Pipeline politics not easily resolved

All is far from well between Rachel Notley’s Alberta government and Justin Trudeau’s Liberals.

With the prime minister in the eye of the storm over the failure to get more oil to tidewater, no federal gesture between now and next fall’s election is likely to really lower the temperature between the two capitals.

The combination — within a space of six months next year — of an Alberta and a federal election probably guarantees that the rhetoric between the two capitals will become more heated.

But those who expect that the federal vote will wash away the clouds should think again. For months now, the trend in the voting-intention polls has pointed to a Conservative sweep of Alberta next fall.

A Liberal victory would almost certainly see the province consigned to the opposition benches, with no voice within the federal government.

And that would only exacerbate the current frustrations with Ottawa.

But the alternative is not necessarily promising of a more harmonious climate.

Anyone who expects a Conservative victory to result in peace or even decisive action on the pipeline front is almost certainly in for a disappointment.

For all the talk among Conservatives about Trudeau messing up the file, Stephen Harper — had he been re-elected as prime minister in 2015 — would have faced many of the same roadblocks.

The Northern Gateway pipeline green lit by his government over its last term in office was anything but a done deal. The controversial project was mired in litigation. Shortly after Harper left office, a court overturned his approval of the pipeline.

Instead of scrapping the project as Trudeau did, a Conservative government would probably have appealed the decision and, in the end, the Supreme Court would have had the last word.

But there is no guarantee that the top court would not have doubled down on the original ruling and ordered the government to more properly acquit itself of its duty to consult the Indigenous communities affected by the pipeline.

No federal government is exempt from the rule of law.

The notwithstanding clause only applies to some sections of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It is not a get-out-of-jail card at the disposal of governments looking for a way to ignore any inconvenient court ruling.

When it comes to dealing with landmark cases, the Supreme Court tends, to put it politely, to proceed at a measured pace. It would probably have taken 18 months to two years to secure a definitive ruling on Northern Gateway.

That same timeline would have attended an appeal by the Trudeau government of the more recent Trans Mountain court ruling — again with no guarantee that the outcome would have cleared the way to an immediate resumption of the expansion, rather than to a court-ordered return to the drawing board.

Any government — Liberal or Conservative — looking to meet the court requirements rather than to challenge them would have to avoid shortcuts liable to bring about a new round of litigation.

By the same token, a federal Conservative government could hardly have prevented the replacement in Victoria of a pipeline-friendly B.C. Liberal government with one led by the NDP.

Premier John Horgan is within his rights to test the extent of his government’s power to limit the oil that transits through the province in court, just as Saskatchewan, Ontario, New Brunswick and Manitoba are entitled to challenge the federal carbon tax.

One way or another, federal-provincial peace is unlikely to be on next fall’s ballot.

Chantal Hebert is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.

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