Why the 'hard things' (like pipelines and carbon pricing) won't get easier for Trudeau

For Justin Trudeau, the best-case scenario on Trans Mountain and carbon pricing may be persevering - and taking the punishment in the meantime.

History teaches us you can do big things in Canadian politics - if you're willing to take the hits

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meets with Premier of British Columbia John Horgan in his office on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, July 25, 2017. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The best case scenario for Justin Trudeau might look something like this:

In British Columbia, the premier blames the Trudeau government for a pipeline that can't be stopped. In Saskatchewan, the premier blames the Trudeau government for a price on carbon that can't be avoided. And maybe the premiers of Ontario and Alberta end up following suit.

The Liberals have shown a certain willingness to accept that blame — presumably because being castigated in Victoria and Regina beats failing to build a pipeline or impose a price on carbon, both in political and policy terms.

But if enough people outside those premiers' offices remain in favour of pricing carbon and building that pipeline (or can be convinced to grudgingly accept those things), the Liberals could govern through to 2023, giving them the time to ensure both the pipeline and the climate plan remain firmly in place.

All of the above depends on the courts upholding federal jurisdiction in two recent court references: one by the B.C. government to determine whether it can regulate the flow of bitumen from Alberta, one by Saskatchewan to determine whether the Trudeau government has the legal authority to price carbon over the province's objections.

Even if the courts do side with Ottawa, none of what follows is likely to be easy for the Liberals.

"Hard things are hard," Environment Minister Catherine McKenna told CBC Radio's The House this week, when asked about the pair of references.

The Liberals like to say that. It's a quip cribbed from David Axelrod, former adviser to Barack Obama, who liked to tell Obama that during the fight to enact health care reform. Axelrod, who appeared at the Liberal Party's convention in Halifax earlier this month, later had the phrase inscribed on a plaque for the president.

It's a useful reminder. Big initiatives are seldom easy. Canadian history provides plenty of proof.

Provinces take on feds over environmental politics | At Issue

4 years ago
Duration 11:37
It's provinces taking on the federal government this week, as both Saskatchewan and B.C. go to court to push back against Justin Trudeau's Liberals. Scott Moe is anti-carbon tax while John Horgan is anti-pipeline. The At Issue panel takes a look at where that leaves federal-provincial relations.

Employment Insurance was legislated by R.B. Bennett's government in 1935, overturned on a court reference in 1936, allowed for in a constitutional amendment and then implemented by Mackenzie King's government in 1940. C.D. Howe's push to get the Trans Canada pipeline started in 1956 precipitated a fractious debate in the House of Commons.

The process of negotiating and implementing the Canada Pension Plan takes up 28 pages in Tom Kent's account of working as a senior adviser to Lester B. Pearson (A Public Purpose). Quebec and Ontario were the ones causing trouble at the time.

In his book, Kent recalls fretting about the threat to national unity the battle over the CPP introduced. He also recalls cabinet minister Judy LaMarsh smashing a framed picture of Pearson in a rage over his handling of the issue. National medicare was also implemented over the objections of Ontario and Alberta.

A fight between B.C. and the federal government over Trans Mountain might have happened even if Stephen Harper or Tom Mulcair were prime minister. And a brawl with the provinces was in the cards the moment the federal government decided to do something serious about greenhouse gas emissions. Doing big stuff always increases the likelihood of trouble.

So, yes, hard things are hard. But a government can still be faulted for anything it does to make things harder than they need to be. C.D. Howe's use of closure to curtail debate in 1956, for instance, might not have been the best idea: the resulting outcry contributed to the demise of the Liberal government soon thereafter.

Trudeau will soon have his own pipeline legislation to advance and he is already being accused of not moving fast enough to deal with Horgan's opposition. Depending on how things play out, the Liberals might also wish they'd moved faster to pass legislation on pricing carbon. One could parse everything the prime minister has said and done over the last five years to debate whether he's done enough to prepare the public for the decisions he's making now.

B.C. takes its pipeline fight to court

4 years ago
Duration 7:48
'I think it's the federal government's responsibility to work cooperatively with all provinces,' says provincial Environment Minister George Heyman.

And while the Supreme Court might rule in the federal government's favour, there will still be unhappy premiers to deal with and critics to counter. There will be still be crowds of protesters in British Columbia. Carbon pricing will be a convenient scapegoat if energy prices spike or the economy slows down. Politicians like Jason Kenney, Doug Ford, Scott Moe and Andrew Scheer might not be willing to abandon the carbon-pricing fight, even if it appears to be over.

That's all part of Trudeau's best-case scenario. And, with word and deed, he'll have to manage all of it.

Hard things are hard. But in politics, little sympathy is afforded to those who fail at such things.

'This is well within our legal authority'

4 years ago
Duration 8:20
Environment Minister Catherine McKenna on Saskatchewan launching a formal legal challenge against the federal carbon pricing policy.


Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.


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