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Resources: The flashpoint of 2015’s election

The federal election of 1988 was so important that both sides agreed the very future of the country was at stake. The federal election of 2015 could be of similar nature.

Then, the issue was trade. This time it could be resources.

The government and the opposition are dividing, with increasing bitterness, over whether and how Canada should exploit its resource wealth – especially petroleum. The question encompasses jobs, the environment, international relations, and regional growth and decline.

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"The real issue is the vision of the future economically and environmentally," NDP natural resources critic Peter Julian said in an interview.

"These are the kinds of issues that will be front and centre in the next campaign."

Twenty-five years ago last Thursday, as many have noted, Canada and the United States signed a free-trade agreement. But the country was bitterly divided over that issue, as well, ultimately forcing Brian Mulroney's Progressive Conservative government to call – and win – an election.

Today, Stephen Harper's Conservatives are determined to maximize Canada's petroleum wealth by developing the Alberta oil sands to their maximum potential.

That means building pipelines: south to connect with American refineries; west to connect with British Columbia ports; possibly east, by reconfiguring existing pipelines.

It also means encouraging foreign investment in oil and other natural resources. Although the Harper government has yet to announce whether it will approve the sale of Nexen, a Canadian-owned oil company, to CNOOC, a Chinese state-owned energy firm, the smart money is on the Tories ultimately saying yes.

After all, Canada needs foreign capital – that China has – to develop the oil sands and other large resource assets. Without resource development, the Conservatives argue, Canadian exports will decline, resource revenues will dry up, the economy will falter, jobs will be lost and there will be less money for schools, hospitals and other government services.

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But the NDP is solidly opposed to allowing CNOOC to acquire Nexen, and discussions of Pacific Gateway and Keystone XL. Leader Thomas Mulcair argues that untrammelled development of oil and mineral wealth is driving up the dollar and costing Central Canadian manufacturing jobs, as well as damaging the environment.

There is, in other words, a large and unbridgeable gulf between the NDP and Conservatives on resource issues. Both sides would love to fight it out in an election. Both are likely to get their chance. For the Liberals, this is a problem.

During the 1988 free-trade election, the NDP found itself sidelined.

"In a 'light switch' election, fought over one issue, it is brutal to be the third party," former NDP strategist Robin Sears recalled in the journal Inside Policy.

The challenge for the next Liberal leader, whomever he or she is, will be to avoid being pushed aside in a light-switch election over resources.

The argument is not limited to federal parties. In 1988, parts of the country – especially Ontario – opposed free trade while other parts of the country – especially Quebec – supported it. Today, British Columbia opposes the Northern Gateway Pipeline as currently proposed, while Alberta supports it.

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Native, environmental, business and labour leaders will all campaign on one side or another. 2015 could be, in short, one heck of an election.

Three years is, of course, a long time. The Americans could reverse themselves and approve Keystone. The Gateway initiative is likely to be tied up in the courts for years, however the hearings currently under way turn out. Foreign investment controversies could be trumped by some as-yet-unsuspected issue du jour.

Nonetheless, resource development appears to be turning into a Big Fight – the kind of fight that takes years to develop, that is deeply polarizing, that involves everyone's future prosperity. The kind that can consume an entire election.

The next federal election is scheduled for Oct. 19, 2015. But it's never too early to get started on your placard.

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