Politics·Analysis

'Some nail-biting to come': B.C. election creates uncertainty for Trudeau's pet projects

Chris Hall looks at how the uncertain outcome of the B.C. election creates uncertainty for a pair of the prime minister's big resource development projects.

Resource projects could be more difficult depending on who forms the next B.C. government

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shakes hands with B.C. Premier Christy Clark during a meeting in Vancouver back in March. Trudeau-approved resource development projects could face more resistance in B.C. depending on the final outcome of the province's election. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

It's not much of a secret that Justin Trudeau's Liberal government wanted to see Christy Clark re-elected this week as premier of British Columbia. Clark may not be their particular brand of Liberal, but she's on the same shelf as Trudeau when it comes to important federal-provincial files.

It's why the Prime Minister's Office chose to publicly release Trudeau's message to Clark in the dying days of the campaign that he's seriously considering her request to ban American shipments of thermal coal through B.C. in retaliation for the Trump administration's new duties on softwood lumber.

It's why Trudeau was quick to call Clark on Wednesday after her B.C. Liberals came out on top but one seat short of a majority with absentee ballots and at least one judicial recount still to be done before the results are final.

Asked what he told her, the prime minister said, "Congratulations," and that he looked forward to continuing to work together.

"I understand there's a few issues to work out, but you know, we want to continue to work in ways that benefit the citizens of British Columbia and all Canada."

But first Clark's win has to be confirmed.

'Gastric discomfort'

As it stands, B.C. will have its first minority government since 1952, and the wheeling will soon begin to see whether Clark's Liberals or the second-place New Democrats led by John Horgan can do some dealing with the B.C. Green Party and form a government.

Either way, the uncertainty poses a risk for the federal government's approval of Kinder Morgan's expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline, and its approval of the equally controversial Site C hydroelectric dam on the Peace River in northeastern B.C.

Clark ardently supports Site C and endorsed Trans Mountain in January after claiming her five conditions were met.

Kinder Morgan's $6.8-billion, 1,150-kilometre Trans Mountain pipeline will move a mix of oil products from Edmonton to a terminal in Burnaby, B.C., near Vancouver, where it will be exported to markets in Asia.

Trans Mountain, in particular, is a showpiece of the Trudeau government's pledge to balance resource development with reducing climate-changing emissions. Ditto for Alberta's NDP premier, Rachel Notley, who needs a pipeline to the coast for oilsands bitumen in return for bringing in a price on carbon.

An NDP government in B.C., bolstered by the Greens, is not the preferred option.

"The NDP in power in British Columbia would have caused some gastric discomfort not just for the federal Liberals in Ottawa but also next door for the NDP government of Alberta which, of course, is pro-pipeline," said pollster Shachi Kurl, executive director of the Vancouver-based Angus Reid Institute.

"We've all heard John Horgan say that on Kinder Morgan he would come down as a 'no' on that one, and on some other major resource developments. From a who-do-we-want-to-work-with perspective, this may be a gut-check on the part of the folks in Ottawa and Edmonton."

B.C. NDP Leader John Horgan greets supporters on election night. He doesn't support Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project. (Manjula Dufresne/CBC)

Horgan told CBC Radio's The House last weekend that he and Notley are friends, but that doesn't count when it comes to Trans Mountain.

"There's a range of issues we support each other on, but on this one we just disagree," he said. "The notion that our political cards, our party affiliation extends right across the country doesn't apply. British Columbia is unique, as is Alberta, as is Quebec, as is Prince Edward Island."

There's already talk among bureaucrats and lobbyists about whether the federal government should invoke a section of the Constitution to declare Trans Mountain a project for "the general advantage of Canada or for the advantage of two or more provinces," denying B.C. a say in the decision.

'I don't think we're there yet'

Former Conservative cabinet minister James Moore, who represented a riding northeast of Vancouver, says it's too early for that.

"I don't think we're there yet," he said. "Any perception that the will of any province is going to be steamrolled by Ottawa is highly problematic."

B.C. Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver says his party shares many priorities with Trudeau's Liberals in Ottawa. (Chad Hipolito/Canadian Press)

It's not clear whether Green Leader Andrew Weaver and his two MLAs would prefer to deal with Clark or Horgan. Weaver says his party picked up votes from federal Liberal supporters in this election, and he also made it clear he finds Horgan hard to deal with.

Either way, federal Green Leader Elizabeth May says the possibility of a minority government can't be ignored by the federal government, especially when it comes to megaprojects.

"The majority of voters in B.C. voted for parties that aren't in favour of Site C," she said. "The majority of voters just voted for parties that were against Kinder Morgan."

That's not to say there aren't potential positives for the federal Liberals. The Greens support an even higher price on carbon than the Liberals are proposing. They also support investment in clean technology.

"We know the federal Liberals are going to go all in on this and when you look at our approach … and the federal Liberals, they just come together so beautifully," Weaver told The House. "Our priorities are their priorities."

'Some nail-biting to come'

Justin Trudeau has already called Christy Clark. It might be a good time for a second call, to Weaver, to discuss those similarities and how they might work together for the benefit of British Columbians and Canada as a whole.

In the meantime, pollster Shachi Kurl has some advice for the B.C. party leaders.

"Don't go out and get any manicures yet because you've still got some nail-biting to come."

That's advice the federal Liberals might want to consider, too.

About the Author

Chris Hall

National Affairs Editor

Chris Hall is the CBC's National Affairs Editor and host of The House on CBC Radio, based in the Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He began his reporting career with the Ottawa Citizen, before moving to CBC Radio in 1992, where he worked as a national radio reporter in Toronto, Halifax and St. John's. He returned to Ottawa and the Hill in 1998.

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