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gary mason

The political dynamics of the West have shifted again. And the degree to which they have done so will be evident and scrutinized at this week's Western premiers' conference in Vancouver.

The most prominent story line will be the arrival of the group's newest member – Manitoba Progressive Conservative Premier Brian Pallister. If nothing else, his presence could provide for an amusing photo-op, especially if the 6-foot 8-inch Manitoba Premier lines up beside his 5-foot 2-inch Alberta counterpart, the NDP's Rachel Notley – a height difference as yawning as the ideology divide between the two.

Mr. Pallister's arrival changes the group chemistry, just as Ms. Notley's emergence on the scene did last year. This time, Alberta's Premier finds herself more alone, after Manitoba's Greg Selinger was cast to the political wilderness, ending 17 years of NDP rule in the province. Who could have imagined that one day, the exception to conservative rule in the West would be Alberta, a jurisdiction that for decades was the embodiment of centre-right politics in Canada?

That has changed. Now, Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall and B.C. Premier Christy Clark run the two most conservative governments in the country. Mr. Pallister is expected to feel quite comfortable in their company. How Ms. Notley fits in is another matter.

While it is unlikely to be discussed much publicly, the Notley camp still has some behind-the-scenes resentment (bordering on anger) over the public lecture Mr. Wall felt compelled to give his Alberta colleague last year on pipelines. If you recall, the Saskatchewan Premier accused Ms. Notley of effectively giving Quebec a veto over the Energy East pipeline by agreeing to the premise that Alberta needed to show action on climate change before it could hope to get support for the movement of its oil.

Mr. Wall suggested that if Ms. Notley was not going to stand up for the economic interests of her province, he would. Then his Energy Minister went into Alberta and gave a speech in which he invited laid-off workers to come to Saskatchewan. Ms. Notley accused Mr. Wall of "showboating" and "picking fights." Officials in her government seethed over what they perceived to be a blatant attempt by the Saskatchewan Premier, the elder political statesman in the West, to discredit (even take advantage of) a new provincial counterpart based on petty, ideological grounds.

Let's just say that there have be no overtures by Mr. Wall to smooth the waters.

Nor has the Notley camp been impressed with the salvos that Ms. Clark has directed the province's way in recent months. The B.C. Premier has, for partisan gain, used Alberta to highlight the difference between the fiscal discipline her government has demonstrated and the massive debt the province's next door neighbour has been taking on. Ms. Clark knows, too, that Ms. Notley would love to see her defeated in the next election and the NDP to rise to power.

Consequently, they will never be BFFs.

Of course, this tension will not be evident before the cameras. It will be all smiles. But no one should expect either that Ms. Notley will be a full-throated endorser of Mr. Wall's efforts to bring Manitoba into the New West Partnership, an inter-provincial trade agreement between three of the four western provinces. Mr. Pallister has said he is anxious for Manitoba to become a member.

The other topic you will hear mentioned, of course, is pipelines. Ms. Notley will undoubtedly be pressed to elaborate on her evolving view of Northern Gateway, the all-but-left-for-dead option she breathed new life into when she told The Globe and Mail last month that she was no longer opposed to the route to the coast through British Columbia. Still, it remains a long-shot.

The best hope for Alberta oil getting to the West Coast remains the Kinder Morgan expansion. Discussions are under way between Alberta and British Columbia on a pipeline-for-electricity deal (B.C. would sell hydro-electric power to Alberta in exchange for approving a pipeline) that will likely be played down this week. Ms. Clark is certain to reiterate her position that any pipeline project meet the province's five conditions.

The reality is the next move on this file will not come from Alberta or B.C., but the federal government. Ottawa is scheduled to announce in December whether it is going to support Kinder Morgan – so until then much of the discussion about it is moot.

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