Tough competition: Notley pipeline plea overshadowed by SNC-Lavalin affair

When Premier Rachel Notley appeared before the Senate committee reviewing the contentious federal Bill C-69 Thursday morning, she had plenty of facts and figures as well as a compelling argument. What she didn't have was an audience.

Notley's Senate appearance might not be too little, but it might be too late.

Rachel Notley, Premier of Alberta, arrives to appear as a witness at a Senate Committee on Energy, the Environment and Natural Resources in the Senate of Canada Building in Ottawa on Thursday. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

When Premier Rachel Notley appeared before the Senate committee reviewing the contentious federal Bill C-69 Thursday morning, she had plenty of facts and figures as well as a compelling argument.
What she didn't have was an audience.

Oh, she no doubt had the attention of the dozen or so Senators on the committee. But not the Ottawa press corps. And I'd hazard a guess that not many Albertans tuned in online for her appearance at 8 a.m. Alberta time.

Anyone who is following politics these days is tuning in to the melodramatic farce that is the SNC-Lavalin affair. The fate of Prime Minister Trudeau, and the Liberal government, potentially hangs in the balance because of this ever-escalating crisis involving alleged abuse of power and political interference in our justice system by the Prime Minister's Office.

Not only that, Judy Wilson-Raybould, the whistleblower crying foul over the behaviour of Trudeau (who is a champion of feminism and reconciliation), happens to be female and Indigenous.

Trudeau's only defensive posture seems to be to contradict Wilson-Raybould.

It is a he-said-she-said scenario where the she-said seems to be more believable than the he-said. Oh, and it's an election year.

Jody Wilson-Raybould appears at the House of Commons Justice Committee on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Premier Notley's appearance in Ottawa simply couldn't compete.

First off, her argument against Bill C-69 as a job-destroying piece of legislation that will effectively stop major economic projects (such as the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline) is not exactly new.

It falls into the we-need-new-pipelines narrative that we hear from Alberta politicians by the day. Not only that, Notley was making her argument to that stodgiest of institutions, the Senate (with apologies to Sen. Paula Simons, my former journalism colleague).

I have come to Ottawa because the issue before this committee, Bill C-69, is extremely important to the people of Alberta. And quite frankly, we're not being heard.-Rachel Notley, Premier of Alberta

In the boudoir that is Canadian politics, the SNC-Lavalin scandal is something sexy and racy; Bill C-69 is the flannel long johns with the trapdoor.

That's not to say Notley's argument was without merit. It's just too bad about the timing.

"I have come to Ottawa because the issue before this committee, Bill C-69, is extremely important to the people of Alberta," Notley told the senators. "And quite frankly, we're not being heard. With respect, people here, in our nation's capital, just don't seem to get it."

Notley didn't  take her argument down a dead-end road by simplistically demanding Bill C-69 be scrapped  —something the majority Liberal government is highly unlikely to do.

Instead, she argued for changes. She wants, among other things, for the federal government to formally recognize Alberta's Climate Leadership Plan so that major new energy projects in Alberta be exempt from the Bill C-69.

She pointed out her government has attracted $12 billion in investments for petrochemical and upgrading facilities: "We don't want to see that caught up in duplicative regimes that scare away investors we've worked so hard to attract."

And she targeted the federal government's illogical stance of buying the Trans Mountain pipeline project but also drawing up Bill C-69 that would make an expansion of the pipeline all but impossible.

Steel pipe to be used in the oil pipeline construction of the Trans Mountain Expansion Project sits on rail cars at a stockpile site in Kamloops, British Columbia. (Dennis Owen/Reuters)

While taking aim at the current Liberal government, she also managed to take a few shots at the previous Conservative government.

"We can't just swap one broken system for another broken system. We can't build trust with more investor uncertainty," Notley said. "We can't replace a 'no pipeline' process under the former Conservative government with a 'no pipeline' process under a Liberal one. But either by design, by willful ignorance, or maybe just by accident, that's just what Bill C-69 does. And it needs to change."

Notley's appearance wasn't just a plea to help the Trans Mountain pipeline, it was a plea to help her government on the eve of a provincial election.

The price of oil is soft, the Alberta economy might be slipping back into a recession, the pipeline project is stalled, and the province's latest fiscal update has the province headed to a $58-billion debt.

And then there's her ally on the federal front, Justin Trudeau. Once upon a time he was the wind beneath her wings; now he's the albatross around her neck.

Because of her friendly dealings with him the past few years, Notley seemed reluctant to publicly and aggressively criticize Bill C-69. Now, she's facing a tough re-election fight.

Her appearance in Ottawa Thursday morning might not be too little, but it might be too late.

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

About the Author

You can find columnist Graham Thomson's thoughts and analysis on provincial politics every Friday at cbc.ca/edmonton, on CBC Edmonton Television News and during Radio Active on CBC Radio One (93.9FM/740AM) and on Twitter at @gthomsonink.


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