Thursday, October 15, 2015

Petroleum, Politics, and the Limits of Left Progressivism in Alberta

Last week saw the publication of a new book entitled Alberta Oil and the Decline of Democracy in Canada. You can download the entire book for free from Athabasca University Press.

Trevor Harrison’s chapter entitled “Petroleum, Politics, and the Limits of Left Progressivism in Alberta” examines the conventional wisdom that Alberta is a conservative province, looking at the history of left-progressivism as well as the role of specific historical events and socio-economic and political factors in shaping Alberta’s political terrain. While acknowledging that a democratic governance can be challenging in resource-based economy, Harrison also notes that politics matters.

I found the latter part of his chapter particularly interesting, wherein he chronicles some of the contradictions of Conservative policies. Or example, the Conservative party found itself unable to raise taxes or increase royalties because of its ideological choices and financial dependence on the oil industry even when the province’s economic expansion required additional revenue. Among the issues that limited the Tory’s ability to respond to this problem was the very democratic deficit that oil dependence had created:
It was not just the Alberta state that lacked relative autonomy from the petroleum industry; the same was true of many Albertans who had grown dependent, psychologically as well as economically, upon the petroleum industry for their well-being and sense of identity. Many oil workers in Alberta earn enough money to be safely placed within the top 1 percent of income earners, making them unlikely recruits for a proletarian revolution; hence, also, many Albertans, tied either directly or indirectly to the industry, tend to go to the barricades to defend the oil companies when there is any sign of criticism from outside the province or, indeed, from internal naysayers.
The Tory’s inability to politically cope with the contradictions of petroleum dependence created space for the (re)emergence of left-progressivism in the 2015 provincial election.

-- Bob Barnetson

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