When former NDP leader Adrian Dix stunned his party, and a great swath of the electorate, with his surprising decision to come out against the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline in the early stages of the 2013 provincial election, it became a defining moment of the campaign.
Until then, Mr. Dix had insisted he would not take a position until the proponent of the project had submitted its formal application to government. But, worried about voter support slipping to the Green Party, he did an about face. As it turned out, it was a fundamental miscalculation.
Premier Christy Clark, behind badly in the polls, knew instantly what she had. On the campaign trail, she began framing her opponent as a flip-flopper, as someone who could not be trusted to stand on principle. At one stop, she conjured the image of a weather vane in describing Mr. Dix's oscillating positions. Back in the Liberal war room, the analogy struck a chord.
In short order, the concept was turned into a devastating attack ad – one that unquestionably helped propel Ms. Clark to her surprising victory.
I mention this because it is not hard to imagine the Liberals are already at work on a new version of the ad, substituting the current NDP Leader, John Horgan, for his predecessor. And it will twist around the same issue – Kinder Morgan.
Mr. Horgan is firmly against the plan to expand the pipeline – we think. Describing his position on it as erratic would be charitable. It is clearly not something he has felt completely comfortable addressing; on one day alone he was both "open minded" and then later dead-set against it. My personal view is that deep in his bones, Mr. Horgan understands that governments need to make trade-offs when it comes to the environment and resource development.
And I suspect Mr. Horgan would support the project if he felt that would not incite a rebellion among the enviro-forces in his caucus – but it would.
End of story.
The fact that he waffled on the project before opposing it unequivocally gives Ms. Clark two important wedges.
She can claim the NDP is anti-jobs, the party of No (the Premier will cite Mr. Horgan's opposition to her liquefied natural gas, the Site C dam and mining projects). She used this line of attack in the 2013 campaign to cleave off blue collar votes from the NDP in rural areas. Private sector unions were particularly unfaithful to the NDP the last time around, and could well demonstrate that infidelity again.
Ms. Clark will also try to turn the pipeline issue into a mini-referendum on leadership. She will insist her position has been consistent since she laid out her five conditions: She can insist she held firm to those tenets until they were met. You can already hear the campaign messaging creeping into Ms. Clark's recent news conferences. What people want, she has begun saying, is "consistency from their leader," not fickleness and shiftiness.
While she has stood behind her five pipeline development provisos, Mr. Horgan has spun like a weather vane on the matter. Cue the new attack ad.
The NDP, meantime, are clearly betting opposition to the Trans Mountain expansion goes beyond Metro Vancouver. It is a gamble. While its position against the project will unquestionably gain the party some votes in Vancouver and Burnaby – even from some people who voted Liberal last time – it could be a tough sell in the Interior and the north, where people would welcome the jobs created by the project. This could be a 2013 redux.
It is not the only issue on which Mr. Horgan does not look good. He has railed against Ms. Clark for headlining pricey fund-raising dinners for the elite – and yet he is doing precisely the same thing. The stand looks horribly hypocritical no matter how Mr. Horgan tries to spin it – i.e. I am just playing by the rules that exist. And again, it speaks to the sometimes conflicting nature of his positioning, which speaks to leadership.
This is not to say Mr. Horgan does not have plenty of ammunition he can use to savage Ms. Clark, beginning with the LNG riches she promised in 2013 that have so far failed to materialize. She will be lugging plenty of other baggage around with her on the campaign trail too.
But on Kinder Morgan, Mr. Horgan has opened himself up to attack – and he had better be prepared for it.