Meddling in B.C. vote may cost PM
Did Justin Trudeau just hand the B.C. election to Christy Clark? In trying to do so, has he risked the wrath of Donald Trump?
Those are just two of the questions unanswered after an election in which all three major B.C. parties were able to claim a victory of sorts.
Clark’s Liberals were reduced to a minority, but the NDP could soon form government, in coalition with the Greens, who now hold the balance of power.
This convoluted scenario is provisional on recounts that could take two weeks and may yet deliver Clark an additional seat, allowing her to regain her majority.
The tightest of margins separates the Liberals and the NDP — just 17,827 in the popular vote, with thousands of absentee votes still to come in.
But the narrow nature of the victory emphasizes how important Trudeau’s intervention may have been.
After the U.S. government announced its 20 per cent tariff on Canadian softwood lumber in late April, Clark wrote to Trudeau asking him to impose a ban on exports of thermal coal from B.C. ports — an unusual request given those ports employ British Columbians and pay taxes to the province.
The prime minister signalled his preferred outcome when he said he would “carefully and seriously” consider Clark’s suggestion.
Did the Premier’s bellicose response to the softwood tariff, and the prime minister’s tacit endorsement, shift votes? It can’t have hurt. Trudeau is likely the most popular politician in the province, where he is viewed as a native son.
The request from Clark allowed the prime minister to send a message to noisy senators like Oregon’s Ron Wyden, who pushed for the softwood tariff, but also represents a state that exports thermal coal through B.C.
It also provided potentially pivotal support for a B.C. Liberal campaign that was then trailing in the polls.
A provincial Liberal victory was key to the survival of Trudeau’s grand design — the twin-track policy on the economy and the environment, which combines the approval of pipelines, such as Kinder Morgan’s $6.8 billion Trans Mountain link, with the imposition of a carbon tax.
This is Trudeau’s signature policy: a fine balance between expanding Canada’s pipeline capacity and putting a price on carbon, in order to encourage greater use of clean energy.
It’s a strategy that has popular support in every region of the country and is perhaps one of the few genuine successes of the federal government’s first 18 months in power.
The cancellation of a project that would triple to 890,000 barrels a day the capacity of the existing pipeline to Kinder Morgan’s Westridge terminal would have put a significant crimp in Trudeau’s own plans for reelection, and ended any hopes Alberta’s Rachel Notley might have had of a second term.
But the intervention may have stored up trouble — Trudeau’s provocative move has been noticed south of the border and may enrage a president already bouncing around the White House like a brick in a washing machine.
U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross told a conference in Washington this week that Canadian “threats of retaliation are inappropriate.”
There remains the prospect that Trudeau’s gamble backfires in another way, and that the NDP’s John Horgan and Green Party’s Andrew Weaver combine to defeat the Clark government.
If the NDP had won under its own steam, it may not have killed the Trans Mountain pipeline automatically. Horgan has pledged to use “every tool in the tool box” to stop it, but it’s fair to say the tool box is not bulging.
With a final investment decision due any day now, and shovels expected to break ground by the fall, a Horgan majority government might simply have provided token resistance and blamed its predecessor, particularly given the support for the project from many B.C. unions.
But the Greens would surely make blocking Trans Mountain a price of their support. Weaver, the climatechange scientist turned politician, has said the pipeline has “no place on our coast.”
Any government opposed to the Kinder Morgan pipeline could yet raise new environmental barriers, even though B.C. has already granted the pipeline an environmental assessment certificate.
It might also file for intervener status in any of the court cases that appear to be pending.
In that case, Ottawa does have one ace up its sleeve — the “work and undertakings” section of the Constitution Act that allows the federal government to push through projects Parliament judges to be “for the general advantage of Canada” — a provision used hundreds of times since Confederation to drive through railways, canals and oil refineries that fell foul of provincial judgments. Provincial governments do not have the power to block the construction of pipelines, if Parliament chooses to exercises the powers at its disposal.
Whether a Trudeau government so dependent on its support in B.C. would remove the project from provincial jurisdiction is debatable. But there can be no doubt about its importance to his record of achievement.
When the coal dust settles, Trudeau may find he has helped engineer his desired outcome. But it may come at a price.