Vancouver mayor, pipeline opponents losing public opinion battle because they violate Canadian energy consensus

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson

Survey data show Canadians, BCers favour compromise that acts on climate/environment while allowing natural resource development

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson and opponents of the Trans Mountain Expansion pipeline – including NDP Premier John Horgan – have got themselves a wee political problem: the more loudly they object, the more noisy their protest, the more their public support declines. What’s going on?

Robertson was in New York earlier this week and gave an interview to Bloomberg about the controversy swirling about the Kinder Morgan project.

“I don’t think this project will go – I really don’t – based on the resistance on the ground,” Gregor Robertson told reporter Natalie Obiko Pearson.

Trans Mountain Station
Trans Mountain Expansion protest leader Reuben George, right, speaks to crowd of 7,000 to 10,000  gathered at the Lake City Skytrain Station.

“I don’t think the resistance on the west coast is going to fade – I think it will only intensify,” he added. “Escalation looks likely.”

Of course it’s going to escalate if BC political leaders, including Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan, continue to loudly oppose Trans Mountain Expansion. Both mayors have pledged to throw themselves in front of the bulldozers and be arrested, if it comes to that.

Bloomberg also reported Chief Judy Wilson of the Neskonlith First Nation saying, “No matter what the Canadian government does to address political or financial risk, it will not change our resolve to oppose the project.”

Robertson’s comments came hard on the heels of yet another poll, this one by the Angus Reid Institute, showing BC public support for Trans Mountain Expansion growing significantly.” Last month, seven-in-ten B.C. residents (69%) said the province should ‘give in and allow the pipeline to be built’ if the courts rule against it,” the pollster noted.

Even though Horgan continues to be the most popular provincial leader, 53 per cent of BC voters disapprove of the way he’s handled the Kinder Morgan brouhaha, which includes a very noisy spat with his fellow NDP premier in Alberta, Rachel Notley.

bc wines
BC Premier John Horgan.

This defies conventional wisdom. Escalating opposition is supposed to lead to capitulation by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, not the alienation of more and more British Columbians.

“As much as some pro-pipeline advocates want to hear politicians going to battle with opponents, voters would probably prefer that their politicians reduce rather than increase the drama,” Bruce Anderson of Abacus Data wrote in March.

Now we’re getting somewhere.

Abacus surveys on oil, pipelines, and climate change over the past three years show a consistent trend: less than 20 per cent of Canadians are firmly in the environmentalist camp, while over half hold moderate, centrist views about energy.

Over the past few years, according to David Coletto, the CEO of Abacus Data, Canadians have forged a middle ground consensus on energy issues.

“Most Canadians believe that climate change is something we need to address. But on the other hand, they don’t want it to hurt too much which I think is always the case with any public policy question,” he said.

“It’s about finding a balance. That’s certainly what the federal government has tried to do:  a national climate change plan that incentivizes less emissions, but also continuing to build pipelines and make sure that we get value for the resources that we have as this transition [to a low-carbon economy] happens. That’s the key piece.”

Robertson, Chief Wilson, and other pipeline opponents have strayed too far outside that consensus. They’re seen as too radical and unwilling to compromise, something Canadians – including British Columbians – don’t favour.

Notley has used the pipeline fight with Horgan to bolster her own political standing, including rallies in Edmonton and Calgary which are critical to her 2019 re-election hopes.

Angus Reid’s polling of BC NDP and Green Party attitudes toward the Horgan government’s handling of the Trans Mountain Expansion dispute is instructive.

“While most 2017 NDP voters (54%) approve of the government’s handling of this issue, a sizeable minority [39%] disapprove. Among those who supported the Green Party, whose three-member caucus holds the balance of power in the minority government, those who disapprove (51%) outnumber those who approve (44%),” the pollsters argue.

If Horgan et. al. are alienating that many NDP and Green Party voters, the odds are they have gone too far.

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, on the other hand, has taken some extreme measures – banning BC wines, introducing legislation to giving Alberta the power to stop oil shipments to BC – but she has done so to underline her call for Horgan to play by the rules.

To respect the Canadian Constitution. To acknowledge the many responses taken by the Canadian government to address BC concerns, particularly around oil spill response off the coast.

And Notley has cast her argument as protecting the pocketbooks of Canadians across the country, including those in BC, a message that always resonates with voters.

There is also an insight here for Jason Kenney, Alberta United Conservative Party leader, if he unstops his ears long enough to listen: extremism doesn’t sell. Belligerent language and threats to set up a “war room” to respond to oil sands critics also fall outside the Canadian consensus on energy.

Kenney is arguably making the same mistake as Robertson, Corrigan, and Horgan: appealing to a relatively small faction in his own province while annoying the Canadian majority in the middle.

He may want to emulate Notley’s tone in today’s press conference responding to Robertson’s remarks: “They show a tremendous inability to look beyond the most local of borders and … showed a lack of knowledge about what generates weatlth in Canada and BC,” Notley said, courtesy of Postmedia report Emma Graney.

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