Uh, Oh.

I’ve said this on a few other blogs: any suggestion that Canadians in general and Ontarians in particular might pilfer from lucky Alberta’s $7 Billion surplus has tended to come from a handful of Albertan bloggers casting an (in my opinion paranoid) eye out for the Son of the National Energy Program. Such a move, some argue, could deepen regional tensions in this country, to the point that the oil-rich province might decide to separate and set itself up as Saudi Alberta.

To my American readers, the NEP is an old hurt for Alberta. Back in 1981, when oil prices were high and oil rich Albertans were sitting pretty while the rest of the country slipped into recession, the Trudeau government installed the National Energy Program, after acrimonious negotiations with Albertan premier Peter Lougheed. Calgary Grit has a very good history of what NEP was and how it was received by Albertans.

To summarize, a number of Albertans believe that NEP was installed in response to “Eastern” jealousy over Alberta’s oil riches. The acrimony was enhanced when the world price of oil collapsed in 1982, rendering the NEP pointless, and plunging Alberta into a deep recession. In the mind of some Albertans, NEP and the recession that followed are connected, though I can’t see a logical connection between a Canadian program and the Saudi decision to turn on the taps.

But that’s neither here nor there. I simply don’t believe average Ontarians are interested in Alberta’s current oil wealth. Thus far, any suggestion — outside of some Albertans — that a new NEP was on the way have come from one or two Quebec academics, as well as journalists hard-pressed to find some real news to write home about. Only when I start hearing Ontarians grumble about Alberta’s $7 billion surplus over their coffee and timbits will I believe there is widespread support for such a program. Most Ontarians grumble about high gas prices, but most believe the market is doing what one would expect to do in these times, and most believe the best way to deal with gas prices is to, where possible, not drive.

Ontarians do feel that the $23 Billion we contribute to confederation is steep, but our grievance is not with Alberta or any of the other provinces, but with Ottawa. This problem is an old one, begun in 1994 when Paul Martin slayed the deficit partly by slashing provincial transfer payments. These cuts hurt all of the provinces, to the point where the federal contribution to health care in Alberta is so small, the province has no incentive to stay in the program. There is no doubt that the sizable surplus the federal government now enjoys was paid for on the backs of provincial taxes and spending. And though we want our portion back, we don’t want Paul Martin to provide it by rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. It wouldn’t fix the fiscal imbalance. Either spend the long-promised money on the New Deal for Cities (which benefits Edmonton and Calgary as much as Toronto), or give the money back to the provinces through the transfer of tax points.

Anyway, that’s what I thought. This article from the CBC is going to feed the paranoia that the Son of NEP is on the way:

Poll: almost half of Canadians want oil industry nationalized

The Canadian Press said Monday a Leger poll suggested 49 per cent of respondents want petroleum resources nationalized while 43 per cent said they would like to see the same fate for gas companies.

The Leger Marketing telephone survey of 1,500 people was conducted between Aug. 24 and Aug. 31, much of it before the major effects of Hurricane Katrina were felt.

Hmm… In other words, before gas hit $1.30 per litre.

Some of the regional breakdowns are as you would expect: strong support for nationalization in Quebec (67%) and strong opposition in Alberta (59%)

However, I would caution those who see this as another Alberta versus Ontario issue to consider the following:

Quebecers were the strongest supporters of resource nationalization at 67 per cent, followed by residents of the Atlantic provinces at 53 per cent, Ontarians at 45 per cent and British Columbians at 42 per cent.

Forty per cent of respondents on the Prairies and 36 per cent of Albertans were in favour.

Among those opposed to resource nationalization, Albertans led the way at 49 per cent followed by British Columbians at 39 per cent.

Quebec led in support for nationalization of oil companies, with 61 per cent in favour, followed by the Atlantic provinces at 46 per cent.

Alberta was the most opposed to oil company nationalization at 59 per cent, followed by the prairies at 49 per cent, B.C. at 46 per cent and Ontario at 41 per cent.

Most of the respondents — 79 per cent — suggested they would like to see taxes on gasoline cut. Federal and provincial governments have made it clear that is unlikely to happen.

More than one in three Albertans support resource nationalization. Two out of every five Ontarians oppose it. Any attempt to apply blanket regional generalizations to this debate should keep this in mind: neither Albertans nor Ontarians are speaking with one voice, here.

And I would also have to ask what questions Leger asked, and whether there’s a difference between somebody saying “yes” to “would you like to see the oil industry nationalized” and actually changing their vote for a party that campaigned for such a policy.

I do not believe nationalization is a good idea. That’s a tool I’d only use when the capitalist system failed, producing a single-company monopoly in a key industry. The industry we’re talking about here is not just oil, but energy, and there’s no monopoly here. The way to reduce the price of oil is to reduce our dependence on it. Encourage the growth of alternate energies. Encourage conservation by maintaining gas taxes.

This can be a hard thing to consider when you’re staring down the barrel of a gas pump at $1.30 per litre, but we might look back on this price increase as the best thing that could have happened. We still have a lot of oil left to use in this world, but now we have strong incentives to conserve it and switch away from it before it runs out completely.

Alberta’s economic strength may be backed by pure luck of geography and economics, but it’s to our benefit as well, even if there is no revenue transfer between the provinces, and even if it comes in the form of a challenge. The switch in technology required to move us from an oil-based economy to something else will require a tremendous amount of research and high tech, and that’s something that Ontario does very well.

Ontarians may not be looking that far ahead, but we still seem ready to weather the gas price storm. One poll does not a movement make. Until I hear the plan over coffee and timbits, I still believe the Son of NEP won’t be appearing.

Worth Reading

Hat tip to Jordon Cooper

Kester Brewin compares Baghdad and New Orleans.

I hope that we will all see just how delicate our situations are. It’s too easy to look on with disgust as people in far flung places appear to act like animals and loot and smash and fight and protest. But in a matter of days we have seen how the urban poor of a place much more familiar have had to act to survive - and taken in action in conditions that look more like Addis or Dhaka than down USA.

Read the whole thing.

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