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.



Gateway: Quiet start to a big fight

  1. I missed Elizabeth May’s remarks but I’ve got a crazy hunch that’s Green policy too.

    Actually, no. For quite some time, she and BC Green MLA Andrew Weaver have supported the Black proposal for a refinery on BC westcoast. She, resident Enbridge professor, and some ex Macleans guy are doing the twitter tango here:

    The trouble with the economics trained male thinkers is that they think the world operates according to two intersecting lines on a graph.

    So, let’s create a business case for the Black refinery @ Kitimat or @ Prince Rupert.

    We know the Chinese want oil. To them it’s a security issue. Why they are scouring the world and trying to lock-up supply. Because demand is growing. And as a result they are building efficient modern refineries.

    They have been supporters of Enbridge Northern Gateway for some time. And have become exasperated that it has taken so long to get approval and get it built. And they hear the very vocal opposition to shipping bitumen in oil tankers.

    They also have attempted to acquire oil sands producers (CNOOC/Nexen for example) but have been told by the Harper gov’t that control/takeover of more such companies by SOE (state owned enterprises) is not in the works.

    So, if you were China, what would you do? Here’s an idea: Build a refinery (one’s gonna be built somewhere) on China’s coast using chinese labour and expertise, in modules, such that it can be shipped by ocean and reassembled on Canada’s westcoast in say, Kitimat or Prince Rupert.

    Then tie up bitumen production from Canadian producers (the ones they aren’t allowed to takeover with inflated prices) by entering into long term contracts. Delivery of bitumen is at the start of the Enbridge (or Black sponsored) pipeline in AB. Send to refinery – in Kitimat or Prince Rupert. And then ship refined product to China.

    Why enter into contracts and refinery in Canada? Because then both parties are protected by Canadian commercial law – win/win in the absence of trade agreements between Canada and China.

    And for all of the twittering class whining about Canadian firms not being able to hose Chinese SOEs by cashing out at inflated stock prices – you can goose the share prices by contracting for longterm bitumen sales at favourable terms. That’ll raise the Canadian stock prices.

    Now, time for the twitter crowd to return to the talking points….

  2. Yea yea yea but how did you omit the name of the reporter on that priceless CBC video?

    What a country.

    • He sounds so earnest, too.

    • yea, no kidding,
      a few tests using an unarmed flying garbage can, and you compared that “non-event” to something with the huge scale and magnitude of this NGPipeline ?
      wow, talk about reaching deep in the past for a “crumb”.

      But I do agree, Harper has simply washed his hands of this, (which to him is a non-event), throwing it all on Enbridge,…, to deal with the FN’s, and all of BC..
      yep, there’s no earnesty on the part of these Feds at all.

      • You’ve either forgotten the fervor of the anti-nuclear movement in the ’80s, or aren’t old enough to remember it. There were banners and graffiti all over the place reading “no cruise testing”, and hordes of angry protesters. Their reaction was frankly awfully silly and overblown, but was consistent with the overall left wing anti-nuclear movement of the late Cold War.

        • You don’t often say something silly, but you sure have here AW. I remember that time too. And unlike you i not going to indulge in the luxury of hindsight to pronounce the fear of the consequences of NW as just overblown and silly. You didn’t know that at the time, and you don’t know it now either. Besides, the lies our lords and masters told us at the time more than equal any amount of handwringing silliness by those who didn’t want to play their MAD little gamble with the planet anymore.

          • I don’t know about that. I always thought it was a little strange how the anti-nuclear activists seemed to think that the problem was the US and NATO rather than an authoritarian Soviet Union. Development of cruise missiles was something NATO needed to counter the threat of Soviet mobile ICBMs and IRBMs like the SS-20. Kind of hard to trust a nation that built the gulags, engineered mass famines for its own people, overthrew governments in Europe, and actively sought to subvert others. Reading “The Mitrokhin Archive” was rather illuminating. You hear about crazy conspiracy theories all the time and dismiss them, then discover that real ones were being orchestrated by the KGB…

          • How silly of anti-nuclear activists to address the governments which purported to represent them – their own.
            And if you think it was only the Soviet Union killing people and overthrowing governments you must have slept through Vietnam, Guatemala, El Salvador, Chile, Nicaragua, Iran….should I go on?

  3. “Liberals support this but not that, or then but not now, while…”

    I suspect journos are at least partially frustrated artists at heart ( aren’t we all?) So exercise your artistic license by all means Paul; cuz that’s what you’ve done here. Trudeau is attempting a tricky balancing act in BC in particular. No to Gateway, yes at least pending an acceptable review, ( another can of worms that one. Harpers turned the KM review into another standing joke) of kinder Morgan’s expansion to Vancouver. It makes sense actually. Although it’ll take some skill to communicate his position effectively during an election. The point being this kind of balanced approach is quite possibly going to cost him a couple of votes in vancouver, but not east of Winnepeg. Pretty sure the libs are onside for the eastern line too; and JT has already made clear his view of keystone. Enjoyed your artistic license though.
    Oh and by the way. Using this successfully as a wedge issue in 2015 will change nothing in BC. Gateway, without a significant shift in attitude from the landlords, (coastal FNs) is a dead duck, regardless of who’s sitting in Ottawa. What did Stalin say: possession is 8/10ths of the law? Someone did anyway.
    So happens I’m going into Bella Bella on the central coast for a month this summer. It’ll be interesting to hear from friends and some of the principle actors what they think about it all. I’ve a shrewd idea they won’t be happy with harper’s decision. And Ottawa is a long long way away.

    • If Enbridge sticks this out, we might actually get some interesting legal precedent out of it. The coastal First Nations have been touting the “duty to consult” precedent regarding traditional territories (or at least claimed traditional territories), which turns out to be rather poorly defined in practice. If the Northern Gateway cases get to the Supreme Court, we might get a better sense of whether that “duty to consult” means a veto (as the more militant aboriginal activists believe), a requirement to listen to their concerns, or something in between.

      • Happy to agree with you on this one. I wouldn’t say the belief that consultation isn’t already de facto a veto[ as in free, prior and informed consent…the current buzz phrase] is strictly limited to the militants anymore. They’ve got home grown lawyers too now. They’re all grown up and know how to play the game. I wonder where they learned that?

  4. I don’t think Mr. Trudeau sad their wouldn’t be a pipeline on the west coast, I thought he said, just not this one. Im sure there are other parts of the west coast that will only be too happy to have this kind of economic development run through there back yards, I don’t think all of B C are NIMBY residences. Like Trudeau said, balance is whats required to get the peoples approval(like talk to the people and don’t send oil companies out to do the governments PR work for them), not my way or the highway attitude. That’s all this government is good at is when ever they have good news announcements to be made, they use the phrase ‘ Harper Government ‘, but with bad news announcements, they use the phrase ‘ Government of Canada ‘, in other words if you don’t like our decisions(the harper government), just blame it on the Canadian government, that’s called talking from both sides of your mouth.

    • To add, at least the liberal government at the time had the guts to go before the cameras and not send a love letter to the press.

  5. Sorry. Can’t take it seriously unless it’s announced in Yurp.

  6. Holy manure Wells, can you be any more blatantly bias and partisan.. “almost” purposefully deceitful too. Seriously do you get to claim some cash from the CPC PR accounts? cause you should, even if you are horrible at it. Although I think you would had done great in CNN or FoxNews, been right at home in fact. Admit it, your not a journalist, just a propagandist. Be proud of who you are Wells!! … for no one else will ever be.

    Its sad, I actually used to have Macleans in high regard.

    • Ha! That has to be Feschuk taking the mickey…right! I see the traditional senate appointment drive by smear has lost some of its lustre of late.

  7. Im a super smart liberal because I haz degree in feminist queer theory so shut up. And I think oil is bad okay, I mean yuck. Oil and gas should be illegal, and all you stupid nazi conservatives should just shut up, because the earth, and the dolphins and everything is just so beautiful and you want to destroy it cause you’re just a stupid hater.

  8. Honest question, just out of curiosity, what is your specific objection to Elizabeth May/the Green Party?

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