Poe's Law is a 21st-century adage that describes the conundrum of trying to use parody on the internet: unless you hammer your audience over the head with the fact that you're joking, invariably someone will take you seriously.
Poe's Law does not typically apply, however, to high-ranking government ministers appearing on televised interviews.
Nevertheless, Albertans had a hard time figuring out what Finance Minister Nate Horner meant when he appeared on a pair of national political shows on Friday and repeatedly outlined his plans for an eyebrow-raising policy to retrofit Alberta homes with an out-of-date heating technology.
Horner's comments came in response to an accusation from federal Employment Minister Randy Boissonault that Alberta was being irresponsible in its proposal to pull out of the Canada Pension Plan and that Horner wasn't taking his job as finance minister seriously.
Horner turned that comment back on the Liberal MP, attacking his government's three-year pause on the federal carbon tax on home heating oil — a fuel still commonly used to heat homes in Atlantic Canada but almost unheard of in Alberta anymore.
"I heard him say to take my job seriously, and take policy seriously," Horner said on CTV's Power Play.
"So, considering he just said that, an idea just came to me: I'm going to work diligently and quickly to come up with a subsidy for Albertans to convert from natural gas to home heating oil. If that's the last carve-out on the federal carbon tax, I want to make sure that Alberta citizens can enjoy it."
The proposal is impractical, to say the least, in terms of cost, logistics and climate goals.
So impractical that it must be a joke, right?
'I'm deadly serious'
If Horner was joking, his second televised appearance on Friday only muddied the waters.
"Something just came to me, and I'll share it with you, too," he told host David Cochrane on CBC's Power & Politics.
"I think Alberta should pursue a subsidy where we will help if Albertans want to convert from natural gas to home heating oil. Maybe we'll help with one-time costs to pursue that."
A bit later in the same interview, Horner went further.
"The more I think about it, I'm deadly serious about this subsidy to convert from natural gas to home heating oil," he said.
"You can expect it to be coming."
When Mount Royal University political scientist Duane Bratt heard Horner's initial comments, he assumed the minister must have been joking.
"It's one of the most ridiculous policy ideas I've ever heard," Bratt said.
"It's such an absurd proposal that you had to have thought he was being sarcastic."
But when he saw Horner go back to the idea again and again in the second interview, he wasn't so sure.
"You couldn't tell in the interview," he said. "That's my point."
Bratt wasn't alone in his confusion.
Premier steps in
At a press conference on Saturday, the premier was asked whether Horner's comments were simply a rhetorical argument or if her government was seriously considering a natural-gas-to-heating-oil subsidy.
"No, no. I think he was clearly being sarcastic," Smith said, laughing. "Maybe you have to know Nate Horner to know his sense of humour."
She, too, went further, directly addressing Horner's comment about being "deadly serious" when he made the proposal.
"I think he was dead serious about how unfair it is," the premier said.
"I mean, that's the kind of absurdity that we'd have to have: the only way for us to qualify for a carbon-tax [exemption] is to go from a cleaner source of fuel to a dirtier source of fuel."
Even if the government were to fully subsidize the cost of converting a natural-gas furnace to a heating-oil system, the operating cost difference would outweigh the carbon tax savings for a typical household, said Sara Hastings-Simon, a professor of earth, energy and environment at the University of Calgary's School of Public Policy.
That's because oil is significantly more expensive than natural gas for the same amount of heating power.
"We're talking something like two times more expensive," Hastings-Simon said, noting the exact amounts can vary from region to region and with the fluctuating prices of both fuels.
"Not to mention, it's also just a lot more inconvenient," she added.
"You have to get fuel oil delivered versus having it just arrive in your home in pipes. You have to buy it before the heating season. You have to pay all those costs upfront. So, even in a world where Alberta, for whatever reason, decided to subsidize a conversion, it's hard to see why anybody would want to make that change."
For her part, she said she couldn't tell if Horner was joking, either, when he raised the heating-oil-conversion idea repeatedly.
But Horner, himself, did clarify, a few days after his television appearances.
'I was being entirely sarcastic'
On his way into the legislature on Monday afternoon, the finance minister was asked if he had been serious with the heating-oil proposal.
"No," Horner replied. "I was being entirely sarcastic, to point out the ridiculousness of the federal policy on the carbon tax."
"I was dead serious about making the point," he added. "And I think I did."
Lori Williams isn't so sure.
She teaches political science at Mount Royal University and says, if Horner's TV appearances were genuine attempts at sarcasm, that didn't come across clearly, in part because of his straight-faced insistence he was serious and in part because of his government's track record.
"The Alberta government has made a number of claims that have been surprising and have led people to wonder if they were serious," Williams said.
"For example: Is Alberta serious about saying they are owed 53 per cent of the assets in the Canada Pension Plan?"
Bratt said there was a similar sense of incredulity when Alberta announced it was pausing approvals on renewable energy projects because of concerns over the future cost of cleaning up wind turbines and solar panels, given how the government has treated the much larger environmental liabilities of the oil-and-gas sector. (That was no joke however; the moratorium on renewables remains in effect until the end of February.)
And while Horner's initial interviews may have been surprising to Bratt, he said the minister's subsequent clarification was not, given what the premier said on the weekend.
"Once your boss tells you, 'No, you were joking,' then, by definition, you were joking."
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Data Journalist / Senior Reporter
Robson Fletcher's work for CBC Calgary focuses on data, analysis and investigative journalism. He joined CBC in 2015 after spending the previous decade working as a reporter and editor at newspapers in Alberta, British Columbia and Manitoba.
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