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B.C. NDP Leader Adrian Dix says he can work with Harper

B.C. NDP Leader Adrian Dix, speak to reporters at the 50th anniversary B.C. NDP convention in Vancouver, British Columbia, Sunday, December 11, 2011.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Adrian Dix is at odds with Prime Minister Stephen Harper's commitment to sell Canadian oil to Asia through the Northern Gateway pipeline, but the B.C. NDP Leader is playing down the potential for a federal-provincial dust-up if he becomes premier in the election next May.

Mr. Dix said Monday he is confident he will be able to maintain "businesslike" relations with the Conservative Prime Minister despite opposing a policy Mr. Harper has deemed crucial since the U.S. government refused to grant immediate approval to the Keystone XL oil pipeline earlier this year.

In response to the Keystone development, Mr. Harper said it was vital for Canada to reassess its reliance on U.S. markets for energy, and look to Asia. That has fuelled his enthusiasm for Gateway, a $5.5-billion project to ship oil-sand bitumen from Alberta to the northwest coast of B.C. by tanker to Asia.

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B.C. residents are months away from voting, but the NDP has built up a formidable lead in a series of polls. An Angus Reid Public Opinion survey out last week had the NDP with 45-per-cent support, compared to 23 per cent for the B.C. Liberals.

Mr. Dix said he expected Northern Gateway would be one of several points of disagreement with Ottawa.

"It's an important issue, and one we disagree with the Prime Minister on. There will other such issues, but I would expect to have a businesslike relation," he said. "I am not looking for a fight with anyone, although we will defend the provincial interest."

Although a regulatory review of the pipeline by the National Energy Board is not scheduled to conclude until December, 2013, Mr. Dix has assembled a legal team to figure out how to stop its construction.

"We have to act in the interests of British Columbians, and we intend to do that," he said. "I am not seeking to be the leader of the opposition in Canada. I am seeking to be premier of British Columbia and represent people of British Columbia."

But a former deputy minister to B.C. NDP premiers Mike Harcourt and Glen Clark sees stormy times ahead if Mr. Dix, as premier, clashes with Mr. Harper on the subject.

Doug McArthur, now a professor in the Graduate School of Public Policy at Simon Fraser University, said he expected an initial "period of exploration" in search of possible compromise.

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"If that doesn't happen, this is going to be a major federal-provincial dispute. There's no question about it," Prof. McArthur said.

But he said all of this is premised on an NDP win at the polls next May, ending a run of Liberal governments that began in 2001. That's when Gordon Campbell ended a decade of NDP government.

Political scientist Norman Ruff, professor emeritus at the University of Victoria, suggested one key point of tension in a relationship between Mr. Harper and a premier Dix might be a "spillover" from the Prime Minister's attacks on federal opposition leader Thomas Mulcair, leader of the federal New Democrats, who is also opposed to Gateway. "There will be a lot of collateral damage in the tension between Mulcair and Harper," Prof. Ruff said.

The B.C. government under Premier Christy Clark has declined to take a public stand on the project pending the outcome of the energy-board review. However, Ms. Clark has expressed concerns about a U.S. regulatory report last week that raised red flags over environmental devastation caused by a major oil leak from an Enbridge pipeline in Michigan in 2010.

While Mr. Campbell and Ms. Clark, have largely had harmonious relations with Ottawa, things were more tense with former NDP premier Glen Clark. He famously derided the federal Liberal government of Jean Chrétien for "arrogance … intransigence, bureaucratic inertia, stupidity" because of its attitude to B.C.'s salmon fishery.

Eventually, Mr. Clark closed a torpedo-testing range at Nanoose Bay that the province leased to the U.S. Navy due to his grievance over Ottawa's mishandling of the fishery, leading Ottawa to expropriate the facility

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Mr. Dix, who worked for a time as Mr. Clark's chief of staff, said things have changed in the federal-provincial dynamic since then. "I certainly don't plan to have a publicly contentious relationship with the national government," he said.

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