Western premiers hope Thomas Mulcair’s visit to Alberta's oilsands will change his mind on whether Canada is suffering from Dutch disease. But the NDP Leader, who welcomes the attention and the debate, is unlikely to bail on a strategy that is working for him.
A report from the Pembina Institute released this week backs up Mulcair’s views on the effects the oilsands are having on the Canadian economy. Of course, Pembina is a think tank with an environmentalist mission and, not to be outdone, the more right-wing Macdonald-Laurier Institute came out with a report of their own dispelling Mulcair’s argument.
Mulcair has been heavily criticized for his stance in some corners of the national media. While the polls vary on whether Canadians agree with the NDP Leader, they do show New Democrats and Conservatives are neck-and-neck nationally. And the spill of 22,000 barrels of oil this month in northern Alberta serves as a reminder that Canada’s oil industry is not just a good news story.
It seems many have become used to the electoral alliance between the West and Ontario the Conservatives have built over the last three federal elections and which gave Stephen Harper his first majority government. Long dominated by the Bloc Québécois, Quebec has been relegated to bystander status.
But the truth of the matter is that Quebec is a big part of Mulcair’s electoral equation. The seats the NDP can win in Quebec (50+) are more numerous than all the seats in Alberta and Saskatchewan, even after the allocation of new ridings between now and 2015. The Conservatives correctly concluded they could win a majority without Quebec – it should come as no shock the NDP has realized they can win an election without the West.
And the West is far from monolithic. The oil industry is rather small in Manitoba, and Winnipeg is fertile territory for the NDP. The heavily-publicized criticism of Mulcair from Western premiers is unlikely to resonate outside of Alberta and Saskatchewan, which were always unlikely to vote NDP anyway. Meanwhile, Christy Clark, who called Mulcair’s views “goofy” manages the support of only one in four British Columbians on a good day. By comparison, the provincial NDP recently hit 50 per cent support.
There is always the danger the West might protest too much. Frustration with central Canada’s economic and political dominance has long been an important factor influencing the votes of western Canadians: it gave birth to the Reform Party and ruined the Liberals in the region. But this frustration could reverse itself if voters feel the national economy is being skewed toward the West and its non-renewable resources to the detriment of the rest of the country.
It is perhaps no coincidence, then, that a meeting of western premiers this week resulted in talk of sustainability and a national energy strategy aimed at benefiting all Canadians. The West is rising, but other Canadians still have a say.