by Chantal Hebert
Once in a blue moon, or maybe a bit more often than that, someone who should know better offers the prime minister of the day some strikingly flawed advice.
Such is the case of Brian Mulroney’s recommendation that Justin Trudeau personally take charge of the controversial Energy East pipeline file.
In a speech in Calgary this week, the former Tory prime minister offered his successful negotiation of a watershed free-trade agreement with the United States in the late 1980s as the template Trudeau should borrow to advance Trans-Canada’s pipeline plan.
“What we now need for an exceptional, cohesive effort to make the most of our resource base is a similarly clear commitment from the top, led by the prime minister, with a unique, high-quality organizational structure drawing expertise from across Canada, and a genuine partnership that will spearhead expansion of our resources, expedite infrastructure construction and bolster a broader diversification of our resources,” the former prime minister told his Alberta audience.
It should be said at the outset that this is advice offered in good faith. At a time when most were still sneering at the notion that Trudeau could become prime minister, Mulroney was talking up his potential.
As opposed to other prominent Energy East backers – such as former Quebec premier Jean Charest, who was at one point on contract as a consultant to TransCanada – Mulroney has no financial connection to the project. (He does toil in a law firm that, like its competition, is always on the lookout for more energy industry clients.)
Mulroney is not the first to call on Trudeau to jump in front of the pipeline parade and, given the travails of the National Energy Board in dealing with Energy East, he will not be the last.
On Friday, the three-member NEB panel tasked with vetting the plan to link the oilsands to the Atlantic coast belatedly recused itself amidst enduring questions as to its independence.
In hindsight, that should have happened as soon as news surfaced earlier this summer of private meetings between panel members and parties such as Charest, whose interests were vested in the project.
The next panel will be made up of members hand-picked by the Trudeau government rather than legacy Conservative appointees. That should go some way to restore credibility to the process. Further down the road, it would make a pro-Energy East NEB recommendation harder for Trudeau to dismiss.
But for pipeline proponents, the latest developments also offer an opportunity to once again try to prod Trudeau himself into action. Mulroney, for one, should know better than to flog that particular horse.
The current prime minister does have an enviable amount of political capital. But then, so did former Quebec premier Lucien Bouchard when he took on the role of chief lobbyist for the shale gas industry in Quebec a few years ago. Not only did Bouchard fail to advance the argument, he also left a lot of his credibility on the battlefield.
And then, the dynamics of a top-down prime ministerial effort to rally support for a pipeline in the name of nation-building would be more akin to the ill-fated constitutional rounds that took place on Mulroney’s watch than to the trade negotiations that led to the FTA and NAFTA.
If there is one former prime minister who should know the limits of the persuasive powers of a top-down policy consensus, it should be Mulroney. He and his government succeeded twice in securing unanimous provincial support for two successive constitutional accords.
Within a year of the negotiation of the Meech Lake accord in 1987, premiers of a different constitutional persuasion had replaced Mulroney’s allies in New Brunswick and Manitoba. And no amount of establishment support from virtually every quarter of Canadian society could salvage the subsequent Charlottetown accord from the fury of voters.
Back when Mulroney and the premiers set out to proactively redress Quebec constitutional grievances, the sovereignty movement was at a low ebb. These days, it is similarly at a loss for an issue with enough popular traction to restore its momentum.
Anyone who is close to the Quebec scene can testify that a show of federal force on Energy East could be the answer to the sovereigntist prayers for optimal conditions for a return to power of a majority Parti QuebÈcois government and – perhaps in time – another shot at referendum.
Chantal Hebert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.
Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services