The Trans Mountain blame game and why we should get ready for Premier Jason Kenney

"The Federal Court of Appeal did not just quash the extension project for the Trans Mountain Pipeline last week, it effectively ended Rachel Notley’s NDP government’s re-election efforts," says political scientist Duane Bratt.

'Notley's fans will argue that she shouldn't be counted out just yet'

Jason Kenney has said he would enact the NDPs turn-off-the-taps legislation — which was tabled by outgoing Alberta Premier Rachel Notley's government. (CBC/Canadian Press)

It may be too early to book the moving vans — there are still roughly eight months before the next Alberta election — but the NDP should start looking for cardboard boxes.

Sure, if a week is a long time in politics, then eight months is an eternity. But, with the next provincial election looming on the horizon, the Federal Court of Appeal did not just quash the extension project for the Trans Mountain Pipeline last week, it effectively ended Rachel Notley's NDP government's re-election efforts.

Get ready for Premier Jason Kenney.

​It wasn't about the NDP

To be fair, the ruling wasn't about Notley, the NDP, or how she's run the province. There was nothing in the court's decision that was aimed at what the Alberta government did or did not do.

Instead, the blame lay with the Harper and Trudeau governments.

In the case of the Harper government, the court was critical of 2012 changes to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act that allowed the NEB to exclude tanker traffic off the coast of British Columbia.

The federal court found problems with the way the governments of both Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and former prime minister Stephen Harper handled the Trans Mountain file. (Canadian Press)

As for the Trudeau government, the court said the consultation process with Indigenous groups from January 2016 to November 2016 was "unacceptably flawed."

But Harper has ridden off into history, and Trudeau never had many friends in Alberta to begin with, so, when people here need a focus for their anger, they are going to turn on Notley.

It's unfair, but that's politics.

A crisis for Alberta

Notley was correct in her evening television address last week, in describing the decision as a crisis.

It is a crisis for Alberta. And it is a crisis for the Notley government.

While economists may argue that Alberta's recession has already ended, that is not the feeling in the province. Not only would the Trans Mountain project provide construction jobs, but it would have given a major psychological boost to the economy. Instead, the Court decision ended our chance at economic optimism.

And this is a place where economics and politics meet.

While last week there was anger, we can now expect a malaise — a sense of weariness and disappointment, frustration felt across the province.

And while we all like to think of ourselves as rational actors when it comes to voting, we know people tend to vote their gut. In hard economic times, you see a "something has got to change" vote.

Enter Notley and some high stakes politics.

A premier already in trouble

As successive polls have shown, Notley's NDP badly trails Kenney's UCP.

The premier needed a major win, and construction of the expansion of the Trans Mountain Pipeline would have achieved that. She worked hard to make it happen. She expended political capital. She publicly fought B.C. Premier John Horgan, including placing a temporary ban on B.C. wine.

She publicly and privately lobbied the Trudeau government to act on its federal authority to get the pipeline built. When Kinder Morgan, the private sector owner of the pipeline, got cold feet, she convinced the Trudeau government to buy it. After the purchase announcement in May, she proudly proclaimed "pick up those tools, folks, we have a pipeline to build!"

A victory on Trans Mountain would not have been a sufficient condition for Notley's re-election, but it sure would have helped. Now, she doesn't even have that.

Another related obstacle is the single biggest policy initiative of the Notley government: the dreaded, economy-wide, carbon tax.

While there may be many reasons for imposing a carbon tax, Notley explicitly linked it to social licence to get pipelines built. By the spring 2019 election, Albertans will realize that they have been suffering the pain of the carbon tax for over two years, but they do not have the gain of a new pipeline to give access to new markets that was supposed to go with it. They will feel betrayed.

So, given the dire straits for the Notley government, what can it do to best prepare for the 2019 election?

'Stand up to Ottawa'

The NDP have already signalled that they will play the old "stand up to Ottawa" card.

In her television address last week, Notley announced that Alberta was pulling out of the federal climate change strategy. She also demanded that Trudeau appeal the Trans Mountain decision to the Supreme Court, recall Parliament to fix the NEB, "fix this mess," and get construction started.

Tough talk.

Rachel Notley delivered an address to Albertans Thursday night, announcing she is pulling Alberta out of the national climate-change plan to protest a federal court ruling that quashed expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline. (CBC)

But, while standing up to Ottawa has worked for successive Alberta governments, it will not work for Notley. This is because she's seen as a close ally of the Trudeau government.

For example, the federal carbon tax plan only emerged because it followed an existing plan that Notley had introduced in Alberta. The purchase of the Trans Mountain Pipeline was also a direct response to the close relationship between the Notley and Trudeau governments.

Standing up to Ottawa is simply not a credible option for Rachel Notley. Having played nice with the feds, her reward will be political punishment for having played nice with the feds.

Again, unfair, but politics. Had the court ruling gone another way, she might have been rewarded differently for such efforts.

While playing the "brave Alberta" card, the NDP could also try to minimize the economic damage caused by the Trans Mountain decision.

Last week, Finance Minister Joe Ceci, during his fiscal update, began this strategy. He pointed out that the deficit is dropping, that the government's projections were on two of three pipelines being built, and Line 3 and the Keystone XL are still going forward. But, again, this strategy is not credible.

The day before, Notley described our situation vis-a-vis Trans Mountain as a crisis. You can't then turn around and say its failure would be insignificant to the Alberta economy because you have other stuff on the go.

Finally, it could run a negative campaign against Jason Kenney and the UCP. Pull out all the stops on social issues.

There are indications that the NDP will try and stoke fear that a Kenney government would hurt members of the LGBTQ community, slash funding to health care and education and has a hidden agenda.

But, again, it is doubtful that this Hail Mary strategy will work.

Advantage: Kenney

In a major poll for CBC last spring, the top four issues facing Albertans revolved around the economy. Not that social concerns weren't concerns. No, we are not so hard hearted as that. But that they take a back seat to the economy.

Yes, there were concerns about the UCP and LGBTQ issues, but it was far down the "I'm worried about..." list. More remarkably, the polling suggested the UCP led the NDP on the party best able to address health care and education. This, even before this latest Trans Mountain dilemma, means the NDP already faced a very tough battle against Jason Kenney.

Now, Kenney must make sure that he doesn't snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

United Conservative Party Leader Jason Kenney speaks to supporters after being sworn in as MLA for Calgary-Lougheed on Monday, Jan. 29, 2018. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

We can expect him to stay the course and play the front-runner strategy of being cautious. He's leading in the polls because he successfully re-united the Progressive Conservative and Wildrose parties.

He's also leading because many Albertans are blaming a sustained economic recession on the Notley government. Previous polling suggested that, even if Trans Mountain had shovels in the ground, Notley would not have been given credit for it.

Also, unlike Notley, Kenney can successfully play the "stand up to Ottawa" card, despite having built a career there.

So far, he's been unrelenting in his criticism of Justin Trudeau. If he's smart, he'll continue to hammer the prime minister and be restrained in any personal criticism of Notley. This is because she personally remains popular in the province while her party is not. Such is politics in Alberta.

Kenney also needs to immunize himself and his party against the social issues criticism from the NDP. Already he has been ruthless in overruling his grassroots on gay-straight alliances in schools and removing intolerant UCP candidates. It's going to be a delicate dance, but he could pull it off.

The political punishment

In politics, miracles can happen. And Notley's fans will argue that she shouldn't be counted out just yet.

But it's highly doubtful a white rabbit will be pulled from this particular political hat. There would need to be some kind of implosion in the UCP and some seismic-scale good news economically.

These things are extremely unlikely.

So, even though the Court's decision last week was not about the Notley government, she will be blamed. And with blame comes political punishment.

That punishment will be administered in spring 2019, when Jason Kenney becomes premier of Alberta.

This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

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Duane Bratt

Freelance contributor

Duane Bratt is a political scientist at Mount Royal University in Calgary.