The hypocrisy of Conservatives these days never ceases to amaze me. Whether they're talking about jobs, social issues or the environment, you never seem to have to look very hard to find contradictions in their words versus their actions. On top of this, they regularly enact draconian legislation that attacks doctors, environmental organizations, schools and political opponents. It's little wonder that Jason Kenney's approval rating is in the toilet. So why do voters keep electing Conservative governments in Alberta? It's a difficult question to answer to be sure, but we might get a clue of sorts from looking at where the province gets most of their revenue - the oil industry.
A Sticky Situation
Alberta has almost always been a petro-state. Its economy leans heavily on the oil industry, as everyone already knows. But what many people still don't know is that Alberta's governments, nearly all Conservative by the way, have completely mismanaged the revenues generated by that industry for decades, pilfering the profits to line its coffers and leaving its populace unable to survive the inevitable 'boom/bust' cycles inherent to resource-driven economies.
Meanwhile, those same provincial governments consistently lay blame for the mismanagement squarely on the shoulders of the federal government, and by proxy, the environmental movements and protesters that oppose oil and gas projects. Instead of diversifying their economies and accepting the reality that fossil fuels are on the way out, Alberta's governments are doubling down in a flurry of pro-oil propaganda and petro-patriotism. You don't need to look very hard to find examples of this, either; Conservatives love telling you how much they love the oil industry.
What they won't tell you, however, is how much they seem to side with industry over the workers they purport to care so much about. When Encana was given a $4.6B tax break by the UCP government, they changed their name and moved their head operations to the US. When Teck recently announced they were withdrawing their application for their oil sands project due to unstable market conditions, Jason Kenney chose to blame Ottawa instead of looking at helping oil workers into a transition job market. Conservatives in Alberta and beyond seem to be obsessed with doubling down on a dying industry, seemingly without logic. Then in the Throne Speech, the government introduced as its first Bill in the new session measures to prevent more blockades by protesters, after announcing earlier they would pour provincial money into keeping the oil industry afloat.
Conservatives on social media have become very smooth and polished when it comes to pro-oil rhetoric, and the lobby group Canada Action is no exception. They, along with other astroturf organizations, have been pushing for the oil industry for over 10 years, ever since the Harper days federally. From Ezra Levant's "EthicalOil" to OilSands Action to Pipeline Action, these groups are funded largely from private donors that are shared lists through similar conservative networks all across Canada. But one of the key factors that is often overlooked is how they get their messaging out so effectively. Well let's have a look at a little-known media presentation from the CAPP that was distributed to Postmedia back in 2013, shall we?
Postmedia has long had a dubious record on journalistic independence, and this document is further proof of this. From endorsing Harper in 2011, to Harper again in 2015, to Andrew Scheer in 2019, to the coordinated efforts to blanket their publications with ads promoting the oil industry, Postmedia is the go-to for Conservative propaganda. But it was the strange endorsement of Jim Prentice in Alberta in 2015 that raised the most eyebrows, considering there hadn't been an endorsement provincially since 2004. When you consider the fact that newspaper revenues have been at an all time low, however, it isn't all that surprising. Just follow the money.
Anyway let's get back to Canada Action and the oil sands connections. Its founder, Cody Battershill, has ties to the Conservatives going back to 2011 as well as to Kim Farwell, the manager of oil sands extraction at Syncrude, and shares an address with two other companies: Alberta Blue Strategies, who paid $5,000 in 2011 to run robocalls through RackNine (remember the robocall scandal?), Patchwork Investments, which was owned by one of the former directors of Canada Action, and Data Trek Inc, an oil & gas data service provider that has since shuttered its doors.
All of these shadow organizations and disinformation campaigns are used to stir up a sense of loyalty, of patriotism, to the state and its resource industry, and to sow division amongst the people, while at the same time taking them to the cleaners. And it's working. The oil companies continue to make billions in profits, while they move their operations out of the country, and leave taxpayers on the hook.
Divide & Conquer
For his part, Premier Jason Kenney loves to complain how the federal government has been screwing Alberta with respect to transfer payments (aka equalization), the carbon tax, and pipeline policies. What many people forget though, is that Jason Kenney was one of Harper's cabinet ministers from 2011 to 2015, and he was re-elected in that election that saw Justin Trudeau become prime minister. In that parliament, the Harper government was responsible for rewriting equalization payments, oil industry royalties, and health transfer payments. But of course, you wouldn't know that if you read the newspapers.
Rather than accept that the policies put in place were a result of previous governments, and making the best out of a bad situation with respect to boom and bust economies, Kenney has been going on the attack against anyone who he deems a threat to his power and that of his friends in the industry. So it was that he decided to call an inquiry into environmental groups and progressive activists, the "anti-oil industry" and "eco-terrorists". They also set up a website where you could snitch on activist orgs and the like, as well as established a "war room", funded by public money, to counter 'anti-industry sentiment' in the province. That war room has been under intense scrutiny in recent months, with a litany of errors, falsehoods and outright trolling coming from its Twitter account.
This is now the typical calling card of Conservatives - make up a boogeyman, crack down on said boogeyman, and turn the populace against each other in the process. These tactics are nothing new. We've seen them imported across the border from Trump's policies and tactics. But what's important is how to fight against these tactics. When EcoJustice was targeted by the government's inquiry, they filed a lawsuit in court, challenging the constitutionality of the inquiry. The outcome of that legal action is still pending, and it should also be noted that the commissioner of the inquiry, Steve Allan, is a friend of Jason Kenney and his justice minister, Doug Schweitzer, who appointed Steve Allan in the first place. They also came after left wing media organization Progress Alberta, who recently won a case to obtain press accreditation in the legislature.
Another tactic that Conservatives use, much like they did federally with the robocall scandal, is to implement shady back room dealings to ensure that certain candidates get elected and any pending investigations are quashed as soon as they rear their heads. That way, they can pass laws with little to no oversight (read: omnibus bills) and slowly but surely move the needle further to the right, towards the point of no return. This is also part of a third tactic that is at the heart of neo-Conservatism: to wear down their opponents. Activism burnout is real, and Conservatives know this. They also know that campaigns of disinformation are very useful in masking their true agendas.
Separation of Church & Petro-State
Another more subtle change over the past few years has been the reintroduction of prayer breakfasts into the Alberta legislature. It should come as no surprise that Premier Kenney is very religious and socially conservative. Even though he has cleaned up (some) of his ultra-conservative Christian rhetoric, he has nonetheless made some troubling remarks over the past few years, leading up to his election as Premier. His comments have not come without consequences, either. Last year, a hateful letter targeting Muslims was circulated near an Edmonton mosque. Of course, Kenney disavowed those comments, but his close association with far-right Christian views is not limited to targeting minorities. Remember Arnold Viersen? The Alberta federal MP that made this comment to NDP MP Laurel Collins?
Well of course, Viersen was made to apologize for those remarks. But while his comments appear shocking on the surface, when you consider where he got those views from, it's much less surprising. The Campaign Life Coalition lists him as a "green light" MP, meaning he has anti-choice views that line up with their policies. And let's not forget what Kenney himself has said in the past about abortion rights. There was this charming video circulated on YouTube some years ago that has since resurfaced:
Now it shouldn't be lost on all of us that views like these can be dangerous, but just how dangerous? According to some theories, Kenney, Viersen and others in Alberta politics subscribe to a particular section of Christianity known as Dominionism. Unlike other Christian faiths, Dominionism is the assumption that God gave humans “dominion” over the natural world and life in it. This of course, has been extended to other areas such as natural resources and dominance over other people, in particular, minorities and women. Hence, the arguments and policies to restrict abortion rights, the spreading of hateful rhetoric, and the quashing of political dissent.
There's also this question of western separatism that has sprung up in recent years. Last week, we saw an announcement from MP Michelle Rempel that Alberta wasn't going to take it anymore, and was placing all kinds of demands to Ottawa and to the rest of Canada. This became known as the Buffalo Declaration. You can read it for yourself below.
Now if you look closely at the signatories to this document, you see none other than MP Arnold Viersen. The same MP I mentioned earlier that has ties to ultra-Christian views on abortion and minorities. Now to be fair, Michelle Rempel herself doesn't share the same views and has been an outspoken critic of her party's statements and policies in the past. But documents like the Buffalo Declaration speak to a growing sentiment in Alberta that their views are not being respected, and like the oil industry, the religious movement commands an almost cult-like fanaticism that bends the arc of reality just enough to whip voters and supporters into a mob frenzy.
Rising Up To The Right
When the Alberta government recently announced they were going to look into "savings" of nearly $2B in health care spending, doctors and nurses across the province were prepared for a fight. But even they couldn't imagine what the government would do next. The following week, it cancelled the long standing master agreement between the province and the AMA, and implemented a new benefits system. The union is now considering taking the province to court over the measures.
Meanwhile, the nurses and doctors whose pay have been affected by the cuts to their benefits have been taking to the streets to protest and inform the public about the ripple effect this will have on patient care. Some doctors have already begun closing their doors to the public, as their payment fee structures can no longer support keeping their practices open. Still others are finding it impossible to adjust to the cuts in what are known as complex modifiers, in which physicians can bill extra to the province if a visit goes over 15 minutes.
Undaunted, however, doctors and nurses, environmental activists, and land defenders are standing their ground against this all-out assault on the social safety net and ecosystem we all depend on. Physicians are in the streets, land defenders continue to peacefully blockade, and activists will not be silenced. As long as we can keep up the pressure on right wing governments and their rich friends, we can push back effectively. We all know the right to protest is fundamental and has been a part of democratic societies for centuries, but we cannot let the right wing dictate what is acceptable in terms of protest.
The right is effective and coordinated in their messaging, and we on the left have to be just as effective. We cannot let our differences in economic security, social stature, race, religion or sexuality be weaponized to divide us. We have to unite and fight for the public institutions that are supposed to be there to protect us, and keep us safe and healthy.
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