We may never know what inspired NDP Leader Adrian Dix to breathe life into a moribund B.C. Liberal election campaign by reversing his position on the proposed Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion. But it is clear from the first leaders debate Friday that the issue has become a political millstone for the New Democrats.
It has dominated the campaign since Mr. Dix stunned many on Earth Day by declaring his opposition to Kinder Morgan's plans. This, after saying as recently as two weeks earlier that as a "matter of principle" he wouldn't prejudge the project before the company had a chance to submit its complete proposal to the National Energy Board later this year.
The NDP Leader has maintained that his thinking on the matter evolved over time. He has said the tipping point was when he learned that Kinder Morgan was planning to increase the amount of oil it was going to move through the new pipeline. At his Earth Day announcement, Mr. Dix said he did not believe that Vancouver should become a major oil-exporting port, something he says would happen if the pipeline expansion went ahead. The number of big oil tankers entering the port would increase several fold, he has maintained, increasing the likelihood of a spill.
Not surprisingly, the subject was highlighted in the first half hour of the leaders debate on the Bill Good radio show on CKNW. Liberal Leader Christy Clark used her opponent's about-face to expose him as a flip-flopper. She criticized him for taking a position ahead of an environmental review process. After previously coming out against the Northern Gateway pipeline, Mr. Dix is being accused of being anti-business and anti-development, labels he has been fighting hard to shake off.
Ms. Clark is also now suggesting that Mr. Dix arrived at his position in January and "kept it concealed," until the election campaign. "It makes you wonder what else Mr. Dix is concealing," Ms. Clark said on the radio. Being in the desperate position that she is – 14 points behind in the polls with just two weeks left in the campaign – Ms. Clark is now trying to cast the NDP Leader's announcement in a more sinister light.
On this point, the Liberal Leader is completely wrong.
Ms. Clark is basing her "secret agenda" line of attack on a recent story by Globe and Mail reporter Justine Hunter. Based on an interview with Mr. Dix, her piece said the NDP Leader made up his mind to oppose the project after Kinder Morgan "signalled its expanded ambitions for the project in January." Ms. Clark is suggesting that implies January is when Mr. Dix made his decision when, in fact, it only suggests he made up his mind "some time after" the beginning of the year.
Despite Ms. Hunter's best efforts during the interview, Mr. Dix steadfastly refused to say when, exactly, he did decide to change his position. That leaves us to guess as to his motive and one of the best deductions making the rounds is that the NDP saw recent polling numbers that suggested the party was vulnerable in a number of key ridings because of the Green Party – something the New Democrats felt they could undercut by taking a position against Kinder Morgan.
But while it may have helped fend off the Greens, the NDP's new policy has almost certainly helped Ms. Clark and the Liberals.
Whether you agree with Mr. Dix's stand or not, declaring a project dead ahead of an environmental review process is not very statesmanlike. It looks amateurish, especially against the backdrop of a previously held – and much-ballyhooed – matter of principle position.
It allows the Liberals to cast the New Democrats as anti-development. It allows the Liberals to ask in the heat of an election campaign: How does an NDP government intend to pay for all its campaign promises if it is going to oppose every development project that environmental groups do not like? Has Mr. Dix forgotten about the tens of thousands of jobs the resource sector creates in B.C.? Does he not believe in due process?
Kinder Morgan provided Ms. Clark with her finest moments in Friday's debate. Mr. Dix seemed flustered talking about the issue. But the Liberal Leader had her low points too, most notably when questioned about B.C.'s miserable child-poverty record under Liberal government. That is Mr. Dix's sweet spot and an issue he cares passionately about. Green Party Leader Jane Sterk showed well in the debate too, particularly around this subject. B.C. Conservative Party Leader John Cummins was reserved.
My guess is that during the TV debate on Monday, the last time the leaders will square off before the May 14 election, there will be one topic Ms. Clark will be coming back to time and time again. Mr. Dix may want to brush up on his answers.