Centrist think tank funded by Alberta Together may make important contributions to energy/climate policy discussion
Around 300 people gathered in Red Deer on Saturday to discuss how to organize the political centre at the Alberta Together event led by Katherine O’Neill, former president of the PC Party who resigned after the election of Jason Kenney as leader in April. While the event created some buzz, the biggest contribution the new group may make to Alberta politics is creating a think tank that studies provincial policy issues and provides centrist policy prescriptions.
O’Neill says she’s excited by the opportunity to look at the big issues in the Alberta economy – the oil and gas industry, healthcare, education.
“We want to give a balanced view about how we can afford them moving forward, what are reasonable policy approaches, what’s pragmatic. I think it’s going to be a different voice,” she said in an interview.
“We really only had the two ends of the political spectrum but never really anything in the middle, giving that more pragmatic, evidence-based approach to issues.”
A centrist approach to energy would be particularly welcome.
Rachel Notley and the NDP have done a good job on policies and regulations affecting the oil sands, such as the 100 megatonne emissions cap and output-based allocations, which are expected to lower the carbon-intensity of oil sands crude at the same time output grows by 1.5 million b/d by 2030. The NDP can point to other solid policy pieces, such as orphan well reclamation, the royalty regime review, and upcoming regulations to reduce fugitive methane emissions.
But, as Alberta Party leader Greg Clark argues in an interview with North American Energy News, the Alberta government has not done a good job accommodating small producers, who historically have developed oil and gas fields that are eventually sold to larger companies. Clark is also highly critical of the NDP handling of the coal power plant phase-out, accusing Notley and company of being unprepared.
Alberta Together’s research arm may also partly fill the energy policy void on the right of Alberta politics, where the Wildrose Party led by Brian Jean and the PC Party of Jason Kenney are advocating a hands off approach to the oil sand gas sector. Wildrose energy critic Drew Barnes in a cheerleaders outfit and pom poms seems to be about as profound as the conservative parties get when it comes to energy.
“Oil and gas is still a huge part of our economy and there’s lots of people I think are really hungry for a long-term plan that addresses our energy industry, but also balances it off with our climate change obligations,” O’Neill said.
She says oil and gas will be a prominent topic when the research arm launches this fall. The organization has already raised $100,000 and is shooting for a quarter million by the end of summer.
In addition to research, the money will fund community outreach and obtaining feedback about what Albertans want from their government.
None of the funds will be used for political advertising, says O’Neill, who notes that Alberta Together will remain non-partisan unlike the right-wing Manning Centre and the left-wing Broadbent Institute.
The Red Deer event attracted a fair number of Alberta Party members; a straw poll on the event’s smartphone app indicates that 83 per cent of the attendees favour getting behind Clark’s party, which has just one seat in the Alberta Legislature.
Grace Wong of Edmonton sits on the Alberta Party provincial board of directors. She says the Alberta Together gathering was a “meeting for like-minded centrists to meet and get a feel for where we go from here.”
Wong says she’s talked to a number of former PC members who have migrated to her party and more are arriving all the time. The Red Deer meeting “pretty much led to brisk membership sales,” she said.
Mark Garcia is an NDP member who lives in Red Deer, attended the Alberta Together gathering, but had a different view of it.
One surprise, according to Garcia, was the number of youth in attendance: “I will credit the event though on its diversity and youth. I was sitting around a lot of people in my age range of 20 to 30.”
That age group, more likely to support a combination of energy and climate mitigation policies, could be a key demographic for Alberta Together outreach.
While an expanded centrist vote may cause problems for the NDP in 2019 – and perhaps even the United Conservative Party if enough left-leaning PC members flee to the political middle, deflating Jean and Kenney’s big tent political party idea – middle ground policy ideas are likely to be Alberta Together’s biggest contribution to Alberta politics in the short-term.