Are federal Liberals about to screw up Trans Mountain Expansion strategy?

Trans MountainVancouver opponents won’t forget about Trans Mountain, Liberals have the right message, Tory votes might be available

“How are the [BC Trans Mountain Expansion] protesters going to keep this issue alive when the next election is almost three years away and nothing is going to happen between now and then?” said a Liberal with direct knowledge of the file.

Trans Mountain
Trans Mountain Burnaby Now photo by Cornelia Naylor.

I’m glad you asked Mr. or Ms. Liberal because I’m happy to explain. But I shouldn’t have to.

Everything Prime Minister Justin Trudeau needs to sell Trans Mountain to Vancouver voters, save Liberal seats in the next election, and parry enraged eco-activists and First Nations was contained in the Liberal leader’s comments when he announced cabinet approval of the controversial Kinder Morgan pipeline on Wednesday.

First, let’s poke some holes in the Liberal strategy. There are four things wrong with the comment in the lede.

One, Metro Vancouver voters are plenty upset about Trans Mountain. Just how upset they are depends on which public opinion polls one consults, but there are none claiming a majority supports the project.

Polls are mostly useful as public relations weapons. In this case, opponents have the upper hand because their polls conveniently show antipathy is strong and consistent.

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For instance, a Nov. online poll of 805 people by Insights West for environmental group Dogwood Initiative showed that 60 per cent of British Columbians disagree with increasing the number of oil tankers in coastal waters, and that includes 64 per cent who voted Liberal last year. Fifty-eight per cent of Liberal voters see TMX green lighting as a contradiction of Justin Trudeau’s election promises about the environment. Seventy-four per cent of respondents think more oil tankers in southern waters will harm whales.

Vancouver voters are just going to get over Trans Mountain in three years? Wishful thinking at best.

Two, environmental groups opposed to Trans Mountain are well organized, well funded (this may be one of the few times notorious blogger and conspiracy theorist Vivian Krause’s obsession with eco-activist financing is actually useful), and enjoy wide support in Vancouver, especially among youth.

Professional eco-activists are paid to stir the pot. And stir the pot they will.

Three, coastal First Nations (also staunch opponents) take a long view of the environment and its protection. They will be front and centre challenging the government’s decision in court.

First Nations are also well organized and adept at defending their interests in the media.

Trans Mountain
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Four, Metro Vancouver politicians will be dining out on their resistance to Trans Mountain for years.

Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan, a staunch critic of Kinder Morgan, was re-elected in 2014 with 68.5 per cent of the vote in a campaign that was widely considered a referendum on Trans Mountain.

If Burnaby voters have been mad for the past three years, what makes Liberal strategists think they’ll stop being mad over the next three?

Ditto for Vancouver  and Mayor Gregor Robertson.

The chances that Trans Mountain fades from the Vancouver public perception are slim and none, and Slim left town the moment Trudeau walked onto the stage of the National Press Gallery to announce his approval on Wednesday.

Perhaps Liberal strategists didn’t listen to their leader’s speech.

Over and over again the Prime Minister linked pipelines and climate change policies. His basic message is that selling more oil at a higher price in Asia will generate tax revenues needed to pay for the transition to a clean energy future.

An Oct. poll from Abacus Data shows that Canadians are very supportive of pipelines as long as Ottawa is also implementing policies that encourage clean energy adoption, address carbon dioxide emissions, and mitigate climate change.

The pollster asked 1,500 Canadians to if they would oppose or support the Trudeau Government approving a new pipeline while “putting in place these measures to encourage a shift to renewable energy.” A whopping three out of four (76%) would support (41%) or accept (35%) this decision, according to a press release.

I explained the implications of this poll in more detail in this column and argued that Trudeau’s message should be the fighting cry of Vancouver Liberals between now and 2019, the date of the next national election.

The Liberals are not going to change the mind of progressive, NDP, or eco-activist voters. But they might hang on to enough of their vote from 2015 and take some support from the Conservatives, which generally garnered 15 to 30 per cent in Vancouver ridings during last year’s federal election.

A pro-oil and gas plus pipeline Liberal message could appeal very nicely to Red Tories and soft Conservatives, offsetting losses from youth and progressives attracted by Prime Minister Sunny Ways’ feel good campaign.

“Even if an election were held tomorrow we’d lose perhaps four seats in British Columbia. As for 2019, it looks as though we’ll lose two,” said a second well-placed Liberal.

Why lose any? The Liberals have the right message to appeal to moderate British Columbians and votes to be gained with an active pushback against Trans Mountain opponents.

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