Keep Calm…or Not. We’ve Seen Worse.

Column / Don Newman

Alberta and Ottawa at each other’s throats. Separatists winning votes in Quebec. Britain collapsing over Brexit. And the rolling cataclysm of Donald Trump’s presidency colliding with impeachment proceedings in the United States.

The world’s going to hell in a handbasket, right? Don’t worry. We’ve seen it all before. Most of it, 30 or more years ago. And by and large it turned out not too badly.

Alberta and Ottawa are at odds over the lack of new pipelines and additional capacity to transport oil—and particularly oil sands bitumen—to tidewater and Asian export markets. To show their displeasure, in the recent federal election Albertans elected no Liberal MPs to support Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government, or to sit in his cabinet. Nobody from Alberta at the federal decision-making table.

But today’s imbroglio is nothing compared to the fight between Ottawa and Alberta in the late 1970s and early 80s. That was over the high price of oil, not the low price in place now. It was about whether Alberta and the oil industry should charge world prices for their product, and how the revenues collected should be distributed among the federal and provincial governments and the oil industry.

There were no Liberal MPs from Alberta supporting the Pierre Trudeau government either. As the dispute grew, Ottawa moved to unilaterally impose an oil price regime and revenue-sharing plan. Alberta retaliated by staging planned cutbacks to oil shipments to Central Canada. Finally, cooler heads prevailed. Trudeau and an Alberta premier named Peter Lougheed had their governments negotiate a deal both sides could live with. Now, Justin Trudeau will have to do the same thing with another Alberta premier, Jason Kenney. Given the history, that doesn’t seem too difficult a task.

The revival of the Bloc Québécois was perhaps the greatest surprise of the October election. Running only in Quebec, the party went from just a handful of seats to 32, under a dynamic and experienced leader named Yves-François Blanchet. While still officially espousing the separation of Quebec from the Canadian Confederation, the party says it isn’t going to happen any time soon. 

Certainly, the resurgence of the Bloc is nothing compared to its emergence—after the 1993 election and the constitutional failure of the Meech Lake Accord—with 52 seats under the dynamic leadership of Lucien Bouchard. That result heralded an almost disastrous set of circumstances, including a Quebec independence referendum in 1995 that almost passed and broke up the country. 

But since then, independence passions have slowly cooled in Quebec. The recent election results for the Bloc mean that they are not dead yet, but careful management and monitoring of the situation should keep things under control.

Beyond our borders, Brexit is presenting Britain with its worst crisis since the Second World War. The referendum three years ago and the elections, minority governments and multiple rejections by Parliament of various divorce agreements have underscored the political cost of the plan against a soundtrack of warnings as to its economic costs. 

All of this pales beside the crisis Britain went through in the 1980s. Then, the showdown between Margaret Thatcher and the National Union of Mineworkers brought the country to its knees with a yearlong strike from 1984-85 that served as a scaled-up version of Ronald Reagan’s 1981 showdown with air traffic controllers. The standoff provided the proof of politically risky resolve that Thatcher used first to decimate the miners’ union and its powerful figurehead, Arthur Scargill, before privatizing and deregulating much of the rest of the U.K. economy. 

And finally, the impeachment of Donald Trump. As interesting as it sometimes is, it is nothing compared to the impeachment proceeding that led the firing of a special prosecutor, the revelation of secret tape recordings in the White House, and ultimately the resignation of Richard Nixon from the presidency.

What has been happening with Trump is often fascinating. But, given the arithmetic in the Senate and the math of the Electoral College, rather than resigning or being removed from office, there is a better chance than either that Donald Trump will be re-elected in November.  

Columnist Don Newman, who has joined Rubicon Strategy as Executive Vice President based in Ottawa. is a lifetime member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery.