Whatever happens, Harper wins

Provincial premier or pipeline protester, you had a common plight Tuesday.

Provincial premier or pipeline protester, you had a common plight Tuesday.

You both found yourself in British Columbia, pushing back against that immovable object, Stephen Harper.

At their waterfront hotel in Victoria, most premiers took turns over two days spitting disdain at Harper’s 10-year, no-strings-attached health-care funding plan presented to their finance ministers — without notice, debate — last month.

Harper was unmoved.

In an interview with CBC anchor Peter Mansbridge, he told the provinces to get on with health-care innovation (they did) and stop obsessing about money.

“I hope that we can put the funding issue aside, and they can concentrate on actually talking about health care, because that’s the discussion we’ll be having,’’ he said.

Over on the mainland, National Energy Board hearings on the Northern Gateway pipeline project were resuming at the Island Gospel Fellowship Church in Burns Lake.

On this, too, Harper appears unshakeable, but his comments on the Gateway project deserve more scrutiny.

It appears he is undermining the work of an independent panel that is hearing aboriginal and environmental objections to the $5.5 billion project that would run from Alberta to the Pacific, from where Alberta’s oil could be shipped across to Asian markets.

Harper is likely just over a month away from watching Barack Obama put a final bullet in the $7 billion Keystone XL pipeline project, leaving U.S. supporters to either seek a congressional mandate to have it completed or hope for the ascension of Republican Mitt Romney to the White House in November.

Obama has had another deadline of Feb. 21 forced on him by Republicans, but the White House has said that did not leave time for a proper environmental assessment in Nebraska, all but hastening the death warrant for the project.

For Harper, this was a “wake-up call,” so much so, that he appears prepared to do whatever it takes to ensure a Keystone repeat will not be played out in Canada’s west.

Unlike his more volatile natural resources minister, Joe Oliver, Harper works at not overplaying his hand.

But Mansbridge asked Harper if his unrelenting support for Keystone made approval of the project a fait accompli.

As the regulatory process stands now, a denial of the project does not go to the federal cabinet for a final decision.

But as Harper seeks a way to streamline the hearings process, those who know this file were suggesting he could also change the rules to allow cabinet to overturn a negative finding.

“I believe selling our energy products to Asia is in the country’s national interest. It is in our interests for all kinds of reasons, that we diversify our exports, particularly our energy exports,’’ Harper said.

Beyond that, he would say only that he would “take a look at the (NEB) recommendation.’’

He told Mansbridge he saw no double standard in railing against foreign money in the Canadian environmental movement but encouraging foreign investment in the Canadian energy sector.

And he agreed Canada poured a lot of money into Keystone lobbying, while making it clear that its fate was a U.S. decision.

He didn’t make it clear how that was different from American money being used to lobby against the Northern Gateway, as long as it remains a Canadian decision.

“Just because certain people in the United States would like to see Canada be one giant national park for the northern half of North America, I don’t think that’s part of what our review process is all about,’’ Harper said.

Obama’s decision on Keystone of course smacks of political expediency, not environmental altruism, but it is a U.S. decision.

While acknowledging that, Harper couldn’t resist one more kick at the Keystone can in the interview, invoking the Iranian threat to block the Strait of Hormuz.

On health-care funding, Harper has played hardball within the rules to control debate, and he is winning.

On the Northern Gateway he just might be prepared to change the rules to ensure victory there, as well.

Tim Harper is a national affairs critic for the Toronto Star.