One of the boldest and riskiest qualities of the Trudeau government is its resolve, on certain key priorities, to decide first and worry about ”how” later. So marijuana use will become legal. Canada will have a carbon tax. The Trans Mountain pipeline will be built.
If this approach works, at the end of their first term the Liberals will have earned a well-deserved reputation for decisiveness. If it doesn’t, they will be condemned for their recklessness. Events this week and next will foreshadow that verdict.
Having decided that the Alberta oil industry must have a new pipeline to tidewater and that the Trans Mountain extension is the best choice, the Trudeau government declared “the pipeline will be built” when the owner, Kinder Morgan, threatened to pull out.
In the end, they decided to nationalize the project, despite fierce resistance from the British Columbia government and environmental and Indigenous protesters.
“I’m surprised to see Justin Trudeau doubling down so hard on the pipeline,” said Hamish Telford, a political scientist who specializes in federalism at the University of the Fraser Valley. “… This really shakes things up heading into the next election.”
It things go well, Ottawa will prevail against legal challenges, overcome or exhaust the protesters and build the pipeline, eventually privatizing it with money in the bank. If things go badly, the pipeline will be frozen by court rulings or massive civil protests. Door A: soaring popularity. Door B: ruin.
(An aside: To those who supported the temporary nationalization of GM and Chrysler during the economic crisis, but now oppose the temporary nationalization of Trans Mountain – how very Central Canadian of you.)
Early in its mandate the government announced that each province must impose some form of a carbon tax, to fight global warming. Initially, every province except Saskatchewan agreed. But Doug Ford has vowed to scrap Ontario’s cap-and-trade carbon tax, if the Progressive Conservatives win the June 7 provincial election. With United Conservative Party Leader Jason Kenney vowing to do the same if he defeats NDP Premier Rachel Notley in next year’s election, the national carbon tax could lie in shambles.
Federal-provincial relations are “turning into bit of a quagmire,” over environment and energy issues, says Prof. Telford. Rather than the co-operative federalism that Mr. Trudeau was hoping for, the situation has become increasingly adversarial, “and that will have ripple effects throughout the federation,” he believes. Quebeckers, for one, take a dim view of federal governments that intrude on provincial interests.
But all is not lost. Andrea Horwath’s NDP is tied or ahead in the polls in Ontario, depending on which pollster you consult. The pipeline fight has breathed new life into Ms. Notley’s NDP government. The carbon tax could yet be saved.
Meanwhile, another bold Liberal declaration stands on the cusp. Within the coming days, the North American free-trade negotiations will either reach a resolution or they won’t; the Canadian exemption from steel and aluminum tariffs will remain in place, or tariffs will arrive. U.S. President Donald Trump is threatening to tear up NAFTA and impose the tariffs.
Mr. Trudeau and Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland – who should think about renting an apartment in Washington, she spends so much time there – have declared that they will negotiate a new deal that will be a “win-win-win” for Canada, Mexico and the United States.
If they succeed in protecting Canadian access to the U.S. market in a new agreement, they will deservedly reap high praise. If the talks fail, or Canada is forced to sign a deal that clearly erodes our interests – say, by eliminating the dispute resolution mechanism – then the Liberals will be blamed for failing to protect Canadian exports, whether they deserve that blame or not.
Those who accuse politicians of valuing popularity over the public good must surely admire this Prime Minister, who is putting what he sees as the national interest ahead of the concerns of many of his own supporters. The pipeline decision, especially, puts Liberals seats in B.C. and parts of the Liberal coalition nationally at risk.
Those who believe that the first priority of a governing political party is to win re-election may wonder what this Prime Minister thinks he’s doing.
Remember Yes Minister? Nothing terrifies a politician more than hearing from senior staff that a course of action would be “courageous,” Sir Humphrey said. But “courageous” doesn’t frighten Justin Trudeau. Though maybe it should.