No easy way out for PM

This is the time of year when Canada’s MPs — much like school children — are tidying up their desks as they count the hours before they leave Parliament Hill for the summer.

This is the time of year when Canada’s MPs — much like school children — are tidying up their desks as they count the hours before they leave Parliament Hill for the summer.

Some — starting with the 70 federalist MPs from Quebec who are still basking in the afterglow of their camp’s recent provincial victory — will be going home with a bit of a spring in their step.

Others are bracing for a summer potentially spent under cloudier provincial skies.

That is particularly true of Stephen Harper’s 21-MP British Columbia contingent.

One of the main items remaining on the government’s to-do list between now and the summer involves the Northern Gateway pipeline.

Last January, the National Energy Board recommended that cabinet approve Enbridge’s plan to carry Alberta crude oil to the B.C. port of Kitimat and onward, by tanker, to the Asian energy markets.

Now time has just about run out on the government to formally respond.

The deadline is coming up in a few days.

Of all the pipelines currently on the drawing board in Canada, Northern Gateway is by far the most unloved.

A lightning rod for First Nations and environmentalists alike, the pipeline proposal elicits strong opposition on the ground in B.C.

Even if the federal cabinet gives it the green light, resistance is such that it may well never see the light of day.

It is quite possible that all that will be accomplished if the Enbridge project gets the federal go-ahead will be that more poison will have been poured into the collective pipeline well.

Harper could theoretically still walk away from Northern Gateway. Or, at least, a federal government that had not so totally equated the country’s national interest with that of the energy industry could.

If the Conservatives are to be consistent with what has become a defining mantra, the choice may come down to taking a sip out of a poisoned chalice — by tying cabinet’s approval of Northern Gateway to some additional conditions — or drinking it down to the last dregs.

Either way though, Harper would be on his own, with little hope of securing political cover at some point in the public opinion battle.

B.C. Premier Christy Clark has come up with a list of criteria of her own that she says will inform her government’s position on the Enbridge pipeline.

Those criteria are open enough to interpretation to provide her Liberal government with a swift exit strategy, should an already strong headwind turn into a storm.

After 58 per cent of Kitimat’s residents voted down the project in a plebiscite this spring, the port city officially pronounced against the pipeline.

Perhaps even more important from the strategic perspective of the Conservatives, Justin Trudeau’s Liberals — while generally supportive of the pipeline agenda — have made an exception for Northern Gateway.

Just as soon as the votes are counted in next week’s Ontario election, Canada will move into full pre-election mode.

Nationally, Conservative fortunes in the polls remain tepid.

A formula to efficiently cut Trudeau’s popular persona down to size still eludes Harper’s spin doctors.

They were reminded of that last week when Canada’s Olympic athletes paid a visit to the House of Commons.

Droves of young athletes crowded the front of the Liberal benches to get their pictures taken with Trudeau.

If elections were won a selfie at a time the Liberals would enter next year’s election with a prohibitive lead.

It takes more than rock star status to win an election campaign but when personal popularity connects with an issue that has strong legs in public opinion, the combination can be hard to beat.

The Bloc Québécois found that out the hard way when Jack Layton managed to channel voter fatigue with a permanent sovereigntist opposition into an unexpected NDP sweep — largely by parlaying his personal appeal into votes.

On election night 2015, B.C. could make the difference between a Harper victory and a defeat, between a majority and a minority government.

Anything short of a cabinet rejection of the Northern Gateway pipeline later this month will ensure that the issue is on the election radar next year and it will not become part of a winning formula for the Conservatives between now and then.

Chantal Hébert is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer.

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