While the Senate seizes the spotlight in Ottawa, another threat to Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s agenda is unfolding in capitals on opposite coasts. In both Victoria and Washington D.C., governments are weighing in on the future of oil pipelines which hold the key to Western Canada’s economic and political destiny — and that of the federal Conservative party.
The two fronts are related, as the inability to control one could jeopardize the achievement of the other by torpedoing the Conservatives’ ambitions to displace the center of political power in Canada.
On May 31, the British Columbia government issued a report recommending against the construction of the Northern Gateway pipeline from Alberta to Kitimat, B.C. According to B.C. Environment Minister Terry Lake, “British Columbia thoroughly reviewed all of the evidence and submissions made to the panel and asked substantive questions about the project, including its route, spill response capacity and financial structure to handle any incidents … Our questions were not satisfactorily answered during these hearings.”
Environmental groups may claim victory, but federal Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver isn’t alarmed — not publicly, at least. “We will review the independent Joint Review Panel’s recommendation (when) it is published in December,” he said.
Of course, if the review panel recommends that the pipeline be built over the province’s objections, watch for Ottawa and B.C. to go to war — and to court — on the question of jurisdiction and which level of government gets the last word on the project.
The B.C. government could also, in theory, approve a version of the proposal which offers greater environmental protection. That theory, and where the government draws its green line, will depend on the mood of B.C. voters. In the last election, Premier Christy Clark set out five conditions for Northern Gateway’s approval, much to Alberta’s consternation. It was a savvy political move that helped her Liberals win a squeaker victory, ensuring they will tread very carefully on this issue.
Northern Gateway’s fate will depend also on the fate of another proposal, made byKinder Morgan, to twin its Trans Mountain pipeline, which runs between Alberta and Burnaby. Turning B.C. into a bitumen super-highway, with two pipelines shipping crude to the coast, may be too much for voters to stomach. Trans Mountain also would see buried pipe running through residential areas — a tough sell in light of previous accidents in Burnaby and recent events in Mayflower, Arkansas.
That latest spill, which saw oil gushing down the streets of a placid subdvision and onto the TV screens of millions of people worldwide, also spells trouble for the third leg of the Conservatives’ energy stool: Keystone XL. Despite polls showing that 63 per cent of Americans are in favour of the project (though only half of all those polled are actually aware of it), a favourable assessment by the U.S. State Department, and a supportive, though non-binding, vote in the U.S. Senate, the Obama administration still has not decided whether to give Keystone XL the green light.
These three pipelines represent Stephen Harper’s legacy project. They are not merely a means of transporting oil, but of transferring power. Only by fully exploiting its resources can Western Canada seize control of the country’s economic agenda — and consequently its political agenda. And to get all those approvals and cement these projects, Harper needs another majority term in office.
This brings us back to the Senate. The scandal enveloping the Red Chamber scandal is the first imbroglio with serious implications for the government, becuase it directly touches the Prime Minister’s Office. If the opposition can keep it simmering until 2015, it could shred Harper’s image as a champion of integrity and scuttle his chances of re-election.
The Conservatives will do anything to mop up this mess. On June 3, Senate Majority Leader Marjory LeBreton made the smart move of announcing a motion to have the Auditor General examine the Senate’s expenses — a report which could take years to complete, thus burying the issue while giving the appearance of action.
Should the RCMP decided to investigate, their probe could have a similar effect — precluding public discussion of the issue by the government until its publication.
But if other instances of bad behaviour with links to the prime minister come to light, it will be more and more difficult to contain calls for some sort of public inquiry — something the Tories desperately want to avoid. It is highly ironic that the aspirations of the party which campaigned on changing the Senate could now be undone by the behaviour of its own appointees to that body.
The former Reformers and Canadian Alliance supporters who championed a “Triple E” Upper House carried that goal with them when they merged with the Progressive Conservatives in 2003. They’re also the ones who would benefit most from Northern Gateway, Trans Mountain and Keystone XL. Who ever thought that the “chamber of sober second thought” had this kind of power?