Energy uproar illustrates West’s growing parliamentary power

As the last election showed, it is now possible to win a majority government by catering to the West and Ontario

As the last election showed, it is now possible to win a majority government by catering to the West and Ontario

When (former) federal Liberal energy critic David McGuinty was forced to resign recently after alleging that Conservative members of Parliament from Alberta were too close to the energy industry, one could look at his sentiments as more of the same-old, same-old from central Canada vis-à-vis the West.

There is, for anyone with historical memory, a long record of not-so-friendly gestures to Western Canada from Ontario and Quebec.

There was Montrealer and (prime minister) Pierre Trudeau’s famous Salmon Arm “finger” and his National Energy Program (NEP). The former was just crude, and the latter was devastating to the resource economies of the West.

The NEP was also a double standard.

Trudeau’s made-in-Canada energy policy consisted of telling the West to sell oil to the rest of Canada at 85% of the world price. That was economically illiterate, counter-productive and regionally convenient.

After all, back then, it wasn’t as if the federal government thought it would be swell to force Ontario’s automotive sector to sell automobiles to the West at 85% of the price they would normally fetch.

The central Canadian pile-on continued even under Brian Mulroney.

Recall his ridiculous Meech Lake agreement and the Charlottetown Accords. Those proposed amendments to the Constitution, the second subject to a nationwide vote, were a gift package to Quebec, with proposals to confer special status on the province in the Constitution.

Had it passed, the special deal-making with Quebec so prevalent in Canadian history would have been further exacerbated.

Luckily, the country rejected the Charlottetown Accord (barely) with 50.4% voting no. However, British Columbians (at least those who voted “no”) wisely saw the flaws in the deal; they rejected the proposed constitutional package with a whopping 68% opposed, the highest “no” vote of any province. (To be fair, Mulroney’s free trade deals were immensely helpful to the West.)

However, bad ideas and anti-Western policy didn’t end with Mulroney’s ouster from power. Recall that in the 1990s, the federal government under Jean Chretien’s Liberals attempted to shortchange B.C. in proposed redistributions (and additions) of federal seats in Parliament. Then-premier Mike Harcourt took a public pasting when he was seen as insufficiently protective of B.C.’s interests in that melee.

Still, the 1990s marked a turning point in central Canadian–Western Canada relations.

Pace McGuinty’s recent comment, which is in error, it was actually Chretien’s Liberal government that enacted a series of policy reforms that favoured the energy industry. That sector, for the record, may have many of its head offices in Calgary, but its operations extend from the far north of British Columbia even to parts of southern Manitoba and to oil- and gas-rich Alberta and Saskatchewan.

In fact, talk to a few people in downtown Calgary and they’re not convinced the present Conservative government in Ottawa always “gets” the energy sector. After all, justified or not, it was the Harper government that ended the income trust model in Canada in 2006. Many in the energy patch were more than a tad unhappy about that action, though I think Ottawa had, ultimately, no choice.

Back to McGuinty.

Soon after he accused Conservative MPs from Alberta of being mere pawns of the oil and gas sector, he was forced to step down as the Liberal energy critic.

Meanwhile, interim Liberal party leader Bob Rae, a former NDP leader in Ontario and premier for five years there, opined that his colleague’s comments were “not helpful.”

And Pierre Trudeau’s son Justin running for the Liberal Party leadership, was rather critical of McGuinty. Trudeau demurred that “my entire campaign has been about bringing people together, about not pitting region against region.”

In 1980, about the time Justin’s father was engaged in wrecking the western economy, the four western provinces accounted for 27.3% of the seats in Parliament.

Now B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba form 29.9% of parliamentary representation.

After the new seats are added to Parliament by 2015, the West will collectively provide 30.8% of the politicians who end up in Ottawa.

The percentages may seem small but incremental gains matter.

Also, as the last election showed, it is now possible to win a majority government by catering to the West and Ontario. That possibility didn’t exist in 1980. It does now. More than anything else, that dynamic explains why McGuinty so swiftly resigned.  

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