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A polarized Alberta needs a moderate Danielle Smith

Alberta, once a lopsided electoral landscape that tilted sharply right, is today split between two poles.

In 2015, when the NDP defeated a divided right, the top two parties garnered about two-thirds of the votes. In 2019, the United Conservative Party and NDP attracted almost nine in 10 votes. On Monday, the two parties won almost every single vote. Amid the two poles, it was the closest election in Alberta’s history. The seats, pending recounts, are 49-38. The UCP dominated rural Alberta. In Calgary and Edmonton, the NDP booked 34 seats to the UCP’s 12.

What’s clear in these polarized results is the need for a moderate approach to governing the next four years. This space this week lamented Canada’s ongoing polarization and the increasingly vacated political centre. In her victory speech, Premier Danielle Smith promised to represent all Albertans, a typical, and typically anodyne, pledge. But she effectively acknowledged the vote split, saying there is “much more that unites us than divides us.” She has to live up to those words.

What moderate governance means is not fully going to war with Ottawa, as the UCP did under Jason Kenney. What moderate means is setting aside unpopular and unwise ideas such as a provincial public pension. What moderate means is pushing away, not courting, extreme elements.

Ms. Smith’s penchant for wild statements is well established. On the campaign trail she was more cautious and disciplined. That’s the steady leadership that will help Alberta thrive. Canada’s richest province faces a generational challenge. Output of oil and natural gas is at record levels, yet the world is poised to, over a couple decades, rapidly reduce use of those fossil fuels. The future is obvious: The International Energy Agency last week reported annual global investment in clean energy is climbing to double that of fossil fuels. Money invested in solar this year, for the first time, will exceed cash going to oil.

On climate, Ms. Smith on Monday night spoke of intransigence and co-operation with Ottawa. Co-operation is preferred; it’s already produced results. As this space highlighted last weekend, oil and gas emissions peaked eight years ago and have fallen 7 per cent, as production climbed 16 per cent.

The UCP’s own climate plan, published in April, has few specific goals. Ms. Smith’s speech mentioned LNG – more fossil fuels – and technology. The latter is pinned on carbon capture, untested on a broad scale. Alberta has put up about $2-billion. Ottawa has pledged roughly $8-billion. The UCP are expected to add at least $3-billion more to the mix.

But carbon capture is only one lever. Alberta, already Canada’s leader in solar and wind, can go big in renewables. It’s mostly been private money so far. Ms. Smith’s government should do more.

Ms. Smith questions Ottawa’s potential cap on oil and gas emissions, as did the Alberta NDP. This space is skeptical of that mechanism, a plan Ottawa has not yet officially proposed. Ms. Smith’s fear that an emissions cap would become a cap on oil and gas output may be valid. Ottawa insists otherwise. It could all end up mired in the courts. Meanwhile, no one proposes that motorists across the country be banned from driving two days a week in 2030 if Canada misses its transport emissions goal.

Ambition should be the focus, not jurisdictional fights. Clean power is a prime example. Ottawa wants 100 per cent clean power by 2035. The Alberta NDP supported it. Ms. Smith prefers 2050. Alberta can do better than that. Surely there is a fair and profitable compromise, where Ottawa and Alberta both invest to reach the goal sooner than later.

The UCP also faces financial challenges. The party’s 2023-24 budget detailed a future of no deficits and a freeze on real per capita spending, which would help move some oil money to savings and debt repayment. But oil prices don’t have to fall far to see deficits. On the campaign trail the UCP also said they would cut taxes and send future tax increases to a referendum. The bottom line is, as this space argued at the start of the campaign, the attention must be on getting Alberta out of the whipsaw of booms and busts.

Ms. Smith won a narrow majority mandate. She narrowly won her party’s leadership last fall. Amid polarization, it is time for moderation. Ms. Smith and the NDP can adapt to the evolving political landscape and find the centre. Albertans, together, can accomplish a lot in the next four years, a decisive moment in the province’s history.

Source: theglobeandmail