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When populism threatens to ‘blow,’ drill a relief well

When populism threatens to ‘blow,’ drill a relief well

An analogy from the oil patch and an illustration drawn from Western Canadian politics have something to teach us about understanding and responding to upsurges in “populism” – a subject of intense discussion around the world, particularly since the election of Donald Trump.

A “blowout” in the oil patch can be a disaster. There the uncontrolled release of crude oil or gas under pressure can destroy the drilling rig and well platform, blow oil and mud sky-high, and be accompanied by a catastrophic fire if accidentally ignited.

In Canada, one of the most infamous blowouts occurred in 1948, just a year after the discovery of the Leduc oil field. Atlantic Number 3 “blew,” hurling oil and debris 50 metres in the air, catching fire and burning for three days, and spewing 1.2 million barrels of oil and 10 billion cubic feet of natural gas before it was brought under control.

The analogy between an oil well blowout and an unexpected and uncontrolled upsurge of populism is instructive. On the positive side, highly valuable resources are at play in both cases – petroleum worth millions of dollars on the one hand and the political energy of millions of people on the other hand – energy which if constructively harnessed can be of great benefit to the economy and society. But on the negative side, if the tapping into and release of that energy is not constructively managed, disaster can be the result.

Blowouts in the oil patch can be prevented up to a point by the installation of valves to control the pressure and pouring copious quantities of drilling mud into the well. In the political field our elites tried similar measures over the last 20 years by sealing off as best they could any and all expressions of populist sentiment and engaging in extensive political mudslinging toward anyone expressing views at odds with the standards of political correctness. Notwithstanding these efforts, populist blowouts are now occurring or threatening to occur in a dozen countries.

There is, however, another approach to dealing with blowouts which promises greater success. In the oil patch, a relief well can be drilled in at an angle from the side to relieve the pressure and redirect the flow of energy in such a way that it can be controlled and constructively harnessed. The same can be done in the political field.

In the late 1980s “western alienation” was a serious political reality in Canada. It was fuelled in part by historic grievances going back to Confederation and resurgent resentment when the National Energy Program transferred $100-billion of petroleum wealth from the producing provinces to the federal treasury and the big consuming provinces. It was further aggravated by the feeling on the part of large numbers of westerners that their concerns and views on a host of other issues – from deficit financing to law and order – were being consistently ignored by those in authority. This alienation – unrecognized and unappreciated by most of the political establishment at the time – had all the potential of becoming a populist blowout igniting the fires of Western separatism.

So understanding this, what did some of us do? We drilled in a relief well in the form of the Reform Party of Canada. We identified with and gave expression to those grievances fuelling that grassroots alienation. We tried to drill in “at the right angle” – not so deep that we ourselves would be captured and overwhelmed by the pressures of the populist sentiment, but not so shallow as to be ineffective in capturing and redirecting its energy. And most importantly, through our reform agenda, especially the democratic reform aspects, we endeavoured to channel that populist energy into a constructive alternative – “reform” of the federation as distinct from tearing it apart.

Depending on one’s political persuasion, readers may agree or disagree with what happened afterward – the reconstruction of Canadian conservatism on a more fiscally responsible base with a more influential role for Western Canadians, and the election in 2006 of a federal government based on that foundation. But the lessons on how to prevent a negative populist blowout and convert that energy into something more positive are surely relevant and worth applying today.

Don’t ignore or contemptuously dismiss expressions of bottom-up political energy and discontent; don’t constantly suppress its political manifestations. Don’t respond to populism with mudslinging. Most importantly, begin work on “relief wells” drilled in at the right angle to harness bottom-up democratic energy to worthy objectives, including relief of the discontents generating that energy.

Preston Manning/Globe and Mail/December, 2016