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Saturday, January 28, 2023

Will oilsands plan give Smith a use for Sovereignty Act?

EDMONTON—Will Danielle Smith use her Sovereignty Act to try to shield Alberta’s oilsands from federal emissions rules and a “just transition” plan?

It’s a question both in and outside Alberta as a battle looms between the province and Ottawa over imminent environmental legislation.

Some say it’s one thing to build yourself a legislative nuke — read: the Sovereignty Act — but another to actually use it.

They argue Smith may have created a weapon that’s actually too big, too difficult, too damaging to use and, in the process, might have set some of her key supporters up for disappointment.

This tension is part of a delicate line Smith is trying to walk with a provincial election approaching in which she’ll seek her first mandate from Alberta voters in May.

It is also, in many ways, a very Jason Kenney-esque predicament: She needs Ottawa as a political punching bag — but also as a partner if her province is to succeed — all while keeping her party onboard.

In effect, she has to be tough on the federal Liberals, just not too tough. And somewhere between tough and too tough sits the Sovereignty Act, which gives the provincial government the power to direct public entities to ignore federal laws, among other things.

The latest big test of will-she-or-won’t-she is shaping up to be the federal government’s “just transition” plan.

The plan has angered Alberta politicians. Smith says indications are that it would see the forced phase-out of oil and gas jobs in Canada, while observers and the federal government say it’s simply a pathway for workers here to adapt to a world that’s changing.

A publicized batch of speaking notes for the federal natural resources minister from last year said hundreds of thousands of workers could be affected by a transition to lower emissions. It said Alberta, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland and Labrador would be “disproportionally affected.”

“The transition to a low-carbon economy will have an uneven impact across sectors, occupations and regions, and create significant labour market disruptions,” the notes said.

There would be impacts on 292,000 workers in the agriculture industry, 202,000 workers in the energy industry, 193,000 manufacturing workers, 1.4 million building workers and 642,000 transportation sector workers, according to the federal government’s estimates.

The numbers sparked fierce backlash from Smith and others in Alberta.

But the federal government told media those numbers didn’t refer to expected job losses, just the total number of jobs in those respective industries. It also said the publicly available speaking notes were not a policy document.

The premier and her allies have been blasting the plan from the federal government after Federal Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson signalled its rollout was imminent. It comes as Ottawa is also expected to roll out the details around its proposed emissions-cap regulations for the oil and gas industry before year’s end.

The premier and her environment minister skewered the term “just transition.”

“It is a social justice term,” Smith told a news conference. “To use that terminology, they’re virtue-signalling to an extreme base that is openly advocating to shut down oil and natural gas.”

(Wilkinson, for his part, has told media that he agrees the term is divisive and has opted to call it the “sustainable jobs” plan instead.)

However, Smith wouldn’t commit to using the Sovereignty Act when asked about it by reporters.

There is likely a reason for that. The act is an untested weapon, and no one is sure if it would work. Like any weapon of mass destruction, it serves perhaps its biggest purpose as a symbol of deterrence. It’s uncertain whether it would withstand a court challenge, or set off a constitutional crisis, if invoked.

Meanwhile, the more fights Smith picks with Ottawa — however justified they may be — the more she’ll get questions about actually using the act.

“I think the question around what the act is, whether it’s going to be effective or whether she even understands the jurisdictional boundaries that she’s trying to negotiate — those questions keep coming up,” said Mount Royal University policy studies Prof. Lori Williams.

“If those questions continue, then she’s going to have a rough ride going into this election.”

It’s not just the feasibility of using the act that is in question — it’s the political practicality.

Three senior sources in the UCP government, who spoke to the Star on the condition their names not be published, acknowledged that if the next provincial election is fought over the Sovereignty Act or constitutional jurisdiction between the province and Ottawa, the party could lose. It has to stick to bread-and-butter issues, such as inflation and health care, they said. Right now, polls have the NDP and UCP neck and neck.

Smith, a new leader in Alberta, is also facing an old dynamic: Her United Conservative Party is made up of conservatives with a wide range of views, and what she does leading up to the provincial election in May could deepen divisions, or help mend them.

Kenney — who was ousted after failing to keep a divided United Conservative Party together over COVID-19 policy — tried to thread this needle for years. More libertarian-minded members of the party decided he’d gone too far with COVID restrictions and wasn’t tough enough on Ottawa, while progressives under the same tent were roiled at times over what they saw as an ineffective response to the pandemic.

A Conservative Alberta premier, it seems, has to work with federal politicians behind closed doors and tear strips off them publicly — at least if they want to appease a chunk of the province’s electorate and challenge unpopular national policies.

Part of Smith’s strategy appears to be running a campaign against Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, rather than against Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley, says Williams. That strategy starts with drawing some lines in the sand around environmental policy coming down the pipeline out of Ottawa.

“I think she’s just calculated that she has a much tougher job ahead of her as she runs against Rachel Notley, a leader who’s being fondly remembered, who has a lot of confidence and popularity,” Williams said.

Her caucus also hasn’t been totally settled on the Sovereignty Act. One government source told the Star that if a provincial election weren’t on the horizon, there would be “some issues on our hands.”

There’s “some hostility brewing,” they said, but the general feeling is that “we need to get through this election, playing nice together.” A second senior government source said some of caucus’s frustration comes down to Smith’s communication style, which has led to some own-goals since she took office.

Smith may be calculating that she can keep her base onside by arguing with Ottawa, while trying to win over more moderate voters who want her to focus more on things like health-care and inflation — all while not pulling out the Sovereignty Act.

One hand punches; the other throws up a peace symbol.

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