British Columbia·Analysis

Stephen Smart: Brace for Fortress B.C. whoever wins on Tuesday

Whether Liberal Leader Christy Clark or the NDP's Adrian Dix forms the next B.C. government, the Ottawa-Alberta alliance next door will be sorely tested, Stephen Smart writes. Both provincial leaders are setting the stage for a federal-provincial impasse.

Whether it's Christy Clark or Adrian Dix, Ottawa’s Alberta alliance will be tested

Do the math. NDP Leader Adrian Dix earlier this week counting down the days until British Columbians vote. (Andy Clark / Reuters)

Most of the past dozen or so years can be seen as the golden era in B.C.’s relationship with the rest of the federation. 

Former premier Gordon Campbell went to exhaustive lengths to maintain good relations with other provinces, especially Western provinces, and also with the federal government.

Only once can I recall ever hearing Campbell publicly call out Ottawa on a decision. He much preferred to work quietly, behind the scenes to get the best deal he could for B.C., a way of conducting business that seemed to resonate well with his counterparts.

Not only did Prime Minister Stephen Harper praise Campbell as being one of the best premiers he had dealt with, but not long after Campbell resigned in 2011 he was appointed Canada’s high commissioner to the U.K.

But that was then, this is now. That golden era had already started to tarnish in the run-up to this election and, depending on the outcome of Tuesday’s vote, it could come to a complete end with much more of an us-versus-them mentality dominating B.C.’s attitude toward some of its key provincial and federal partners.

Liberal Leader Christy Clark kicked off the turnaround with her stance last year on Enbridge’s proposed Northern Gateway pipeline, the one that would bring Alberta’s oilsands bitumen to a port near Kitimat. 

Her move essentially to pick a fight with Alberta over B.C. getting a "fair share" of the benefits from the project signalled a seismic shift from Campbell, whose government had such good relations with Alberta that the two provinces would hold joint cabinet meetings together. 

Given the overwhelming public sentiment against the Enbridge project in this environmentally conscious province, Clark’s move was probably politically necessary, but it still provided a shock from the status quo. 

Just a few months earlier, I did a sit-down interview with Clark and Alberta Premier Alison Redford before the January 2012 Council of the Federation meeting in Victoria. They could not have been friendlier.

Later, after Clark took her tough position on Northern Gateway, both leaders described their subsequent meeting as "frosty."  And there has been no sign that is going to warm up any time soon. 

Dix the same

As for Ottawa, Clark isn’t making a lot of friends there either. Aside from the obvious differences of opinion over the Enbridge pipeline, Clark has also ruffled feathers with her outspoken opposition to the closure of the Kitsilano coast guard base in Vancouver harbour.

Liberal Leader Christy Clark plays peek a boo with reporters as she casts her vote early on Thursday. She is not that coy when it comes to Alberta's oil pipelines through her province. (Andy Clark / Reuters)

Again, a politically necessary position in B.C., but one that continues to undo Campbell’s work in building those cross-country bridges.

Then there’s NDP Leader Adrian Dix and the question of what an NDP government might mean for federal-provincial relations.

Right off the bat, the provincial party’s close connections with the federal New Democrats would start Dix off on the wrong foot with Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, now two years away from their own re-election campaign. 

Dix’s campaign is being run by a number of a federal New Democrats including strategist Brad Lavigne, former federal leadership candidate Brian Topp and longtime party loyalist Marcella Munro, just to name three. 

What’s more, Dix has said that one of the first things his government would do upon taking office would be to pull out of the equivalency agreement over the Enbridge pipeline. 

That’s the agreement that allowed for a joint federal-provincial environmental review of the project. 

He has also voiced his opposition to a planned twinning of the Kinder Morgan pipeline from Alberta to the port of Vancouver, which would further stifle Alberta’s efforts to get its oil to markets in Asia.

If those current issues aren’t enough to convince you that B.C.-Ottawa relations under a Dix government would be less than rosy, you can also look back a few years to when Dix was chief of staff to NDP Premier Glen Clark in the 1990s.

That was when the provincial government did battle with the feds over the Nanoose Bay torpedo testing range on Vancouver Island, a facility used jointly by Canada and the U.S. navy to test-fire undersea weapons.

Clark tried to use the base as a bargaining chip in a dispute with the U.S. over salmon fishing rights, but Ottawa stepped in and moved to expropriate the land from B.C. instead. 

We don’t know exactly what behind-the-scenes role Dix played in that dispute. But given that he was Clark’s closest adviser, it’s safe to think he might be feeling a little bloodied by the way that negotiation went.

At the end of the day, though, is it really such a bad thing if B.C. and Ottawa, at least, aren’t bosom pals? 

While playing nice might get B.C. more in the long run, British Columbians have often rewarded past leaders who are seen to stand up for their province. 

Given the positions of both Clark and Dix recently, they seem to be very aware of that reality.

The stakes are, arguably, higher this time, given the commercial importance of Alberta’s "landlocked" oil and the Western political base of the Harper Conservatives.

But tough campaign positions can sometimes mellow in the afterglow of taking power. And if they don’t, it’s not like this is a dynamic the rest of the country hasn’t seen before.