Opinion: Jason Kenney's bet on Keystone was a taxpayer-funded trip to the casino

Tuesday 26th January 2021

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A few years ago, before he would become Premier, Jason Kenney gave a talk to a group of Albertans that veered into the subject of corporate welfare.

The leader of the United Conservative Party took his audience back to the late 1980s, when the government of premier Don Getty decided to offer grants and loan guarantees to businesses struggling amid an economy mired in recession. It did not go well.

"We ended up owning a magnesium plant, a cellphone company, Peter Pocklington's meat packing plant, a tire recycling facility - they all went down as government interventions in the economy tend to do," Mr. Kenney said.

"Because when politicians are risking your money instead of their own," he continued, "you might as well send them to the casino. They have no incentive to get it right."

One can't help but be struck by those words in light of the debacle unfolding now as a result of U.S. President Joe Biden's decision last week to kill the Keystone XL pipeline. The Alberta government became a partner in the project last spring to the tune of $1.5-billion - most of which it now stands to lose.

TC Energy of Calgary, the project proponent, has already started laying off 1,000 construction workers in another blow to the Alberta economy. No one should feel good about that.

But nor should Albertans feel good about their Premier putting $1.5-billion of their money at risk on a venture whose future depended on the outcome of a U.S. presidential election. Mr. Kenney spent the past few days on news shows in both Canada and the United States furiously lobbying for some form of justice or recompense.

The prospects for that look grim.

It is certainly not going to come in the form of a trade war ignited on Mr. Kenney's behalf by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Even as the Premier calls for this, he knows it will never happen. It's a cheap ploy intended to scapegoat Mr. Trudeau for what happened. Nor is the U.S. administration likely to pay the billions Mr. Kenney is asking for in compensation.

The presidential construction certification signed by Donald Trump last summer green-lighting Keystone, included caveats such as Article 1, which says the permit can be "terminated, revoked or amended at any time at the sole discretion of the President."

TC Energy could begin a private application for compensation under the terms of the North American free-trade agreement, but that would likely take years to resolve, and would surely result in the company (and the Alberta government) receiving a fraction of what it invested, if any at all. In other words, Mr. Kenney is hooped.

This leaves him pleading for help from someone he has spent the last number of years insulting at every opportunity. (Among the many slurs and personal attacks Mr. Kenney has directed at Mr. Trudeau, the Premier once said he "couldn't read a briefing note longer than a cocktail napkin.")

For good measure, Mr. Kenney also recently called Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer "brain dead" for waging a fight against Enbridge's Line 5 pipeline. Ms. Whitmer was the co-chair of Mr. Biden's presidential campaign - the same Mr. Biden with whom the Alberta Premier is now seeking a fair hearing.

Brilliant work, Premier.

If anything, Mr. Kenney's attack on the Governor is likely only to embolden her efforts to kill Line 5, which would be another blow to Alberta.

Mr. Kenney suffers from "smartest guy in the room" syndrome. He thinks because he can talk fast, and string words together fairly articulately, he's best suited to determine what's in Alberta's best interests. And yet, most of the decisions he's made since becoming Premier in 2019 have been dreadful, not the least of which was his decision to invest in Keystone.

He acknowledged in a November interview that the project wouldn't have moved forward without government money, because of the "legal and political risks associated with the campaign to landlock Alberta." Yet he went ahead and sunk $1.5-billion of taxpayer money in it anyway.

In that talk he gave in October, 2017, Mr. Kenney said that as head of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation back in the early 1990s, he successfully lobbied Premier Ralph Klein to bring in something he dubbed "No More Boondoggles" legislation. It was intended to stop government from making questionable private sector investments. It was later watered down by subsequent administrations, a mistake Mr. Kenney suggested he would reverse if he became Premier.

Unfortunately, he never took his own advice. Now he's responsible for one of the biggest boondoggles in Alberta history.

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