What can we make of the PM’s performance on Keystone?

Paul Wells explains how Stephen Harper is mishandling the most important bilateral file

Sue Ogrocki/AP

The President of the United States laughs at Keystone XL job claims. From the transcript:

MR. OBAMA: Well, first of all, Michael, Republicans have said that this would be a big jobs generator. There is no evidence that that’s true. And my hope would be that any reporter who is looking at the facts would take the time to confirm that the most realistic estimates are this might create maybe 2,000 jobs during the construction of the pipeline — which might take a year or two — and then after that we’re talking about somewhere between 50 and 100 [chuckles] jobs in a economy of 150 million working people.

Over at Politico Pro — where you get the really clever analyses — they found two top expert experts who said that when the President of the United States has a couple reporters over to giggle at the merits of a project, the project is a shoo-in. A third expert in the article, Charles Ebinger at Brookings, remains discouragingly literal-minded: he seems to think that when the President of the United States has a laugh about something, that means he’s not a fan.

“I’ve kind of done an about-face,” he said. “I think the president is very concerned about losing his environmental constituency going into the 2014 election season. I’m just not sure he’s really convinced we need [Keystone].”

The other two top expert experts remind me of some of the reaction in June, after Obama inserted a reference to Keystone and the “tar sands” into a global-warming speech that nobody was expecting to include a Keystone reference. Then too, some people took this as an encouraging sign. This is the Pépé Le Pew school of political analysis. Your lips, zay say non, but your eyes, zay say oui oui oui! 

Bruce Carson, who was Harper’s point man on resource exports and the environment before his dismissal from the PMO in 2011, sends out a daily digest of news analysis to a few Ottawa denizens. Here’s what he wrote this morning about the Obama NYT interview.

The President has been accused of a lot of things, but stupid isn’t one of them. He knows the importance that Canada places on the approval of this project. He knows that the government has been waiting since before the last Presidential election for its approval. He knows what the energy situation is in North America and the US. He also knows the historically close relationship that Canada and the US have enjoyed over many decades. This is not how historically close neighbours treat one another, especially on a matter which is of vital economic importance to one of the neighbours. President Obama’s actions on Keystone and especially his deliberate interview on Saturday are not in keeping with the Canada-US historical relationship.

If the PM wants to save this project it is time for him to intervene and that means picking up the phone, have a frank conversation with the President, find out what needs to be done and then do it. That’s what leaders do. That’s what Prime Minister Mulroney did to land the FTA and the Acid Rain Treaty and it needs to be done now. When we are arguing about job numbers with the President of the United States, we are losing. When we are taking action on GHGs or pipeline safety or whatever it takes to land this project, we are winning. And goodness knows, Harper needs a win.

Carson’s advice is no longer sought by the prime minister, and it kind of shows. Since Obama’s big clanging yellow light of a speech, Harper has responded by putting the quietest wee mouse in cabinet, Leona Aglukkaq, in the environment post and then kicking her off the cabinet committee on the economy, on which her predecessor sat. That committee used to be called the “Committee on Economic Prosperity and Sustainable Growth.” Now it’s called the “Committee on Economic Prosperity.” See what they did there? Let me break this to you gently: they noticed at the U.S. Embassy.

Speaking of embassies, Canada’s man in Washington, Gary Doer, responded forcefully to Obama’s interview by… giving an interview to the CBC. That’ll change minds in Washington.

As colleague Erica Alini has noted, Obama is stopping short of a firm “no” on Keystone, but he is plainly no fan and he plainly thinks, because he keeps saying it, that “Canada at the source in those tar sands could potentially be doing more to mitigate carbon release.” And how is the Prime Minister responding, on the most important bilateral file there is? He is digging Canada deeper, by the only criterion set and publicly repeated by the only man who can make this decision.

I do not believe Harper is this oblivious. I am trying to figure out how his behaviour makes sense, and honestly I can find only three possible answers:

1. He is wildly misreading the plain evidence of Obama’s repeated public statements on Keystone.

2. Or he has decided Obama cannot be persuaded of Keystone’s merit so there is no point trying. This would help explain why Sun News, heavily subsidized with government ads, feels it is at liberty to cover Obama like this.

3. Or he has decided to take the loss on Keystone, preferring to run on wounded pride rather than policy success in 2015. That sounds a little loopy, but I’m not ready to reject it. Arguably Harper has won more votes by carrying Canada’s rejection from the United Nations Security Council as a badge of honour than he would have won by merely succeeding. Spite sells.

In the old days, of course, Harper used to declare that what he couldn’t sell to the Americans he would simply sell to China. “I am very serious about selling our oil off this continent,” he said in 2011, after the first (of many!) Obama Keystone snub. How serious? Here are his 2013 speeches. See if you can find one that mentions China.

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