Dead Parrot

Alberta’s nostalgia party.

By Fred Stenson

Nostalgia consists of sentimental longing for a time with pleasant associations. Think of a party where boomers sing Beatles songs and someone recites Monty Python’s dead-parrot skit. The reductiveness of nostalgia, however, has always pained me. Remembering the ’60s and ’70s, we sing and play but forget the parade of drug-destroyed rock icons and non-icons. We forget that America turned its army loose on unarmed war-protesting students; that a person with long hair could get beaten pulpish in Calgary taverns. Why don’t we sing Neil Young’s “The Needle and the Damage Done?” Well, we just don’t.

A certain degree of nostalgia stands behind Alberta’s welding of the PCs and Wildrose into the Humpty Dumpty Party.

The reasons this merger shouldn’t have happened are the same unresolved reasons behind conservative dissidents’ forming the Alliance and Wild Rose parties in the first place to get away from the PCs. The same philosophical differences will fester in the new party. If said party wins an election, holding Humpty together will necessitate backsliding, nose-holding legislation: assaults on the rights of women and LGBTQ people; limits to what schoolchildren can learn about their society. Also look for royalty holidays and grants to big oil, paid for with new debt. Jason Kenney says he can balance the budget—but with what? As the Edmonton Journal’s Graham Thomson reminds us, Ralph Klein paid down the debt with annual resource revenues as high as $14-billion. With today’s low oil and natural gas prices, that number is more like $4-billion.

The merger is rooted in nostalgia of the PCs’ 44-year run, starting in 1971, when Albertans had a jolly good time—or think they did. In the ’70s, when OPEC turned off the taps, a barrel of oil went from 5 bucks to 80. Peter Lougheed hardlined the fed and harvested a larger portion of the increase, and Alberta partied like it was 1975. Population zoomed, most newcomers were young and Calgary’s Electric Avenue was a wild place. Companies threw immense barbecues. Toss a few steers on the grill; down a few hundred Caesars (the drink we invented). All fine and well documented and I’ll leave it at that.

The “Humpty Party’s” delusional nostalgia is funded by Albertans who made millions milking the tax-free cow—and would like to do so again.

What makes Alberta’s nostalgia as selectively phony as most is that the good times didn’t roll much farther than 1980. The Humptys will tell you the party stopped because of Pierre Trudeau’s NEP, which is as much nonsense as the idea that Rachel Notley crashed the world oil price in 2015. In the ’80s OPEC flooded the oil market just as Trump is flooding it today. Oil companies that partied in the ’70s were limping in the ’80s. Debt-heavy Canadian oil companies (e.g., Dome) wound up as arms and legs of US multinationals.

This mini ice age in Alberta oil lasted until the late ’90s. Big oil had been holding onto masses of cash; prospects were so bad, companies were afraid to invest anywhere. Along came Jean Chrétien and Ralph Klein, saying: Get yourself to Alberta’s oil sands and we’ll give you a royalty holiday, low taxes and our famous stability. The money gushed in. The oil sands construction frenzy was on. We had $100 oil for awhile in the 2000s—well, until we had $30 oil again.

Like other nostalgias, the Humpty Party’s “Make Alberta Great Again” campaign is unreal and unhealthy. Idea one is that the old greatness is possible. In reality Alberta has little conventional oil left and the natural gas price remains low; the oil sands is a high-cost play in a low-price world; the world is waking up to the fact that carbon-intense fuel-burning really does drive climate calamity. As for fracking, frackmaster Trump’s US fracking frenzy has fracked the oil price.

Albertans of the Humpty Party want another bonanza. Regardless of the environmental or social cost, bring it on. No matter how much new debt it takes to make the pot boil, let ’er rip.

You never hear peep about the profligacy of past bonanzas, when their conservative government grandpappies made billions and saved nickles, when they collected chump change for future reclamation that will cost Albertans an estimated $50-billion. This is just for draining and reclaiming the trillion-barrel crap-lakes politely called “tailings ponds.” Pond? I guess this is the usage Victorian travellers had in mind when they called a trans-Atlantic voyage “crossing the pond.”

The Humpty Party stands atop this delusional nostalgia, funded by people who made millions milking the tax-free cow—and would like to do so again. The Notley NDP has suggested to Albertans that it might be time to grow up. United Humpty replies, “No way, man! We’ll never ask you to grow up. Never ask you to pay taxes like grown-ups. What about your kids? Well, we’ll teach them to barbecue, make Caesars, blame the Trudeau family and NDP for their troubles—and, when the blush is off the wild rose, they can move away.”

Fred Stenson’s most recent novel is Who By Fire (Doubleday). Other books include The Trade, Lightning and The Great Karoo.

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