The Kinder Morgan drama is all about BC politics

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If the Kinder Morgan drama has made nothing else clear, it’s that Canada could really use a few more journalists in our nation’s third-largest province.  The drama, after all, is almost entirely a byproduct of British Columbian politics, a subject our Toronto-and-Ottawa centric media class has shown itself capable of grasping in only the vaguest, most superficial terms.

Here in BC, the Kinder Morgan kerfuffle certainly does not seem as shocking or audacious as it is being perceived elsewhere.  British Columbia’s political centre of gravity is already quite far to the left, and Premier Horgan’s opposition to the TransMountain pipeline is a boringly logical outgrowth of contemporary progressivism’s perspective on natural resource management.

As I discussed in an earlier Loonie Politics column, the BC NDP is obsessed with the fiction that the province’s previous administration, the Liberal government of Christy Clark, represented some manner of “hard right” rule.  Clark’s government had a position on pipeline projects that was indistinguishable from Prime Minister Trudeau’s — they should be regulated up the ying yang and judged arbitrarily on a case-by-case basis in tune with the politics of the moment — yet for partisan and ideological reasons, the NDP had to hallucinate that such thinking was a form of right-wing extremism.  Opposing all pipelines without even the thinnest pretense of fair consideration thus became the principled position of the true BC left.

In 2017 Horgan ran on a platform that vowed to use “every tool in our toolbox” to stop construction of Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain Alberta-to-BC pipeline, contrasting himself with Premier Clark, who had come to begrudgingly tolerate the thing after both the federal government and Kinder Morgan Inc. called her bluff and satisfied her “five conditions,” which had been widely mocked (outside BC, at least) as obstinate and unconstitutional.

In fairness, Horgan’s position was probably far more reflective of his voting base than Clark’s was of hers.  As the 2017 results demonstrated, the BC New Democratic Party has become exclusively the party of urban and suburban ridings where the energy sector is but some distant, abstract thing one can safely demagogue against to demonstrate righteous commitment to fighting climate change.  The age of an NDP with any interest or understanding for blue collar industrial or resource jobs is but a distant memory, today’s New Democrats are very firmly the party of middle class bureaucrats, teachers unions’, social justice warriors, college radicals, and media activists.  To call them the province’s party of “labour,” in the heady way that word was initially used, now seems painfully anachronistic: it is the BC Liberals who now sweep — by large margins — the BC’s east and northeastern ridings where the hard-hat industries of mining, natural gas, and oil dominate.

All this helps show that the eastern media’s narrative that Horgan’s position on Trans Mountain — that it’s somehow all about the Green Party holding the balance of power in BC’s fragile parliament — is a crude simplification.  The NDP does not need any encouragement to be an enemy of the Canadian oil industry — it was a clearly stated campaign promise.  The so-called “2017 Confidence and Supply Agreement” that laid the formal foundation for the Green-NDP legislative coalition that unseated Premier Clark’s minority government last July merely reiterated Horgan’s “tool in the toolbox” promise.

The only thing the Green Party of British Columbia honestly wants is for Horgan to change the province’s electoral system to its benefit.  Self-serving electoral reform has been the only issue that has animated the Greens with any degree of genuine passion, as theirs is a weak, unpopular party whose primary interest has always been long-term, institutional survival, rather than any deeper policy goal.

A promise to change the electoral system is issue number 1 in the Confidence and Supply agreement’s list of legislative priorities, and is spelled out in language far more explicit and precise than any of the promises on other topics.  Per the terms he agreed to, Horgan’s government is set to hold a referendum on electoral reform this fall, one explicitly designed to pass and establish a new voting system that will benefit the Greens.  It’s hard to imagine the Green Party’s three MLAs abandoning Horgan for anything beyond breaking this promise, given how high they imagine the existential stakes for themselves to be.  Unlike Clark before him, the new head of the BC Liberals, Andrew Wilkinson, has been virulently opposed to electoral reform of any sort, and vows to bring the initiative to a grinding halt should his party again form government.

All this said, the NDP and the Greens have never exactly been bosom buddies; during the last election New Democrats, and their various boosters, portrayed the Greens as phonies and crypto-conservatives, and it’s clear the antics of the swaggering, self-important Green leader Andrew Weaver, a man who never met a camera he didn’t love and speaks constantly off-script, are probably more trouble than they’re worth.  A party as ideologically self-righteous as the BC NDP is not one that naturally shares the spotlight, and no doubt New Democrats spend much time fantasizing about running a majority government on their own terms, and dread the thought of a permanent Green-Orange alliance of the sort Dr. Weaver’s vision of electoral reform clearly anticipates.

Perhaps this explains why the New Democrats, as of late, have made the breathtakingly revisionist argument that anything they promised to the Greens is, at best, just a polite suggestion.  As the Vancouver Sun’s Vaughn Palmer observed in a remarkable column last week, NDP environment minister George Heyman insisted in the face of Liberal questioning that “what allows myself and other members of executive council to be government is the invitation of the Lieutenant Governor” and not any silly agreement with anyone — a bizarre technicality seemingly indicating that Horgan feels less beholden to the Greens than conventional wisdom dictates.

The future of Trans Mountain rests with the political calculations of BC’s New Democrats, and their effort to remain electorally viable in a province that has never once granted them a majority of the popular vote.  It is a regional story, but also a useful case study of what 21st century urban progressivism does when placed in charge of a natural resource economy.

Photo Credit: The Columbia Valley Pioneer

More from J.J. McCullough     @JJ_McCullough

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