Gateway: Quiet start to a big fight

The federal government’s Northern Gateway decision shorter: ‘Yes, but’

Here’s how governments used to announce decisions they wished they didn’t have to announce. In 1983 the deeply tired Pierre Trudeau government agreed to permit U.S. cruise missile tests. The CBC video is priceless. On a Friday afternoon when Parliament isn’t sitting, the deputy PM and defence minister elbow past protesters to the National Press Theatre, mumble excuses, then elbow out past the same protesters. After them the NDP critic takes the same microphone to call them all sorts of names.

Times change and techniques are refined. Announcing the Gateway pipeline decision today, Stephen Harper eliminated all the unpleasant stuff: the hunched ministers, the choke points for protests, the press-theatre dynamic that gives opponents equal prominence and the last word. The news release was all this government was saying, and its message might be summed up as: Yes, but.

Gateway can proceed if Enbridge satisfies all 209 conditions identified by the Joint Review Panel. There is much huffing and puffing (“The proponent clearly has more work to do”) and some burden-shifting that will quickly become highly problematic: “Consultations with Aboriginal communities are required under many of the 209 conditions,” the government says, falling once again into its chronic denial of plain constitutional law: the government’s own Aboriginal affairs website says the duty to consult lies with the Crown, i.e. with the Queen’s Privy Council, i.e. with Stephen Joseph Harper.

Lecturing Enbridge on the government’s own constitutional responsibilities is approximately the kind of behaviour that routinely gets this government laughed out of a court whose justices were named, in the majority, by this Prime Minister.

But with any luck October 2015 will have come and gone before anything Northern Gateway-related gets tested at the Supreme Court. Meanwhile the battle lines are drawn. The NDP and Liberals each announced in turn that if either party’s leader become prime minister, Gateway is finished. I missed Elizabeth May’s remarks but I’ve got a crazy hunch that’s Green policy too. (After 2011 in Quebec, it’s best not to rule out any electoral result.) (Kidding!) (Knock on wood.)

Let’s do the math and reduce matters to the level of complexity we can expect in an election campaign. Harper supports the Keystone XL pipeline, Northern Gateway, Energy East and any other pipe or blowhole that might get a barrel of anything to some kind of market. The Liberals support this but not that, or then but not now, while the NDP opposes others and the Greens oppose pretty much anything I’ve been discussing here. The arithmetic matters: if four-fifths of the electorate (in regions of the country where these issues are salient) is against Gateway, then there is plenty of anti-Gateway vote to go around, and the Conservatives benefit little. But if the split is closer to 50-50, then the math starts to look like the numbers Brian Mulroney enjoyed in 1988. That election was a referendum on free trade. He didn’t get half the vote. And he got to form the next government anyway.

By making promises today they can only keep if they become prime minister, Tom Mulcair and Justin Trudeau set the stage for the 2015 election. But it’s been easy to predict for a while that energy and the environment would dominate in 2015, and I did so before either man became the leader of his party.

In the less-noticed of his two recent books, Winning Power, Tom Flanagan offers this advice for large parties seeking to hold power: “A major party hoping to form government should try to create a single dominant dimension of conflict in voters’ minds and occupy the position of the median voter along that dimension.” In British Columbia, the median voter opposes Gateway, by most polling I’ve seen, but it’s a close thing. In the rest of the country, the opposition parties need to make sure they represent the median Canadian, not the median anti-pipeline protester. Mulcair has previously taken great care to avoid looking like Pauline Marois marching with tin pots. The same challenge lies ahead.

I offer no prediction about how this will all work out. It’s actually not true that all of this is strategy and calculation on the various players’ part. Mulcair was a Quebec environment minister; there’s no way he could view bitumen exports any other way than the way he does. His party ran ads in Quebec in 2008 saying Harper would “make us slaves to the oil men.”

The day after he won the 2011 election, Harper brooded, in front of reporters, on the threat to Alberta’s prosperity the other parties represented, in his mind: “I think Western Canada can breathe a lot easier. There were a lot of policies being floated by the other parties — whether it’s on West Coast transportation or the energy sector — that simply did not reflect the needs and concerns of this part of the country.”

Strategy and tactics will work around this confrontation as best they can, but the fight in 2015 will come from the gut.


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