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The point has been made, and well, that the Harper government was not exactly bubbling over with enthusiasm Tuesday in releasing its decision on the Northern Gateway pipeline project. No minister was on hand to make the announcement. The statement it put out did not formally approve Enbridge’s proposal, or even endorse last December’s report of the National Energy Board’s Joint Review Panel, which approved it subject to a list of 209 conditions.
All the government would say is that it accepted the panel’s recommendation to impose the conditions, while lecturing “the proponent” that it had “more work to do” if it hoped to ever actually build the thing. Why, it didn’t even refer to itself as “the Harper government,” as is its custom, but rather attributed the decision to some faceless entity by the name of “the Government of Canada.”
That could be read as the government edging away from a project it now sees as a political liability. Or it could just be doing what it should have done in the first place: stay out of it. At this point, having blared its unstinting support for the project even before the review panel had begun hearings, then smeared environmentalists raising the alarm at the project’s potential ecological impact as “foreign radicals,” then given itself the power to overrule the NEB should it find against it, the Harper government has less credibility on the issue, outside of the previously committed, than any organization in the country, Enbridge included.
And not only for its handling of Gateway. The government’s approach to most issues, not just Gateway, has been in the same high-handed, over-the-top vein, to the point that, on an issue it truly cares about, when it really needs the public to give it the benefit of the doubt, it finds no reserves of goodwill to draw upon. Probably many environmentalists and aboriginal groups would have opposed the project no matter who was in power, or how it was presented.
But it is interesting to speculate where broader public opinion would be today under a government that, rather than advertise its intent to push ahead with the project whatever the risks to the environment, had instead gone out of its way to emphasize its attentiveness to environmental concerns. This strikes me as Politics 101: cover your weak flank.
That Gateway has the support it has today — a roughly even split, according to the latest poll, both in British Columbia and the country at large — is entirely due to the NEB. Had the review panel found against it, it would have been doomed. Indeed, it might not have fared much better had the panel accepted it unconditionally.
The government, far from bringing the NEB to heel, now finds itself clinging to its skirts, hoping it is seen as independent enough, and credible enough, to convince the waverers. As the government’s statement said, this is indeed but “another step in the process”: the project must not only comply with all of the regulatory hurdles, but will have to win the battle for public opinion, culminating in next year’s federal election.
For the rest of this column, click here: http://fullcomment.nationalpost.com/2014/06/18/andrew-coyne-no-mr-mulcair-its-not-northern-gateway-that-is-a-threat-to-our-social-order/