National Column: Pipeline debate hasn’t hurt PM – yet

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by Chantal Hebert

It is rare that a single issue costs a federal ruling party its re-election. Based on the latest poll to measure the impact of the ongoing pipeline crisis on the political fortunes of its various protagonists, the fate of the Trans Mountain expansion is unlikely to alone determine that of Justin Trudeau’s Liberals in next year’s federal election.

For all the contrary passions expended by Canada’s political class on the project these days, only a small minority of voters – 11% – say they would rank it as one of the most important factors in their 2019 federal choice. Most of those who follow the debate expect it to be just one of many considerations liable to go into the mix of their decision.

By all indications, the level of engagement of the country’s chattering class in the discussion is disproportionately higher than that of the electorate nationally. On that score, parallels between the ongoing pipeline debate and the constitutional wars of the Meech Lake era are somewhat premature. The state of public opinion on the Trans Mountain issue is less polarized than the entrenched positions of politicians could lead one to believe.

That’s good news for the prime minister, for the poll also shows that his handling of the feud is playing to mixed reviews nationally and very poor ones at ground zero of the battle. Regardless of the Trans Mountain outcome, the perception that the government mismanages big files could cost the Liberals dearly in the ballot box. Here are some highlights:

Overall, Trudeauís pro-pipeline stance is in synch with the opinion of a majority of Canadians.

According to the poll, that majority has grown as the debate between British Columbia and Alberta has heated up. At this juncture, two-thirds of the electorate feel B.C. is wrong to pursue its battle against the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline.

British Columbians – and in particular those who live in the immediate vicinity of the planned expansion – are predictably more divided. They remain split on whether the merits of the project outweigh its environmental risks.

The majority has little or no confidence in Trudeau’s assurances that adequate measures will be in place to prevent or respond to a spill at sea. Still the numbers such as they currently stand suggest B.C. premier John Horgan would very much be tossing the dice if he tried to use his opposition to the project to translate his minority government into a majority in a snap election.

Horgan’s proposal to bring the courts into the loop of the debate seems the most likely to resolve the current impasse. Should the courts find that the province does not have the legal power to interfere with the project, 69 per cent of British Columbians – including one in three pipeline opponents – would expect the NDP government to tool down.

By comparison, Canadians are not sold on Trudeau’s plan to buy a stake in the pipeline on their behalf. Opinion on that score is almost evenly split in most provinces – including Alberta and Saskatchewan, the only two places where a slim majority is in favour.

A substantial majority in both feuding provinces – 71 per cent in Alberta and 60 per cent in B.C. – agrees the prime minister is doing a poor job of sorting matters out, albeit for opposite reasons. Trudeau’s reviews are less mixed east of Manitoba. About half of the voters in Quebec, Ontario and Atlantic Canada think he is striking the right balance. This poll is a snapshot, taken in the heat of political action.

As the debate unfolds, public opinion, given its fluidity, could still evolve either way. But for now, Trudeau still has a large audience for his take on the need for the pipeline expansion. Based on this sounding though, a prolonged debate over the wisdom of the federal government buying a stake in the pipeline could prove trickier for the prime minister than a decisive court battle.

If Trudeau does put public funds on the line to ensure the pipeline’s parent company, Kinder Morgan, completes the expansion, he will have his work cut out for him convincing a majority of voters that it is the right thing to do. And then federal efforts to sell the Trans Mountain project as a trade-off on the way to a more aggressive climate change mitigation policy may be missing the mark.

As the Angus Reid poll confirms, for B.C. supporters and opponents of the project alike, concerns over its contribution to climate change and greenhouse gas emissions come a very distant second to fears of an increased risk of an oil tanker spill.

Copyright 2018-Torstar Syndication Services

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