich.

The only philosophical divide, notes an excellent Atlantic Monthly profile on Sarah Palin, is "between those who view the state as beholden to the oil companies for its livelihood, and will grant them almost anything to ensure that livelihood, and those who view its position as being like the owner of a public corporation for whom the oil companies interests are separate from and subordinate to those of its citizen shareholders." Albertans mostly believe the former.

Oil-lubricated political machines

Thanks to the corrosive power of oil money, Alaska boasts several long, right-wing political dynasties such as those of former senators Ted Stevens and Frank Murkowski. Eventually Stevens and Murkowski landed in what Alaskans now fondly call the "Corrupt Bastards Club" by way of their too-cozy dealings with oil interests.

Sarah Palin's successful campaign for governor was fueled by her "rogue Republican" promise to clean up such corruption.

But Alaska seems to keep heeling ever farther to the right. In 2010 one Tea Party Republican, who called Social Security an unconstitutional service and climate change a fiction, battled an old dynasty Republican Lisa Murkowski for a Senate seat the same way the Wildrose is taking on Alberta's Tories.

Alberta's politics directly mirror Alaska's political cartoons. Ralph Klein, a closet one per center that posed as a populist, ruled the province from its bars and casinos for nearly 14 years. But King Ralph didn't give a fig about the environment or democracy. He single-handedly created the chaos in the oil sands by putting government on "autopilot."

The oil-funded machine of Alberta's Progressive Conservatives, having ruled the so-called maverick province for 41 years, looks and sounds like the Republican Murkowski dynasty in Alaska.

Politically correct, Alberta-style

The new Tory leader, Alison Redford, is a Calgary old boy corporate lawyer. She's the kind of politically-correct person who regards tar sands as a pejorative even though scientists and politicians have employed the apt phrase for 100 years.

Moreover Redford is just as beholden to the province's oil sand developers as Alaska's Republicans are to Big Oil. Redford, who is not well-liked even within her own party, can't even admit that Canada has a case of the Dutch Disease due to rapid tar sands development.

One of Redford's first campaign pledges was to offer the world's wealthiest and least innovative corporations (compared to most sectors the oil patch spends little or nothing on R&D) a $3-billion research fund to figure out how to develop bitumen more cleanly over 20 years. Taxing bad practices might accomplish the job more quickly but such a notion would require statecraft.

Lack of administrative competence explains why the Alberta government has mismanaged health services, run three deficits in a row, botched electricity deregulation, corrupted transmission planning, fudged watershed protection and bungled oil sands environmental monitoring. The Tories have achieved this dismal record of ineptitude with the charming daftness of a Saudi Prince who daily mistakes access to petro dollars as a sign of exceptional intelligence.

To date the party's political culture of intimidation (it even fired the province's last Chief Electoral Officer for documenting fraud) has exhausted the electorate, undermined the civil service and degraded the province's reputation. The political process remains so fundamentally dysfunctional that only 40 per cent of the people bother voting anymore. That's the lowest turnout rate in Canada.

'Move Alberta back from the left to the centre'

Now the heir apparent to Alberta's petro-funded monster is the upstart Wildrose party, a pissed-off political cousin. Disgruntled petro types started the party in response to a modest and botched Tory attempt to increase oil and gas royalties in 2009 for the first time in more than a decade. (When a government consistently gives away the family farm, it's hard to reclaim a few heifers from the profiteers as a sober after thought.)

That Wildrose Alliance donation plea cited at the top of the article, which happened to be written by junior oil and gas executives, spells out the petro drama: "Our plan is to construct a broad-based party with true economically conservative principals that can move Alberta back from the left to the centre."

Yes, you read that correctly. Wildrose thinks it is moving Alberta back from the left to the centre.

It's instructive that Stephen Harper's political strategist Tom Flanagan now directs the Wildrose campaign. The party proposes to be an even more scantily-clad cheerleader for rapid tar sands development than Stephen Harper's government. (Ottawa's Tories boldly call their shameless propaganda for bitumen production "God's Work." Industry lobbyists have used the same expression.)

Although the Wildrose have capably attacked the province's transmission $12-billion boondoggle and other issues, their general solution to bad government isn't much of an improvement, and that's virtually no government at all.

Rational but ignored alternatives

With voters going to the polls in just three days, the province's political candidates have generally avoided any discussion about the pace and scale of the tar sands or Canada's high-risk economic engine.

Nor has anyone talked about the industry's multi-billion dollar economic and carbon liabilities, let alone the $20-billion clean-up costs.

Meanwhile the centrist parties that Alberta's 41-year-old one party state have branded as "subversive" offer a variety of tame if not truly conservative programs.

The fledgling Alberta Party proposes to reimagine the province's broken democracy while the Liberals promise cleaner and more effective government and a functioning health care system. The New Democrats have rudely mentioned the word bitumen and would raise royalties and upgrade the resource in Alberta. (Former Tory premier Peter Lougheed recommended such reforms years ago as well as a slowing down development.)

The Smith vs. Redford smackdown now offers centrist candidates an opportunity to move up the middle in many urban ridings. Acclaimed novelist Fred Stenson, a Liberal candidate in Calgary-Lougheed riding, hopes to make the most of Alberta's family feud. "Long may they loathe each other….while the 50 per cent of Albertans who vote against the political right finally break through into fresh air."

So far, no sign of Sarah Palin's bus pulling into Calgary, but Alberta's bizarre political circus rolls on.

[Tags: Politics, Energy.]  [Tyee]

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