Mulcair picks his battle

The NDP and the Tories are more than happy to spar over the Alberta oil sands boom

Mulcair picks his battle

Sean Kilpatrick/CP

A fracas unfolding on Parliament Hill almost always follows a predictable path. One side, either the government or the opposition, seeks partisan advantage by pushing some issue onto the agenda. Then the other tries to squelch it. If a cabinet minister is discovered overspending on orange juice, for instance, the opposition aims to prolong her misery, while the government strives to change the channel. But the extended, bitter contretemps over Thomas Mulcair’s assertion that Alberta’s oil sands development hurts Canada’s manufacturing exports by pumping up the value of the loonie didn’t follow that well-worn course. When Conservatives accused him of dividing the country by begrudging western Canada its economic success, Mulcair—far from trying to sidestep their attacks—met them head on and even seemed to relish throwing fuel on the fire.

It was a rare case of both sides seizing on the same acrimonious argument as a potential political winner. If they continue to see it that way, this regionally sensitive clash over economic and environmental policies could be a defining factor in framing the choice between continued Conservative rule and the NDP alternative. So get ready for “Dutch disease” to claim a key place in the vernacular of federal politics. The term was coined back in the 1970s to describe Holland’s dilemma when offshore gas discoveries boosted the Dutch currency’s value, making the country’s exports more costly, thus hurting its manufacturers. Mulcair blames Canada’s case of Dutch disease for about half of 500,000 manufacturing jobs lost, mostly in Quebec and Ontario, after Stephen Harper’s Tories won power in 2006. He charges the Conservatives with sacrificing the entire manufacturing sector. “Their priority,” he says, “is the unbridled development of the oil sands.”

Conservative strategists—forced to play defence for much of this year over issues ranging from the potential cost of F-35 jet fighters to the so-called robocalls scandal—pounced on Mulcair’s remarks as a chance to mount a Tory front-bench offensive. Heritage Minister James Moore led the charge. “He attacks western Canada, he attacks our energy industry, he attacks all of the West and the great work that is being done by western Canadians to contribute to Canada’s national unity,” Moore said in the House. The B.C. minister even suggested the Liberals were enjoying a “resuscitation” thanks to Mulcair’s “meltdown.” In the heat of a volatile question period, Moore went so far as to boast of how the West’s current fortunes and prospects put it ahead of the rest of the country. “The fact is western Canada is driving the Canadian economy,” he said. “We are the future.”

Beneath the rhetoric from both camps are plausible assessments of voter opinion by Tory and NDP strategists. A recent Ipsos poll conducted for the Canadian Chamber of Commerce found that big majorities in the western provinces think the positives of oil sands development outweigh the negatives, including, not surprisingly, 80 per cent in Tory-stronghold Alberta. But that positive view of the oil sands slips to about 60 per cent in Ontario and the Atlantic provinces, and plummets to a mere 37 per cent in Quebec—where Mulcair is one of the 58 NDP MPs who make up the crucial core of his party’s 101-seat caucus. Opinion also divides along age lines: among Canadians older than 55, who tend to vote Tory, 69 per cent nationally hold a positive view of the oil sands, compared with only 42 per cent in the 18-to-34 bracket, the younger voters from which the NDP draws a disproportionate share of its support.

If public opinion is a strategic factor, the oil sands issue also touches on the self-images of the two principal players on the federal stage today, Mulcair and Harper. The Prime Minister traces his earliest serious engagement in partisan politics, back when he was studying economics in Calgary in the early 1980s, to his intense sympathy with the angry Alberta backlash against Pierre Trudeau’s National Energy Program. Much more recently, last fall’s decision by President Barack Obama to delay approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would take oil sands bitumen to U.S. refineries, prompted a new phase in Harper’s quest to make diversifying energy exports his key economic priority. This spring’s federal budget included measures to streamline environmental assessments of energy and other resource projects—notably Enbridge’s proposed Northern Gateway pipeline, which would link the oil sands to Asian markets through the port at Kitimat, B.C.

But Mulcair is arguably just as personally invested in the issue. He often stresses his three-year stint as Quebec’s environment minister, in Jean Charest’s Liberal government, as the key political experience on his path to becoming NDP leader earlier this year. Charest reputedly planned to shuffle him out of the portfolio in 2007, over his refusal to allow private development in a provincial park. But Mulcair quit rather than accept Charest’s assignment change, lending his dramatic exit to join the federal NDP the glow of a principled move. While running for the NDP leadership, he staked out his position on the country’s highest profile environmental issue by penning a preface to the French-language edition of Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent, author Andrew Nikiforuk’s indictment of the massive strip-mining of northern Alberta’s oil sands.

So as the Tories tried to turn up the heat on Mulcair over his oil sands comments for four straight days last week, he showed no sign of sweating. One senior NDP official said he welcomed the chance to demonstrate how, unlike the last two Liberal leaders, Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff, he wouldn’t be intimidated by any Conservative onslaught. The only part of his pugnacious reaction to the Tory bombardment that NDP strategists were hesitant to defend was his description of the three westernmost premiers as Harper’s “messengers” in the dispute. B.C.’s Christy Clark called Mulcair’s position “goofy,” Alberta’s Alison Redford tweeted that he was “divisive,” and Saskatchewan’s Brad Wall called him, among other things, “facile.”

Eager to avoid a feud with provincial leaders, Mulcair tried to bluntly frame the issue in terms of running to unseat Harper in 2015. “We see this as a defining element of the next election campaign in Canada,” he said on Global’s The West Block, describing it as “a fight we’ve been looking for.” That battle begins against a backdrop of recent polls showing the Conservatives and New Democrats in a tight contest. Based on a survey conducted before the Dutch disease issue exploded, Abacus Data pegged Tory support at 37 per cent support nationally, flat so far this year, with the NDP at 35 per cent and on an upward trend. The poll showed the Liberals languishing at a dismal 17 per cent.

Political harangues left little room for debate about the finer points of economic policy, but economists studying the issue find ample room for nuance. A report by the Institute for Research on Public Policy, released just as the issue was boiling over in Ottawa, concluded Canada “suffers from a mild case of the Dutch disease,” but pointed to poor productivity growth as the more serious issue than a high Canadian dollar. A study called “Does the Canadian economy suffer from Dutch disease?” slated to be published in the journal Resource and Energy Economics, attributes about a third of manufacturing employment shed in Canada from 2002 to 2007—around 200,000 lost jobs—to the Canadian dollar’s commodity-fuelled rise. One of the study’s authors, University of Ottawa economics professor Serge Coulombe, suggested the “petro dollar” problem could be offset by offering tax advantages for investment in manufacturing.

Mulcair calls for a quite different policy response—a crackdown on water and air pollution that would boost the upfront costs for companies developing the oil sands. He says the Conservatives are failing to enforce several existing federal laws, including the Fisheries Act, the Migratory Birds Act, and the Navigable Waters Act. If the habitat protection rules in those laws were strictly applied, Mulcair says, export profits from the oil sands would shrink, easing the upward pressure on the Canadian dollar. “We are allowing these companies to use the air, the soil and the water as an unlimited, free dumping ground,” he says. It’s an anti-pollution message the Conservatives are evidently confident they can cast as anti-West, in a fight both Harper and Mulcair appear ready to wage for as long as the other guy is willing, maybe even until the next election day.




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Mulcair picks his battle

  1. Mulcair is correct in what he says, it is not divisive; it is simply common sense. The Conservatives are spending more time than usual beating on both the Liberals and the NDP for whatever obscure reasons they can come up with!

    Harper at the Federal helm has said in so many ways he does not like Canada is busy moving us towards a US statehood. Brad Wall is in tune with this idea and regularly hosts and attends the meetings of the Republican /Conservative club set up in the US to avoid disclosure laws in Canada.

    http://albertathedetails.blogspot.com/2010/12/canada-is-under-seige-from-within.html

    Although this is a party club it is funded by various provincial Governments (and it would surprise me it it was not also funded by the Feds) it is the guiding light now of the Conservatives.

    Harper was the Poster boy for the Fraser Institute described as a respected right wing club which has more American Republican members than Canadian.

    Again, Mulcair is 100% accurate in all he says!

    Alberta is effectively charging nothing for royalty; taxpayers pay for the industry roads water and power lines for export something other provinces don’t do.

    We are effectively paying this industry to take the resource from the province and have been doing so for some time.

    That subsidizes the industry by 25% or more!

    If a federal Government comes in (Like NDP) the slack in royalty would be takeen up by the Fderal Government moving the end value up to market which the Cons like only when it works for them. And, if such a thing takes place it is the Alberta Conservatives fault for leaving that door so wide open!

    The critical Alberta subsidy is driving the Canadian Dollar up which as stated is hard on manufacturing provinces.

    And, I see debates talking air head stuff like exchange rates and so on.

    This will clear the air http://albertathedetails.blogspot.com/2012/02/alberta-royalty-explained.html

    Add to this the disasterous immigration program that gives away Canadian Citizenship without proper vetting; by invitation of the prospective employer. All this because the oil industry was put into trouble for hiring illegal Americans into the oil patch. Another unfair practice in the Conservative Canada! Canadians are still hastled at the border and it would be impossible for an average person to get a US citizenship!

    As you well know, I didn’t vote for these guys.

    We so very much need an accute change to the Left in order to salvage this country!

    Wake up and smell the roses people this whole dam country is in jeopardy!

  2. If the best the CPC can do is “he’s attacking the wwest!” and “he’s never been to the tar sands”, they’re in big big trouble.

  3. I’m not sure the CPC is wise to go so gungho on touting the west as they have so far on this issue. Mulcair’s “dutch disease” angle is going to perk up quite a few ears in Ontario.
    If the NDP has Ontario and Quebec onside, that goes an extremely long way to forming government.
    Say what you will, but the CPC has done little to help Ontario and with Flaherty’s constant haranguing of the province, I don’t doubt that such arguments as Mulcair’s carry more weight than they might in otherwise.
    Add this to the number of by-elections that may surface on the basis of electoral fraud, and the CPC could be in some serious trouble come 2015.

  4. I agree with Mulcair’s view that Canadians should receive more benefits for our resource as we develope the oilsands, including regulatory oversite and help for our hollowed out manufacturing sector.

    • More benefits?? Seriously, more then the 14 billion in transfer payments Alberta already makes so McGuinty can subsidize his ‘green energy’ policies and Quebec can have 7 dollar a day daycare?? Sorry, not one more fricken dime.

      • ON was pumping out $25B/yr in equalization payments before Bitumen Harper came to power and killed 500,000 jobs destroying the value-added sector. He inherited a $20B trade surplus which has become $50B trade deficits (-3% GDP, 3 years in a row.) Considering we can’t cram all Canadians into Alberta, we have to do something. No doubt the sentiment in Alberta is give me what’s mine and “let those Eastern b*stards freeze in the dark.”

        • Thank-you for doing the homework, Ron.

          Mulcair’s visit to the oilsands should result in predictable reactions and revealing polling results in the weeks to come.

          In the final analysis, accumulated polling snapshots reveal trends which may tell us if Cdn. voters are in control of their future, or if we are mere passengers on someone’s omnibus.

          Post Script…
          That ‘…we have to do something.’ is painfully obvious and economically necessary given Harper’s denigration of Parliament and regressive budget steamroller.

          The singular, most effective action a voter can take, it seems to me, is to bring one other voter with them to the polls next time.

          This will be Canadians’ best opportunity to out-number and out-vote Harper and his self-serving political agenda.

        • You think Harper engineered the worldwide economic crises of late, I take it. Fine mind you have there.

      • …..more thought-provoking debate from a member of Harpers’ core support.

        Behavior is evidence of character.

        Those who defend this kind of government behavior, have fair cause to question the true nature of their own character.

  5. I think that if Mulcair is attacking anything it’s Harper’s backwards and shortsighted “action plan” that bases our entire economy on resource extraction. In the 21st century, a developed country needs to build an innovation-based economic engine founded on value-added exports. That’s where the real prosperity, economic spin-off and job creation comes from.

    Canadians are more than just hewers of wood and drawers of bitumen. But all Harper can see is the easy-money resource welfare checks. In order to get the economy working again, in all regions of the country, we need a more balanced, diversified approach. Harper is clearly the wrong man for the job.

  6. I note that the Western Premiers, when refuting Mulclair’s comments, used terms that sound very ‘conservative’ – accusations of divisiveness, for instance, rather than a real response…funny that none went so far as to even suggest he was lying!

  7. I am extremely pleased that Mulcair has read and endorsed the book on the Tar Sands. We are scraping the bottom of the (oil) barrel and need to move on to new technology that will continue to provide our energy needs. I’d highly recommend he, and everyone else, also read the book, “The Third Industrial Revolution: How Lateral Power is Transforming Energy, the Economy, and the World”, by Jeremy Rifkin. This hopeful book essentially outlines how we can move on from the carbon era and enter the next industrial era of renewable energy. After reading these two books, it’s obvious that building a pipeline to Kitimat to transport bitumen to China is a dying industry’s last gasp. Much better we spend the money on developing new and more sustainable energy resources, while saving our environment at the same time.

  8. History 101. Spain built an empire on gold but because it’s economy wasn’t diverse enough it failed. End of lesson.

  9. History 101. Russia built itself up on its arms industry but failed to become a world power lacking any industrial might. After the collapse of communism and it’s move to capitalism it has become a world power. End of lesson. Moral – don’t put your eggs in one basket

    • Good point. Harper’s “economic action plan” reads like Russia is the economic model we are to emulate. It calls on us to exploit the most resources the fastest we can because we are competing with other resource-based nations — all of which happen to be developing countries. If Harper were smart he’d want us to emulate the Germans who have a 6% GDP trade surplus founded on value-added exports. But instead he wants to turn Canada into a banana republic.

  10. I think the oil sands will continue to be a big fight – you have a failed NDP candidate like Byers publishing Op-Eds in the Seattle Times just to stir up the Yanks.
    “In the end, however, none of these steps is likely to prevent hundreds of oil tankers from transiting Unimak Pass each year. For the root of the problem is not the tankers, but Canada’s disregard for the environmental impacts of developing and selling its oil sands to China — impacts that include the near-inevitability of another Exxon Valdez-type spill in U.S. waters, this time in Unimak Pass.”
    http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/opinion/2018232475_guest18byers.html

  11. Congratulations to politicians / industry who recently met each other
    in Alberta and toned
    down the Oilsands rhetoric.

    It is fair to say, however, PM Stephen Harper’s leadership has been
    noticeably invisible and deathly silent.

    In doing so, our PM appears to be avoiding accountability for the
    current state of environmental oversight and economic diversification.

    With his leadership failing amidst a first year of scandals and
    controversy, people will question if PM Harper has deliberately left
    town hiding amongst the baggage of the omnibus.

  12. So, what is Mulcair’s strategy for mitigating the environmental damage of James Bay, for getting NL a square deal with QC over transmission, and for allowing all Canadians to benefit from offshore oil? And how much will the manufacturer’s be paying for their contributions to pollution and environmental degradation? More info is needed unless this is just another handmaiden-to-QC thing.

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