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Trudeau’s political future hinges on the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion

Justin Trudeau’s handling of the Trans Mountain pipeline issue will decide the fate of his government. Nothing else is this important − not deficits-for-infrastructure, not legalizing cannabis, not the refugee situation, not even trade and NAFTA.

If the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion is under construction 18 months from now, Mr. Trudeau is likely to win the October, 2019, election. If the project is frustrated by legal and illegal resistance, he is likely to lose. Federal governments are expected to manage the national economy in the public interest. Those that fail are punished.

Nine out of 10 Canadians could not explain the Liberal Grand Bargain on energy and the environment. In essence, that bargain involves a very Liberal sort of compromise.

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Because the government is committed to fighting climate change, it has imposed a national carbon tax, which takes effect next year. Most provinces already have one in place. Each province may implement the tax as it sees fits, with revenues remaining in the province.

Read more: What if the Trans Mountain pipeline is never built?

But the Liberals are also committed to protecting the Alberta economy and so, in exchange for the carbon tax, Ottawa is backing the Trans Mountain expansion, which by twinning an existing line will greatly increase the amount of bitumen Alberta can sell to the world.

Saskatchewan opposes the carbon tax, and Ontario and Alberta may as well, depending on the outcome of provincial elections. But the biggest challenge to the Grand Bargain comes from British Columbia’s NDP government and Indigenous and environmental protesters.

To his great credit, Mr. Trudeau is staring them down. Sunday, he promised financial support for the pipeline, in concert with the Alberta government. As well, new legislation will explicitly affirm the constitutional right of the federal government to approve such projects.

He is showing the steel of his father − which is ironic, because this Prime Minister is protecting the rights of Albertans to extract and profit from their oil, the very opposite of Pierre Trudeau’s National Energy Program.

But the Liberal Grand Bargain may fail. Apart from the challenges to the carbon tax, the government faces substantial headwinds in completing the pipeline. For one thing, Kinder Morgan, which owns it, might find the guarantees insufficient.

Even if Kinder Morgan does agree to go ahead, B.C. Premier John Horgan is offering a legal challenge to the federal government’s authority to build the pipeline, although the Supreme Court is unlikely to adjudicate that challenge until after the general election.

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The biggest problem involves the protesters. Dozens of Indigenous communities in B.C. and Alberta have signed agreements with Kinder Morgan approving the Trans Mountain expansion. Many are First Nations who already have the pipeline going through their lands, and who will benefit from the expansion.

But other First Nations are adamantly opposed, fearing an oil spill that could contaminate British Columbia’s lands and waters. And they are joined by environmentalists who are willing to engage in civil disobedience to block construction.

Will the B.C. government criminally charge those who have already been arrested for blocking the pipeline? It seems unlikely that, in the long term, the Horgan government will commit much political capital to protecting a pipeline it opposes.

If B.C. balks at arresting protesters, will Ottawa send in troops? The answer is almost certainly no. Deploying the army in a province without first being asked by the provincial government is a bridge too far.

Central Canadians are bystanders in this dispute, but they are interested bystanders. The Quebec government has already criticized Ottawa for interfering in B.C.’s jurisdiction, and it’s hard to believe the Liberals’ uncompromising defence of pipelines will win them many votes in Quebec.

But millions of middle-class suburban voters in Ontario determine the outcome of elections. How will they react? Will they quietly applaud a Liberal government that is going to the wall in defence of Canada’s economic interests? Or will they shake their heads at Liberal mismanagement of the pipeline issue?

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The answer will lie in whether Mr. Trudeau succeeds or fails in getting the pipeline built. His political future hinges on that answer.​

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