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Why let facts interfere with a good story?

Instead of emotion-driven referendum questions etc., columnist makes a plea for steady, calm and rational discussion.
Equalization remains an Alberta-centric hot topic, where it ought to be a rational, deliberate process between Ottawa and all the provinces, writes columnist. Photo: Metro Creative Connections

Somewhere along the line, politics became a series of battles over symbols.

What was the biggest issue facing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last month? He took a short break with his wife and children after a gruelling election campaign rather than visit an Indigenous group in B.C. on his newly created National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.

His political opponents jumped on his choice gleefully. Verbose public scold Rex Murphy said Trudeau had displayed a level of hypocrisy demanding a resignation. Trudeau later attended a ritual public humiliation at a meeting with Indigenous leaders in Kamloops; some of them were still not satisfied, saying they were not sure he had really listened to them.

It’s hard to feel sympathy for him. Trudeau has made apologies and virtue signalling a core part of his leadership. Forgetting that he has made himself a servant of other people’s feelings was another of his regular lapses of judgment.

Albertans have seen a lot of this kind of politics over the years, and still do.

Jobs? The budget deficit? COVID-19?

Why would the government concentrate on those when it could try to whip up emotion-driven, largely fact-free venting over equalization and funding of environmental groups?

Thus the Oct. 18 municipal elections had a referendum tacked on asking whether equalization should be removed from the Constitution. Premier Jason Kenney conceded the result could have no practical effect. He pictured it as a way to demonstrate Albertans’ resolve and force negotiations.

The results didn’t add up to the massive support the premier needed.

On top of that, it’s not clear what was motivating those who did vote. Were some “yes” voters merely expressing routine discontent with Ottawa? Did some “no” voters see it as a referendum on the premier? What can anyone conclude from a vote on a program whose operation many people don’t understand?

The best that can be said is that many Albertans quite correctly do not like seeing billions of dollars in tax money (nearly 90 per cent of it coming from other provinces and not from Alberta) handed to Quebec while that province arrogantly tries to depress Alberta’s crucial energy industry.

The way to deal with equalization — and the program does have problems, some of which Kenney endorsed while he was in the federal cabinet — is to make the case steadily, calmly, and in rational detail.

The government could deal with attacks on the energy industry the same way. Instead, it paid $3.5 million for an inquiry into the foreign funding of environmental groups and got an unsurprising result that found no wrongdoing, merely the exercise of free speech. The inquiry couldn’t even say that foreign funding of Canadian environmental groups had any effect on energy or pipeline projects.

Energy Minister Sonya Savage tried to brazen it out, telling a news conference that the report should make Albertans angry and that its 657 pages were required reading for them. Many people laughed. The giveaway that it was a farce: Kenney, who started the inquiry with dramatic claims, skipped the news conference. He confined himself to making false claims in a Tweet.

The energy industry could also be the subject of steady, calm, rational discussion.

But that isn’t the Alberta way. Governments here have always played on emotion-laden symbols in their never-ending quest to grasp more power from Ottawa. The fabled national energy program has played that role for four decades.

A funny thing turned up recently in a search of newly available archives from the office of Lou Hyndman, who was provincial treasurer in the early 1980s. The website reported what confidential surveys of Alberta businesses had found in 1981, when the NEP was supposed to be devastating the provincial economy.

Were business owners lamenting the NEP? Nope. They were overwhelmingly worried about the effects of interest rates soaring into the 20-per-cent range. But why let facts interfere with a good story?

Mark Lisac watches the political scene for Alberta Prime Times