OTTAWA — B.C.’s Liberal MPs, despite flying high in the polls, have a reason to be just as edgy as their West Coast opponents as members from all four parties return to Parliament next week.
Why ? Call it the Kinder Morgan conundrum.
The Conservatives and especially the New Democrats face uncertainty heading into leadership races that have failed to attract the party’s top stars.
One-time presumed front-runners like British Columbians James Moore of the Conservatives, who retired before the last election, and Nathan Cullen of the NDP generally cite family reasons for opting out of the two contests.
While in both B.C. cases those concerns are legitimate, potential candidates are also likely daunted by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s popularity ratings.
Green Party leader Elizabeth May’s stewardship and her party’s viability, meanwhile, are in danger as the Saanich-Gulf Islands MP wrestles with an attempted hijacking by a faction trying to use the party as a vehicle to attack Israel’s human rights record.
Yet B.C.’s 17 Liberal members of Parliament have no reason to be smug even though polls show them still basking in Trudeau’s “sunny” post-election glow.
The latest summary of polling data by the website threehundredeight.com has the Liberals with the support of roughly half of Canadians and British Columbians, with the result that if an election were held now would result in a massive Liberal majority government.
But as autumn progresses that mood will soon give way to a more sombre decision, which will come no later than Dec. 19 on whether the government will approve the $6.8-billion Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion.
The federal cabinet, if it gives in to pressure from Alberta, Saskatchewan and the Canadian business community, could deflate enthusiasm for a number of B.C. MPs with a pro-Kinder Morgan decision.
Most vulnerable are the Liberals representing ridings around Burrard Inlet, where the number of crude oil tankers entering those waters will increase from five to 34 a month.
They include North Shore MPs Pamela Goldsmith-Jones (West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast-Sea to Sky Country), Jonathan Wilkinson (North Vancouver) and especially Terry Beech (Burnaby-North Seymour), who pulled off a surprise win in a riding that was thought to be leaning NDP.
All three are parliamentary secretaries to ministers, a role seen as a stepping-stone to cabinet for promising MPs.
Beech also represents Ground Zero of the Kinder Morgan project, in that the pipeline goes directly to the Westridge Marine Terminal on Burrard Inlet’s shores.
On the south side of the inlet Liberal MPs include Joyce Murray (Vancouver Quadra), Hedy Fry (Vancouver Centre), Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould (Vancouver Granville) and, a little farther away, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan (Vancouver South).
Would Trudeau, who famously stood on Grouse Mountain overlooking that waterway and said B.C. blood courses through his veins, put at risk some of his valued MPs and risk a major setback ?
New Democrat MP Kennedy Stewart (Burnaby South) is convinced Ottawa will approve the project.
Trudeau, while he has condemned the National Energy Board review process and implied during the campaign that communities hold a veto on such projects, once spoke favourably in Calgary about Kinder Morgan’s plans.
But Stewart suspects the decision could be delayed until after the B.C. election in May, in order to reduce pressure on Christy Clark’s government to take a firm position on the proposal.
That extension could also give Kinder Morgan time to consider an alternate route to Roberts Bank in Tsawwassen or across the border to Cherry Point in Washington state, he said, though that would entail new and time-consuming regulatory hearings plus additional technical and environmental studies.
“If Trudeau wants this to go ahead he’s going to have to have Christy Clark’s approval, and in order to get that he’s going to have to help her win the election, and if he wants her to win he has to make sure this is not an issue,” Stewart said.
Others, however, believe Trudeau will bend to pressure from people like Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, a valuable political ally for Trudeau. Robertson is certain to loudly and regularly fight against a positive decision.
A pro-Kinder Morgan decision “would put those seats at risk,” said University of B.C. political scientist Richard Johnston.
Johnston supports Robertson’s argument that a pipeline through the city could potentially hurt Vancouver’s “brand” as a major tourist attraction and one of the world’s greenest cities.
The Liberal MPs are generally laying low on Kinder Morgan, though Beech has taken a more aggressive approach. While the rookie MP has avoided specifying his personal position, he told a federal panel last month his constituents are overwhelmingly opposed to the project.
“After speaking with tens of thousands of individuals, including local, provincial and indigenous representatives, I can tell you with confidence that the people of Burnaby North-Seymour on balance stand opposed to this project, and that the community does not grant its permission for this project to proceed,” he said.
Wilkinson, representing a more upper-income and historically pro-Conservative riding, is straddling the fence.
“My sense is the vast majority of people are in the middle,” he said this week.
“They have concerns around spill response in the harbour and want to know what the answer is in terms of how that would be addressed.
“And so I think over the course of the next few months one of the things they will be looking for is thoughtful answers as to how that would be addressed if the pipeline is to proceed.”
While Beech supports a route change to avoid the Burrard Inlet, his Liberal colleague Wilkinson said there are no easy answers for Kinder Morgan or the government.
“The people who live in Tsawwassen would have similar concerns, so it’s not like it’s a panacea, that it suddenly becomes simple.”
Polls have generally showed that British Columbians are close to split on the project, with Insights West surveys usually pegging opposition just under 50 per cent and support hovering at or just above 40 per cent.
But opposition is stronger in Metro Vancouver, where the vast majority of Liberal MPs reside.
Insights West pollster Mario Canseco said that Trudeau, by acting early in his mandate, could potentially survive a pro-Kinder Morgan decision with minimal damage — especially if he comes up with other pro-environment initiatives like a national carbon tax.
Beech, he said, is most vulnerable because of the Ground Zero locale and strong NDP base in Burnaby.
But cabinet heavyweights Sajjan and Wilson-Raybould will benefit in the next election from their inflated name recognition. Fry and Murray are also well-known veterans, and Goldsmith-Jones and Wilkinson represent historically Tory-friendly ridings that are unlikely to go NDP or Green, the two parties hostile to pipeline projects.
There is an intangible risk involving people aged 18 to 34 who are disproportionately opposed to pipelines. Trudeau’s 2015 electoral success was driven in part by his ability to improve the usually dismal youth voter turnout rate.
“He established an emotional connection with youth, so it might be difficult for him if he breaks that promise,” Canseco said.
Conservative MP Ed Fast, his party’s environment and climate change critic and a former trade minister, said Trudeau has boxed himself in by telling British Columbians they have an effective veto on pipelines, while signaling to Albertans that he’s committed to getting their product to overseas markets.
“At the end of the day he can’t fulfill both of those promises,” the MP for Abbotsford said Thursday.
“He should acknowledge his broken promise and focus on what is in the national interest. Kinder Morgan needs to be approved.”