UCP Leader Jason Kenney sets new tone in first Alberta question period

EDMONTON — Alberta Premier Rachel Notley and Opposition Leader Jason Kenney exchanged smiles and brief waves in the Alberta legislature Monday before letting the accusations fly in their first question period together.

Kenney accused Notley of misleading Albertans on her carbon tax while the premier said Kenney and other Conservatives let down all of Canada by failing to get a pipeline built to tidewater while in power in Ottawa.

There are an additional nine parties that have names reserved with Elections Alberta but have not yet registered as political parties: @Politics Direct, The Precariat, Hard Working Albertans, Renew Alberta, Western Independence, Alberta Independence, Alberta Freedom Alliance, National Party and Progressive Canadian Political Conservatives.

"We had Conservatives in Ottawa, we had Conservatives in Edmonton (in the provincial government) and we had Conservatives in Victoria and they couldnt get a pipeline built," Notley told the house.

Graham Thomson: Much-anticipated Jason Kenney-Rachel Notley fight a bit of a fizzle

"They had their chance and they blew it. That wont happen again."

Part of Kenney’s handicap is his disdain of others and his ruthlessness. Voters who distrust him aren’t sure that this is the time in Alberta, facing the challenges that it does, for a strongman to replace a diplomat.

Kenney attacked Notley over the multibillion-dollar carbon tax. He noted Notley didnt campaign on it in the 2015 election. And he questioned its value as a good faith "social licence" gesture given that the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion to B.C., approved by Ottawa, is still facing delays from the B.C. government.

Only the Alberta Party has seats in the legislature. In February, it elected leader Steve Mandel, former Jim Prentice Progressive Conservative minister of health and previously, mayor of Edmonton.

"(Notley) told Albertans if we just pay more for everything somehow magically pipeline opponents would become pipeline supporters and pipelines would get built," said Kenney.

As per the noisy, raucous parliamentary tradition, Notleys answers were met with cheers and desk thumping from her caucus members.

Kenneys questions and comments, however, were met with silence from his team and there was no cross-aisle heckling of Notley.

In February, Alberta Advantage acclaimed Edmonton lawyer and Wildrose co-founder Marilyn Burns as leader and will formally register with Elections Alberta before summer.

"I think people who tune in actually want to be able to hear their legislators and what they are saying. Just endless, pointless background noise inhibits that," he said.

Alberta always produces a herd of minor parties, especially for elections when government might change hands. There have been as many as 12 parties fielding candidates.

"My observation as a regular Albertan watching this assembly (before) was I couldnt hear half of what they were saying with all the thumping going on."

The retirement from elective politics of former Wildrose leader Brian Jean, the MLA for Fort McMurray-Conklin is a milestone for the United Conservative Party.

Kenney and the UCP caucus members focused on the carbon tax during question period. Kenney said it will be the theme during the spring sitting and up to the next election in the spring of 2019, and has promised to scrap the tax if he becomes premier.

Notley said the tax helped build the moral foundation for Prime Minister Justin Trudeaus decision to green light the Trans Mountain expansion in 2016.

In addition to the UCP and the NDP, who are the main contenders, there are eight other parties preparing to field candidates in the next general election.

Notley has been locked in a battle with B.C. Premier John Horgans government over what Alberta terms delay tactics on the pipeline, including court challenges in an area that Notley says is clearly an area of federal responsibility.

It is likely that at least 10 parties will have candidates in 2019 and some of the remaining nine wannabe parties may register and be represented.

Last week, Notley announced Alberta will consider curtailing the flow of oil if B.C. continues its tactics, an idea that Kenney had been touting for weeks.

Albertans have always dreamed of changing the world from their tractor seats, so they get off those seats and organize or join a new party.

After question period, all sides debated a government motion to urge Ottawa take action to get Trans Mountain approved and to support the province in its effort.

It is becoming more apparent by the week that Kenney is more bully boy and less tolerant than these predecessors – and Rachel Notley.

"At every step along the way, our government has made the case to Canadians (for energy development and pipelines)," Notley told the house after introducing the motion.

Notley says her government is preparing legislation, to be tabled fairly soon, that will lay out a plan to reduce oil shipments from the province.  That throne speech evoked memories of former Alberta Premier Peter Lougheed, who limited oil shipments to the East in response to the federal governments National Energy Program. Lougheed won that battle (as have two other Alberta premiers over the years), and the federal government eventually backed off from trying to grab much of Albertas oil and gas revenues. Clearly, both Notley and Kenney think they can win a similar fight with B.C.

Kenney has promised to elevate the decorum from his caucus the house, hence the impromptu cross-aisle wave to the premier.

"I intended to actually go over and shake her hand but then all of my guys started shouting at me," said Kenney. "Apparently you cant cross the floor, metaphorically speaking, here.

Last week, in a move that seemed to stun the B.C. NDP government, Notleys government made the same promise in its throne speech. That speech was unusually stinging in its characterization of the B.C. governments position on the pipeline project and warned in no uncertain terms that the Alberta government is prepared to get rough.

"I just wanted to salute her. At the end of the day were going to disagree on a lot of things, agree on some, but we dont have to be nasty about it."

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley speaks to media before the Speech from the Throne, in Edmonton on Thursday, March 8, 2018. (Jason Franson/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

UPC leader Jason Kenney is introduced for the first time in the house before the Speech from the Throne, in Edmonton on Thursday, March 8, 2018. (Jason Franson/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

The throne speech, after mentioning Lougheeds legislation, offered this threat:  We will not hesitate to invoke similar legislation if it becomes necessary owing to extreme and illegal actions on the part of the B.C. government to stop the pipeline.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says the national security argument the U.S. is making when it comes to considering tariffs for Canadian steel and aluminum makes no sense.

Energy analysts think the price at the pump could easily jump to a mind-boggling $3 a litre in a fairly short period if Alberta deploys its nuclear option. And prices could increase quite quickly and dramatically if any prolonged supply problem takes hold.

Don Martin talks to people and players who dominate the political scene.

Hosted by CTVs Don Martin, Power Play is a must for political insiders.

And if gas prices skyrocket because Alberta turns off the tap, you can be sure the debate over the Kinder Morgan project will shift from tanker traffic and pipeline spills to an old-fashioned consumer argument about what it costs to fill up the car.

I recently had the opportunity to sit down one-on-one with the leader of the United Conservative Party.

Theres no question that limiting oil shipments would play extremely well with the Alberta electorate, and British Columbians would suddenly become very familiar with the implications of an oil shortage.

Despite the relentless snow that seemingly without end kept coming down on Friday, March 2, Jason Kenney — accompanied by the Rimbey-Rocky Mountain House-Sundre riding’s own MLA Jason Nixon — managed to safely navigate the treacherous roads to arrive in Sundre after stops in Rocky Mountain House and Caroline.

We met at Mr. Nixon’s constituency office, and although I’d been offered about 10 minutes, I figured considering the circumstances, what with weather delays, that I would be lucky to even get a few. After all, my humble musings do not command quite the same reach in readership as for example the CBC, CTV, Global News, or the big-city dailies, and the entourage did have other places to go before the day was over.

Thats because Alberta Premier Rachel Notley has doubled down and has matched her chief political rival in the jingoistic sweepstakes over the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion.

So I was surprised to end up actually getting to chat with Mr. Kenney for 15 minutes.

While there were plenty of questions that might easily have consumed hours, we nevertheless packed quite a bit of conversation into that relatively brief period of time. Among the issues we dove into were abandoned oil wells in Alberta, and the potential cleanup cost racking up tens of billions of dollars on the taxpayers’ tab.

That is one of the arguments offered by Environment Minister George Heyman in response to Notleys threat. That, and that he doesnt think she will actually take any action.

“Let’s face it, there’s no silver bullet to solve the problem of cleaning up abandoned wells, many of which were drilled by companies that no longer exist,” he said.

In the future, Mr. Kenney said that part of the answer would be to ensure proper bonding of companies that intend to drill wells. However, regardless of whether such rules should in the past have been in place, “there’s no point in crying over spilled milk.”

That statement struck me as dismissive of a serious issue facing this province. Abandoned wells and the monumentally mammoth cleanup tab is a much bigger deal than spilled milk, which costs nothing and almost no time to wipe up from the kitchen table.

Of course he’s not wrong to suggest companies that in the future wish to drill must be bonded. Still, I cannot wrap my head around how there were apparently no stipulations in past contracts that held companies responsible for the cost of cleanup, instead conveniently selling out the interests of Albertans who are left flapping in the wind holding onto a bill we cannot afford to pay.

Although he did not seem particularly receptive to a proposal of reforming the carbon tax to iron out the problems — his motto might as well basically be “repeal or bust!” — Mr. Kenney nevertheless seemed open minded to certain clean energy alternatives, provided the technology is economically feasible.

When asked about the potential to convert suitably located abandoned wells into geothermal stations that generate free, clean power, he confessed not being familiar with such a proposal, “but if there is a technology that works economically, I’m sure an entrepreneur will find a way to do that, and I would support that.”

So while it’s encouraging that the UCP leader expressed support for green energy such as geothermal, provided of course there is an economical case, I still cannot help but to disagree with his position on the carbon tax — which for the record certainly has room for improvement, especially in terms of accommodating non-profit organizations.

Unfortunately, if history has taught us anything, it is that the only way to help the environment and reduce wanton, unbridled waste in a convenience-trumps-all consumer culture is actually precisely to do just that. People would have never, on average, adopted recycling habits had deposits not been imposed on beverage bottles.

We did not get into LGBTQ students and gay-straight alliances, right to choice of education and taxpayer dollars funding private and religious schools, impending legalization of recreational cannabis, or how claims that the NDP government is killing Alberta’s economy reconcile with stats that show a province leading the country in economic growth.

Seeing what his party’s outreach to Alberta’s grassroots will yield in terms of proposed policy positions when the fledgling conservative party presents Albertans with an alternative to the NDP platform should be interesting.

But please, everyone — whatever happens, let us not elect the UCP solely on the issue of repealing the carbon tax.

There must be more substance. This trend of casting votes on a single issue or out of spite against one party rather than through inspiration for another must end.

My concern with politics is that parties — and sadly all too often supporters on either side — seem more preoccupied with tearing one another down as opposed to working collectively to help us all rise together.

Most lifestyle differences among people do not personally affect or even so much as remotely harm one another and should therefore have no bearing on political discourse. From who a person chooses to love, which deity someone else desires to worship, to another who perhaps would gladly pay to watch Hollywood-glorified violence, none of these should be issues.

So long as a person is not causing someone else direct distress, who even cares?

What we should be focused on are the commonalities that connect us, including quality health care, education, the environment, functional infrastructure and effective emergency response services — all of which impact every last Albertan, regardless of background.

— Ducatel is the editor of the Sundre Round Up, a Great West newspaper

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