Last Friday Alberta’s two major daily newspapers, a national business newspaper and AM radio stations across the province all carried a story that might as well have been titled “Premier hires someone with opinions different from the Official Opposition.”
Of course, that’s not how they framed it. The story that all five of these news outlets told was about how scandalous it was that the Premier’s office had just hired someone who, at some point in her life, held views critical of transporting bitumen by pipeline to the West Coast. Not only that: apparently she may still hold those views!
The Wildrose Party characterized the hire as part of a disturbing trend spreading across government: apparently this individual will join the supposedly swelling ranks of “anti-oil, anti-jobs individuals” working in the Premier’s office. Oh, the humanity!
Frankly, many things about this are part of a disturbing trend, not least of which is the fact that this story is even news. A truly newsworthy outright betrayal of the NDP’s roots would be if the party hired someone from the “damn the torpedoes; drill, baby, drill” camp—not that the NDP hired someone whose website includes such treasonous quotes as “saying no to projects like Kinder Morgan, to protect our environment and quality of life.” Oddly, none of the stories referred to the Wildrose Party as either anti-environment or anti-life.
The really disturbing part of this, however, is the larger context that makes these stories and the reaction of the opposition even possible. At some point in the last five years it became virtually criminal in Alberta to question, in any way, the pace of bitumen extraction or the wisdom of pipelines, or to echo the scientific consensus that meeting global greenhouse gas emission-reduction targets will necessarily mean leaving most bitumen in the ground.
If you espouse any of those views today—or have at any point in your life—then the Wildrose Party, its Twitter followers and the mainstream media will do everything they can to demonize you and try to ensure you never work in any position of influence anywhere in this province. I am sure that if they could, they would not hesitate to charge you with high treason and crimes against the state.
It wouldn’t be so bad if this reaction only belonged to the opposition, but it doesn’t: it is widespread. When these situations arise, the reaction from the government’s communications folks has never been that this is a democracy and therefore we should actually encourage citizen activism and the holding of different views. Their response has never been to highlight that the best policy comes from a careful and genuine consideration of a broad variety of possibilities from across the political spectrum—not just those endorsed by the oil industry.
Instead, their response has been to distance themselves from the staffers’ past activities, highlight that it’s the Premier’s ideas and opinions that matter, and remind everyone how much the government loves the oil industry and all the jobs and money it brings us.
The government, the opposition and the media all need to remember that one of the reasons we got our political change on May 5 was the number of Albertans who were sick and tired of having a government who saw its only job as cheerleading the oil industry at all costs, letting the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers essentially write policy, and completely ignoring the needs of Albertans and the public interest.
If we are sincere about wanting Alberta to be a progressive, forward-looking and enlightened place, then it is vital to stop demonizing anyone who might be critical of how we have managed our resources and finances over the last 20 years. It cannot be taboo to question our dependence on fossil fuels; raising environmental and First Nations concerns about the bitumen sands and pipelines should be celebrated. Our way forward resides not in publicly stoning the people who challenge the way we’ve been doing things, but rather in embracing them and hearing what they might have to say. Let’s insist on media and political parties that can show at least this minimum level of enlightenment.V
Ricardo Acuña is the executive director of the Parkland Institute, a non-partisan, public policy research institute housed at the University of Alberta.