When the going gets tough, tough get slagging

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British Columbia Premier Christy Clark had to know what kind of reaction her Throne Speech critique of Alberta would provoke. She planned it because nothing detracts from internal political problems like a good neighbourhood dustup.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on February 15, 2016.

OTTAWA—When the going gets tough, the tough get slagging.

It is a political game as old as the hills. Politicians play it for the simple reason that it works.

British Columbia Premier Christy Clark had to know what kind of reaction her Throne Speech critique of Alberta would provoke. She planned it because nothing detracts from internal political problems like a good neighbourhood dustup.

The late Calgary mayor Ralph Klein went on to become Alberta’s most popular premier after he bluntly coined the phrase “let the eastern bastards freeze in the dark.”

During the national energy program, the federal Liberal government was so despised that it was easy to paint all easterners with the same brush.

Alberta Conservative politicians have been dining for years on the offal of that 35-year-old energy decision, initiated in the aftermath of two world oil shortages.

Even Alberta kids who weren’t born during the last century know about the terrible eastern plague visited on their province by the national government.

The bottom line is that picking fights, and continuing them long after they are relevant, works for politicians.

Politicians of all persuasions understand the power of engaging your citizens in a fight against a common enemy. Just ask Donald Trump. But what is good for politicians can be economically counterproductive.

Alberta is in trouble now, and it behooves all of us as Canadians to step in and support the province.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s decision to roll out the first major infrastructure investments in Alberta was recognition that governments should help those who need it most.

Contrary to past history, last week’s interprovincial fight was started by another western province taking direct aim at Alberta’s economic record.

On the heels of a stinging credit downgrade, the calculated attack on Alberta was unconscionable. Why kick another province while it’s down? Isn’t that the time when we are supposed to stick together? Or has the country become so deeply fragmented that there is no such thing as the national interest?

One thing is for certain. Clark’s calculated cheap shot blew apart any notion of western solidarity.

One should not be too surprised. This is the same premier who rejected federal Senate reform overtures within minutes of being asked to join a new process.

Sadly, British Columbia and Saskatchewan have both been working overtime to encourage Alberta businesses to relocate.

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall, in a bid to buttress federal leadership credentials within his own party, is ready and willing to fight all comers.

As Alberta is facing tough times, you would think neighbouring provinces could come together in aid of a friend in need. The country banded together to support Saskatchewan during the great drought of 2001-2002.

Today it appears that filial felicity is dead. There is a lot more ink to be spilled and political gains to be made in attacking our neighbours than in supporting them.

One lone voice reminded us how Alberta was there to support an unemployed workforce when the cod fishery collapsed in Newfoundland in the late nineties.

As the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Rex Murphy eloquently recalled, thousands of laid-off fellow Newfoundlanders found jobs in the Alberta oilfields. Some say Fort McMurray boasts more expats from The Rock than native Albertans.

Clark’s calculated attack left the door open for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to show some real national leadership.

By calling on provinces to come together in times of trouble, Trudeau could remind all of us of a greater Canadian value.

Quebec and Ontario have recently formalized their relationship, with joint cabinet meetings and ministers cooperating on common economic goals and environmental issues. Instead of fighting each other for a small piece of the pie, they are trying to figure out how almost 21 million citizens can better bake a bigger pie.

Quebec and Ontario are stronger when they work together. They avoid cannibalizing each other in the hunt for international investment. Alberta and British Columbia need to follow their example.

Individually, each province loses when it fails to engage its neighbours. The opportunities presented by abolishing interprovincial barriers and working together on pipeline, energy and other economic collaborations are much more promising than what can be accomplished by building walls.

Clark, a combative politician, is adept at talking out of both sides of her mouth. The same week that she deliberately introduced a nasty polemic into the government’s throne speech, the premier claimed at a fundraiser that Albertans were her province’s best friends in Canada.

With friends like that, bring on the enemies.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.