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The B.C. New Democrats have a second chance to define themselves on the Kinder Morgan oil pipeline proposal. (ILLUSTRATION BY DAVID PARKINS FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
The B.C. New Democrats have a second chance to define themselves on the Kinder Morgan oil pipeline proposal. (ILLUSTRATION BY DAVID PARKINS FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

B.C. NDP can take another swing at Kinder Morgan issue, but not easily Add to ...

The B.C. New Democrats have a second chance to define themselves on the Kinder Morgan oil-pipeline proposal. A change of heart is not inevitable.

One of the key lessons from their failed election campaign last May was that party leader Adrian Dix’s surprise decision to oppose the pipeline was a fatal strategy.

“The Liberal vote really began to pull together after … we announced our shift in position on Kinder Morgan, and then very steadily solidified over the course of the rest of the campaign,” campaign manager Brian Topp wrote in his blunt assessment on how the NDP lost the election.

Premier Christy Clark, by contrast, won on a persuasive platform where she identified with the hard-hat-wearing workers who rallied around her mantra, “We say ‘yes’ to resource development.” The Liberals’ weather vane ads that seized on Mr. Dix for the pipeline policy flip-flop finished the job.

As Mr. Dix prepares to hand over the reins to a new leader, some of the contenders to his job will no doubt be tempted to find a way to get back to “yes” as a way of reconnecting with voters.

But it isn’t a simple choice.

The Kinder Morgan decision was subject to what Mr. Topp described as an “extensive, detailed, exhausting and difficult” debate that consumed key strategists and communications staff right up until the moment that Mr. Dix stepped up to the podium on Earth Day and delivered his verdict.

The NDP scored the hoped-for endorsements from the environmental movement, but the damage would outweigh any gains. The first clue that it has miscalculated came from the ranks of their own allies: BC and Yukon Building Trades Council president Tom Sigurdson condemned the NDP for forgoing a source of jobs.

Balancing resource development against environmental concerns is an ongoing source of conflict in the province. For the NDP in particular, with its strong environmental and labour factions, those wars often find their way into the caucus room. And it can show up at the ballot box: In the 2009 election, the environment movement inflicted significant damage because the NDP had opposed the Liberals’ carbon tax.

Kinder Morgan can be a wedge issue for the NDP leadership race. Some contenders might wish to set themselves apart from Mr. Dix. That’s not an easy out for candidates who look to Metro Vancouver for the base of their support.

Possible contenders David Eby, Judy Darcy, George Heyman and Mike Farnworth, to name a few, all will be alive to the region’s resistance to the prospect of increased oil-tanker traffic that would result from the twinning of Kinder Morgan’s existing pipeline.

In addition to the public mood, a new direction on the pipeline would antagonize influential Metro Vancouver politicians with strong connections to the NDP, including Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan and Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson.

To avoid the cross-pressure, Mr. Dix had refused to take any position at all on Kinder Morgan until April 22. The mid-campaign change of heart allowed Ms. Clark to box her opponents in like this: Resource development equals jobs, and if the NDP say “no” to a project, they are against job creation.

That argument, which the NDP did not manage to counter during the election, is a trap and New Democrats have to rewrite the narrative, says Shannon Phillips, energy analyst with the Alberta Federation of Labour.

Ms. Phillips spent the 28-day election campaign in the B.C. NDP’s war room. She was privy to the internal debate. She is trying, still, to help the NDP frame the question differently.

She argues that the Enbridge and Kinder Morgan pipelines are not about creating long-term jobs, they are about exporting Canada’s raw resources long after the construction jobs have evaporated. To her, the New Democrats don’t have to say “yes” to those pipelines, but they need to offer an alternative that sees the country’s natural resources developed at home.

In the B.C. campaign, the NDP didn’t connect the dots. “We cannot make an environmental argument without also making a jobs argument, and in particular in B.C. we failed to provide a larger vision for how we might provide jobs,” she said.

The leadership race gives the NDP another opportunity to revisit the issue. First, they have to escape the trap they walked into on April 22.

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