OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau lost an ally in Rachel Notley Tuesday evening, but he gained an opportunity to rebrand himself on a file on which he’s lost much credibility.
Over the past year, Trudeau has been pummelled by critics who feel his mantra of the environment and the economy going hand in hand is a slogan and nothing more.
The Liberal government’s decision to spend $4.5 billion on a pipeline and another $7.4 billion to triple the flow of bitumen to the West Coast enraged progressives and environmentalists last summer.
In the fall, a report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggested Canada’s objectives are far from what’s needed to stop the planet from catastrophically heating up, bringing along with it deaths, migration challenges, and species extinction. And earlier this month, Canada’s environment commissioner, Julie Gelfand, made it clear that the Trudeau government is not doing enough to even meet its unambitious Stephen Harper-era targets and greater action is needed.
On the other side of the issue, Conservative premiers are fighting Trudeau’s carbon price, and their supporters are enraged by what they perceive to be federal action aimed at limiting future oil and gas projects through measures such as Bill C-69.
In short, nobody is happy with Trudeau’s climate compromise.
Back in 2016, when the prime minister personally announced that the government was giving the Trans Mountain project the green light, Trudeau went out of his way to credit Notley for his decision.
“Let me say this definitively. We could not have approved this project without the leadership of Premier Notley and Alberta’s climate leadership plan, a plan that commits to pricing carbon and capping oil sands emissions at 100 megatonnes per year.”
Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna also noted the “leadership of the Notley government” and stressed that the 100 megatonne cap was built into the federal Liberals’ climate plan and would lead to the “right approach to manage the growth of the oil sands.”
On the campaign trail, United Conservative Party Leader Jason Kenney has attacked his political rival for her close relationship with Trudeau.
“I think the biggest mistake that Premier Notley made was her alliance with Justin Trudeau. We are paying the price for that, for this job crisis and the failure of getting the pipeline built,” the UCP leader said.
The feud between Notley and British Columbia Premier John Horgan over the Trans Mountain expansion project is what led the federal Liberals to buy the pipeline.
Last April, when the two NDP premiers were threatening each other with ultimatums and the federal government was exploring its options, Trudeau held a press conference to declare the pipeline to be in the national interest. Having, in his words, put in place “the most rigorous set of environmental standards, ocean protection and coastline protection in the world,” Trudeau pledged of the pipeline: “It will be built.”
“… My commitment was to demonstrate to Canadians that we can grow the economy and protect the environment together. That’s exactly what we’re doing, and we’re simply demonstrating the resolve to actually deliver on that promise to Canadians,” he said.
Since then, Trudeau bought a pipeline. He saw his (and Notley’s) plan take a setback with what sources say was an unexpected decision by the Federal Court of Appeal to quash the project’s approval. But the National Energy Board’s reconsidered report, released in February, once again gave the project the OK. It also gave the Trudeau cabinet 90 days to make a decision.
Watch: Trudeau says Canadians should look at the big picture on Trans Mountain
Notley has been adamant she believes her partners in Ottawa will give the project the green light in May and that shovels will be in the ground this fall.
“I’m willing to bet my political future on it,” the NDP leader has said.
While the NDP premier’s rhetoric hasn’t shown it in recent months, Notley’s and Trudeau’s offices worked well with each other, and their interests were aligned on multiple fronts. On climate change mitigation and pipeline expansion, they sang from the same song book. Her willingness to act — albeit, perhaps, far from what some environmentalists desired — gave Trudeau political cover to say ‘yes’ to the Trans Mountain project.
With Kenney, Trudeau doesn’t have that luxury. The UCP leader has said he will scrap Notley’s 100-megatonne cap on oil sands emissions, let coal power plants operate past 2030, and rollback much of Notley’s carbon emission pricing plan.
Trudeau now has the opportunity to walk his talk. He can say no to Kenney.
No strict environmental plan, no pipeline. That was the bargain Trudeau sold to Canadians.
During a visit to Kitchener, Ont., on Tuesday, Trudeau was asked whether he worries about the future of his climate plan with a likely UCP victory. The prime minister left the door open to two possible courses of action.
When Albertans face difficult times, he said, “all of Canada will be there for them. That is going to continue.” But almost in the same breath, he also said he thinks it is “impossible in the 21st century, to have a plan for the economy, without having a plan for the environment. It just can’t happen.”
As the federal Liberals head towards the federal election campaign, there are two serious knocks against the prime minister in constituencies he plans to court again for support.
Many New Democrats, Greens, progressive voters, B.C. voters, Quebec voters, younger voters, chose to cast a ballot in 2015 for a leader they thought would act on climate change and someone they believed would keep his word.
Many now believe, however, that Trudeau has turned out to be the same type of opportunistic politician they were used to. Yes, he put a price on carbon but he approved, bought, and plans to build a pipeline. He lied about electoral reform, although he had enough honesty to admit later that he made the promise planning to support only one recommendation (a preferential ballot). The prime minister may also have lied about his office’s handling of the SNC-Lavalin file (time will tell, perhaps).
So, as Trudeau tries to rebuild the coalition that gave him a majority government, he needs to convince voters that he’s not a liar, that he means what he says, and that he’s not a fake environmentalist.
Here’s his opportunity to plant his flag.