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B.C.'s pipeline bargaining position stirs Alberta outrage, but makes political sense

Christy Clark

Christy Clark's bargaining position in the squabble between British Columbia and Alberta over provincial pipeline danger pay may be unconstitutional, and it may not be "legal" in the sense of commercial or common law. But it doesn't need to be. That's because it sure as heck makes political sense!

It makes good sense politically both from the point of view of the fundamental political challenge the British Columbia premier faces in her home province, and from that of managing a successful negotiation over time with Alberta Premier Alison Redford.

What's more, at least for playing cards with Alberta, Clark holds a better hand right now than Redford does. For, practically speaking, while she may not be able to, or even wish to, block the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline forever, she can certainly hold it up for a time.

That's a big advantage when to survive politically Clark needs to delay the project as much as possible while Redford and Prime Minister Stephen Harper are in a hurry to push the line through -- presumably because they understand opposition to the project will only grow over time, not just in B.C. but right across Canada.

With the New Democrats under Adrian Dix high in the polls and thought by most British Columbians the most effective opposition to a project that is almost universally despised in B.C., Clark had better have a pretty darned compelling argument if she wants to sell the idea to voters before the province’s next fixed election date on May 14, 2013. More likely, the conservative "Liberal" would prefer just to kill all discussion of the scheme until after the election. At that point -- in the seemingly unlikely event her government survives -- B.C. and Alberta can talk turkey.

This gives rise to the conspiracy theory that last Thursday’s closed-door meeting between the two westernmost premiers was just a pillow fight staged for a gullible public's benefit, with the goal of creating a palatable "compromise" for public consumption.

It's easy to see why some people might jump to this conclusion. After all, if there’s one thing British Columbia New Democrats have embedded in their political DNA it's the instinctive knowledge it's easy for their party to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory!

Still, upon examination this notion stretches credulity. Anything's possible, of course, but it seems unlikely the B.C. public is inclined just now to accept any deal with few benefits and involvement by Enbridge, and the longer this scrap goes on, no matter how contrived it is, the less likely an agreement becomes.

Moreover, as former federal and B.C. Conservative eminence grise Norman Spector accurately observed on CBC Radio 1 Tuesday afternoon, Redford's initial position makes no sense unless she's already concluded one of two things: Either the prime minister will intervene for her and ram the project through, or thanks to the Michigan misadventures of the Keystone Kops running Enbridge, the project is already deader than the proverbial mackerel.

The first of these two possibilities seems less likely than the second, since the political cost for Harper and his Conservatives could well be as severe as the fate that surely awaits Clark if she takes even a single wrong step.

On the other hand, if the Enbridge project really is dead, what does it benefit Redford to start giving away her Progressive Conservative government's negotiating positions now? After all, whatever positions she offers up now will by default become her new starting position if real negotiations over a new proposal start later. Like most Alberta politicians, Premier Redford is unprepared to consider the one thing that would make the whole idea easy to finance -- that is, charge something more than the giveaway royalty rates now collected for this resource.

Still, while Harper grimly plots, it's always possible Redford is merely having a temper tantrum, so unused are Alberta Conservatives to being challenged by anyone with sufficient political clout to thwart their wishes even for an instant.

Meanwhile, the brouhaha is distracting Canada's premiers from the one file they should be working on at their meeting in Halifax: holding the prime minister's feet to the fire to provide sufficient funding to keep Canada's public health care system viable.

Speaking of tantrums, all the usual suspects in the far-right media are certainly having a full-blown hissy fit about this, with Clark being accused of setting up an economic blockade of Alberta, or practically declaring war. In the words of one particularly hysterical Sun News bloviator, her actions are un-Canadian, unconstitutional, unfair and un-neighbourly!

While nobody in the Alberta media has called just yet for Alberta to separate from Canada -- which, if you think about it, might actually make the problem of not having a salt-water port a little worse -- it wouldn't come as much of a surprise in this atmosphere. The On-line Tory Rage Machine here in Alberta, after all, is just tuning up.

The grown-up media, meanwhile, is also putting on the full-court press for the project, although in complete sentences and without swear words. Don't worry, there's no need to Alberta to pay anything to B.C., because "compensation will likely flow through fiscal back channels," the Edmonton Journal soothes, quoting a business professor's vague bromides.

Clark’s position may or may not be constitutional -- that’s far from clear since we're taking about an agreement between two provinces. It's not as if she's proposing that Ottawa just take the money and give it to her.

But you can hardly call her un-Canadian or unfair for looking out for her own voters' interests, however reluctantly, and it's not entirely clear which province is being more un-neighbourly in this particular neo-Con dust-up.

Meanwhile, her proposal sounds like common sense to many Canadians. Why shouldn't a province be compensated for bearing most of the risk in a dangerous long-term project run for someone else's benefit by a company with a proven track record of perpetrating environmental disasters? Is this so different, say, from seeking compensation for a dam that restricts the flow of water from the province next door?

And isn't it interesting how the same far-right commentators and politicians who screeched for a year about "property rights" at the thought of high-tension power lines running through some Alberta farmers' fields, now argue British Columbians in the same position essentially have no property rights at all when the concept might impede the flow of the greasy bitumen they champion to the refineries of China.

Come to think of it, the fact that China has a Communist government doesn't seem to much bother these, er, red-blooded anti-Communists any more either, now that there's some filthy short-term petro-lucre to be made out of the deal.

Hypocrisy? Oh well, that just goes with the ethically oily territory!

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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