Re-cast: June in Politics, by Drew Brown

Drew Brown recaps June in local politics. Read on, catch up.

recast June

My God. Is 2014 really already half-over? I guess time flies when you waste the better part of the year compulsively refreshing Twitter.

In a seismic shakeup to the Canadian political landscape, the Northern Gateway pipeline project got a tentative green light earlier this month from the federal Conservative cabinet. The announcement heralds a major economic development: Enbridge’s proposed pipeline would move bitumen from Alberta’s oil sands through the Rockies to the British Columbia coast where it would be shipped for processing overseas. At least, this is the plan if they actually get to build it. Before construction can begin in earnest, Enbridge has to meet 209 conditions set down by the National Energy Board, including getting all the appropriate provincial construction licenses and bringing the First Nations near the pipeline route on side with the project. So far, this looks to be easier said than done.

Many people consider this a no-brainer: connecting more Alberta oil to the world market promises to be the rising tide that lifts all boats. Canada’s petroleum industry generated a full 112 billion dollars last year, which works out to be about 6.4% of the country’s entire GDP. Anywhere between 100,000 and 200,000 people are directly employed in the oil business, and it’s figured that up to another 300,000 jobs are indirectly tied up in the economic spinoff. A full 87% of all new employment in the country was generated in Alberta last year, and a sizeable chunk of that money is funnelled almost directly into rural Newfoundland through the workers who shuttle back and forth to Fort Mac every 20-something days. And this is all pre-pipeline.

The expansion spurred by Northern Gateway means that even more money will roll in across Canada for many years to come – or so the argument goes. Small wonder, then, that many of the project’s supporters see this as one of the greatest nation-building events in Canadian history: on par, at least, with John A. Macdonald starving Indians off the Prairies to make way for the railroad, or when we “forged a nation” a century ago by sending 60,000 men to their deaths at the call of good King George.

But despite the grand seductions of true patriot love and cold hard cash, Northern Gateway faces stiff opposition. The BC government is against the project, and refuses to give way unless Enbridge can meet a further 5 conditions, which mostly have to do with proving a bitumen pipeline can be environmentally friendly, and satisfying Aboriginal groups affected by the development. At least 31 First Nations organizations have banded together to oppose the pipeline, meaning the company will be forced to reckon with indigenous sovereignty – much of the territory it would pass through is unceded native land. Also, a popular majority in Kitimat – the port town where the pipeline stops – voted against the project in a (non-binding) plebiscite, so there’s that. Finally, at least 300 scholars have disputed the National Energy Board’s approval on the grounds that their report didn’t bother to consider how runaway expansion in the oil sands might affect climate change (spoiler: it isn’t good), which is a pretty big omission as far as an ‘environmental impact’ study goes.

Given all this popular and scientific resistance, there is every sign that this is going to be a major and protracted political struggle. It’s a safe bet that it will also be one of the bigger election issues in 2015. Both Thomas Mulcair and Justin Trudeau have pledged to shut down the pipeline if either of them forms a government next year, while Stephen Harper promises that Alberta oil will flow to all the ends of the earth, job- and freedom-hating eco-terrorists be damned. Considering the stakes and how totally polarized Canadians are, the pipeline is a slippery political football.

***

            Speaking of unpopular political objects, apparently Newfoundland and Labrador’s Progressive Conservatives couldn’t even give the Premier’s office away this summer. Pro-life Premier-Designate Frank Coleman abruptly aborted his political career a few weeks ahead of his coronation at a July PC convention, catching the Tories with their pants down. Coleman, you may recall, was a spectacularly lackluster candidate set to become Premier by default after a surreal leadership contest against two other political novices who either quit or were expelled from the race. Fishing magnate Bill Barry made the mistake of assuming you could be a successful politician by honestly saying whatever was on your mind, and Wayne Bennett slipped from benign eccentricity into a strange nightmare world of murderous conspiracy and Islamophobia in less than fifty tweets.

With the heir-apparent’s sudden departure, the Tories are left in a lurch – their convention is pushed back to September, they need to have a second leadership race that’s on track to be as awkward as the first, and poor Tom Marshall won’t get his summer vacation. To make matters worse, the premier’s office was gutted of long-time staffers to make way for Coleman, meaning a lot of experienced executive support is missing and alienated at a time when the party needs it the most.

For their part, the Liberals have been pretty muted about Coleman jumping ship, most likely because they were really hoping to run against a guy who would have basically bumbled his way into Confederation Building’s 8th floor (God knows they have enough organizational problems of their own, not the least of which is about 800,000 dollars of debt they’re hoping the banks will write off for no real reason).

If a solid contender emerges from the Tory caucus (don’t hold your breath!), they now face the prospect of actually having to run a campaign, although that shouldn’t give them too much grief considering how many corporate sponsors have started queueing up behind them. Meanwhile, the NDP have been out of the running since their implosion last October – which goes a long way towards explaining why they couldn’t follow through on their threat to filibuster Bill 22 earlier this month, when both major parties voted to make it harder for workers to unionize.

The date of the next provincial election is still up in the air. Round 2 of the PC leadership is slated to wrap up in September, and assuming things go swimmingly it’s possible they might call an election in the fall and try to ride the honeymoon back into office. But if it turns out to be another gongshow, then the new Premier will likely spend as much time as they can trying to turn the polls around, and we’re looking at an election in 2015 – the latest they can legally put it off is next October. It’d also be polite, democratically speaking, to let the people pass judgement on a refurbished governing party as soon as possible after a full 7 months of leadership turmoil, but I wouldn’t expect this crowd to suddenly start minding their manners.

So the new Tory candidates can look forward to a long summer of awkward and contentious barbecues, where they jockey amongst each other for party favours and air every petty personal difference that’s simmered under the surface of caucus for the last ten years. Hopefully there’ll at least be a scattered sale on down to Coleman’s.

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