Analysis

Notley may be winning public opinion war in pipeline dispute

Last week, I found myself in the backseat of a Halifax cab at 3:30 a.m. After numerous flight delays and tarmac waits, which meant I had been travelling from Edmonton for almost 24 hours, I wasn't in a chatty mood.

Ironically, Alberta insists Ottawa exercise its authority to protect the province's interests

Premier Rachel Notley speaks to members of a panel Wednesday. The panel will offer legal and strategic advice on what Alberta can do if B.C. continues to block construction of the Trans Mountain pipeline project. (CBC)

Last week, I found myself in the backseat of a Halifax cab at 3:30 a.m.

After numerous flight delays and tarmac waits, which meant I had been travelling from Edmonton for almost 24 hours, I wasn't in a chatty mood.

But my cab driver wanted to talk. Why not?

After all, it was pitch dark, pounding torrential rain, and he needed something to take his mind off the long and winding road from the airport.

"Where you from?" he asked.

"Edmonton. Alberta," I responded hoarsely.

"Yer premier…," he said.

"My what?" I asked.

"Yer premier," he repeated.

"Oh, the premier," I responded.

"She sure got her dander up over that pipeline."

That was enough to get my attention.

My cab driver didn't ask about the Oilers, the weather or THE mall (that came later).

He wanted to talk about the Alberta boycott of British Columbia wines and the Trans Mountain pipeline.

Drawing one hand away from the steering wheel while manoeuvring the highway curves, he gave me a big thumbs up.

For the taxi driver, still angry over the cancellation of the Energy East pipeline last October, Alberta's conspicuous display of defiance, although short on economic impact, registered.

Shades of Energy East

The proposed Energy East project would have carried more than one million barrels of oil every day from Alberta and Saskatchewan across the country to be refined or exported from facilities in New Brunswick and Quebec.

It would have added 1,500 kilometres of new oil pipeline to an existing network of more than 3,000 kilometres, which would have been converted from carrying natural gas, to carrying oil.

And there would have been new jobs.

Since the Trans Mountain pipeline dispute with B.C. ramped up Jan. 30, Alberta has methodically kept the pipeline protest in the news and top of mind.

An online petition urging B.C. Premier John Horgan to abandon attempts to stop the pipeline, holds no legal imperative, but the symbolism of tens of thousands of Canadians united on side of an issue is noteworthy.

Simon Kiss, a former Alberta NDP caucus staffer in the late 1990s, researches environmental politics and public opinion. (Wilfrid Laurier University)

"I think in general B.C. is actually losing the public opinion war," said Simon Kiss, assistant professor, digital media and journalism at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont.

Kiss, director of communications for the Alberta NDP caucus under leaders Pam Barrett and Raj Pannu in the late 1990s and early 2000s, said he hasn't seen any polling data.

He said Canadians don't like trade wars, but believe Rachel Notley is on the right side of the pipeline issue.

Kiss, who is watching the dispute closely as part of his research into public opinion and environmental politics, isn't surprised to see Notley gain national prominence by taking aim at both the federal and B.C. government.

But while it's an age-old tradition for provincial premiers to bash Ottawa, this case is "a little ironic," Kiss said.

"After leading the charge of bashing the federal government for so many years, [Alberta] now insists on the federal government actually exercising its authority to protect its interests."

Like most political observers, Kiss believes the pipeline is a crucial issue for both Notley and Horgan, who leads a precarious minority government.

Eye to the election

"Politicians always have an eye for the next election and for Rachel Notley the next election is around the corner," Kiss said. "That's dictating all her decisions at this point."

In the past, the NDP opposition, as a tiny opposition of two, then four members, was well known for attracting a lot of attention to its causes.

The wine boycott can be seen as symbolic, attention grabbing and gimmicky, but whose idea was it?

"I don't know," said Transportation Minister Brian Mason. "Well I can't really comment on internal cabinet discussions now can I?

"I know that inside Alberta, people believe we're on the right track," Mason said.

According to the premier's director of communications, the pipeline offensive has even garnered Notley much sought-after attention and "buzz" in Calgary.

Cheryl Oates says all decisions on how to deal with the pipeline issue is decided centrally, through the premier's office, aided by senior bureaucrats and the occasional cabinet minister.