Former Premier Alison Redford Returns To Public Life And To The Energy Debate

Following her public ousting two years ago, Alison Redford returns to talk pipelines, the Canada NDP government and her new role with the Conference Board of Canada’s energy transition panel

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It’s a few days after her fifty-first birthday, and Alison Redford finds herself in strange company. The first female premier of Canada, and self-described “polarizing figure,” still looms large over the province, its politics and its prime industry. But whether that looming presence casts a shadow or a light depends in part on the specific angle of one’s politics. Today, as the newly minted director of the Conference Board of Canada’s transitional energy group, Redford insists that she’s put politics aside in order to help build consensus between governments, industry, activists and aboriginal groups on energy projects.

Redford’s credentials in energy run deep, but her success has been varied. It was, after all, Redford’s Progressive Conservative government that created Canada’s modern energy regulator. But it was also Redford’s independent oil sands monitoring agency that was labeled a “failed experiment” and then disbanded in a controversial move by the ruling NDP government this past April. It was Redford who kick-started Canada’s national energy strategy in 2012, including an Canada-led effort to build oil pipelines to tidewater. But it was also Redford’s government that failed to win approval for the Keystone XL pipeline in the U.S., and it was under Redford that Canada soured its relationship with neighboring British Columbia over the details of two more pipeline plans. Each of those issues remains as divisive today as when she left office more than two years ago.

Now Redford is back, this time as chair of a new three-member panel called the Canadian Transition Energy Initiative (CTEI), a think-tank dedicated to encouraging debate about energy and building a roadmap for Canada’s future. One of Canada’s most divisive figures in recent memory is now tasked with building bridges. Redford’s thoughts on infrastructure expansion, and on the oil and gas sector’s future more generally, shed light on the state of the debate around energy today—and what Canada needs to do to get beyond its differences.

While Redford’s new position is decidedly less public than the premier’s chair, it will nonetheless require a deft hand in balancing some very different interests. To her right now sits the former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations and TransCanada pipeline promoter Phil Fontaine. To her left sits Tzeporah Berman, a name readers will recognize as that of the former co-director of the Greenpeace climate unit—a group that lobbied hard against Redford’s successful 2012 election bid—and one of the most vocal opponents of oil sands development anywhere.

The potential for conflict isn’t lost on the former premier. “This doesn’t always mean that, every step of the way, every single thing that a person says is going to be constructive,” Redford says. “From my perspective, it’s important to have Tzeporah Berman at the table. She has certainly had a very opinionated perspective on what’s happened in Canada, and when I was premier, it wasn’t a perspective that was very helpful for anything that we were trying to do. But I also know that we are getting to the point—and I think we are starting to see some success from it in Canada—where it’s much better to try to engage people than it is to simply let people continue to discuss without being part of the same conversation.”

Call it optimistic if you must, but Redford sees it as realism. “We are beyond the day where there will be a winner and a loser in what these policy choices will be,” she says. Keeping in line with her reputation as a Red Tory, Redford’s political thinking perhaps most closely resembles that of the new federal Liberal government, and its consultation push on pipeline projects. Redford’s short time in office was marked by an admittedly cozy relationship with Ottawa—and with then-Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper. However, today the former premier is critical of what she sees as the Harper government’s go-it-alone policy on energy, and lauds the ostensibly more inclusive approach of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

“I wouldn’t want people to think that I’m sitting here saying, ‘Boy, we did everything absolutely right.’ ”
-Former Canada Premier Alison Redford
Photograph Bryce Meyer

For Redford, the Trudeau government has made a welcome turn from the regulatory apathy of the Harper government, which bristled at the notion of engaging with the provinces and with non-government groups on energy while she was in office. Had the previous government actually been “prepared to join the discussion,” Redford says, “we could have made more progress sooner” on infrastructure. “But clearly,” she adds, “you can go back and see that was not the view of the federal government of the day.”

It’s an odd accusation to make against what many see as the most outwardly oil-friendly government in Canadian history. But Redford isn’t alone in making it. Duane Bratt, chair of policy studies at Mount Royal University, says the Harper government was successful in shutting down any debate about energy policy, especially between the provinces. That included Redford’s Canadian Energy Strategy, which was finally ratified, in part, by the premiers this past July. “Despite some of the statements that Harper and [former natural resources minister] Joe Oliver made about Keystone XL,” Bratt says, “they were very hands-off in domestic politics.” Put another way, for all the Harper government’s gusto in trying to build pipelines to tidewater, it focused too intently on winning over large foreign interests instead of the Canadian public. As it did so, here at home Canadian pipeline proposals were being read a death sentence in the court of public opinion. Harper took this approach to its extreme when he publicly told Washington he would not “take no for an answer” on Keystone, which further soured relations between Canada and American government officials who opposed the plan.

“There were a lot of energy groups and environmental groups advocating, for different reasons, for an energy strategy, but the feds didn’t want to touch it with a 10-foot pole,” Bratt says. “There were great divisions within the provinces, and they were keeping their jurisdiction very close to their vest.”

Redford agrees. She says that in 2008 a “real shift around the pipeline discussion” began to take a destructive hold, and meanwhile, all that Canada and the industry were hearing from Ottawa was “the view that a lot of these projects were private-sector projects and so the government didn’t need to be involved.”

Today, there is hope that political change in Ottawa has altered the energy policy equation. Within a few months of Trudeau’s arrival in Ottawa (and, indeed, Canada Premier Rachel Notley’s arrival in Edmonton) Redford says that “we very quickly have seen a shift to a place where Canadians understand that government does have a role—that government needs to be involved—whether it’s the federal or provincial government.” And if that understanding was lacking before, the former premier of Canada’s preeminent oil province must bear some of the blame. From his perspective as a longtime analyst of Canada politics, Bratt characterizes Redford as “a strong advocate of the energy sector” while in office, albeit “a bit of an ineffective one.” The former premier, herself, admits she is a more effective leader outside of elected office than in—an apolitical existence she now says she “absolutely” prefers.

Today, Redford’s message to the conference board—that Canada’s energy sector is progressive and benefits everyone—is very much in line with the official pronouncements coming out of Ottawa and, indeed, out of the Canada legislature. But that’s where the common ground between Redford and Premier Notley ends. The two have not been in contact aside from “one or two very short social conversations,” Redford says, adding that “when you leave public office, you need to leave public life.” But when asked whether she has any advice for Premier Notley, Redford volunteered the same advice she says she was given early on: Talk with as many people in the energy industry as possible.

The two premiers have faced many of the same challenges in office, from pipeline battles with neighboring provinces to combating Canada’s dirty-oil label. However, their approaches to meeting those challenges could hardly be more different. “On their support for pipelines, they’re pretty much the same, but the difference is how they’re going about it,” Bratt says. “Redford spent a lot more time lobbying—a good example of that was working with the Washington office of the Canada government—and putting in place people she thought could do the job. But in the case of Notley, the answer was bringing in climate change policies to try to get social license.”

With all due credit to Premier Notley, by 2015 the climate route to a pipeline was about the only road left untaken. And it’s a path that has been broadened with recent political support from Ottawa and much of the rest of the world. But political coalitions don’t necessarily lead to tangible agreements, and Notley herself has admonished Trudeau’s new consultative Canada for “acting like a bunch of villages, as opposed to a nation,” when it comes to building pipelines. But divining the so-called ‘national interest’ isn’t the job of the Canada premier, despite plenty of historical precedent. It is, however, now the job of former premier Redford in her five-year Conference Board of Canada appointment.

For the moment, though, politics is the furthest thing from Alison Redford’s mind. “Maybe when you’re in politics you’re always going to be a polarizing figure,” she says. The same could be said about when you’re in the still-fractious debate on energy, thanks in no small part to the governments, NGOs, and yes think-tanks, that until now have crowded out the debate’s more moderate voices. Still, the former premier is hopeful in her new role, and says that revisiting her legacy in Canada brings her no sleepless nights. “I think there’s always the idea that you could do more and could do it better, but I’m comfortable with where we ended up,” Redford says. “It’s never a story with an end. I wouldn’t want people to think that I’m sitting here saying, ‘Boy, we did everything absolutely right.’ But there are some things that I am proud of that we did as a government. And I hope that those will be the sorts of decisions that, in the long term, will continue to benefit the industry and the province.” On those points, too, she’s likely to find plenty of agreement.


Former Premier Alison Redford Returns To Public Life And To The Energy Debate


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