Will Pipelines Pump Controversy into the Federal NDP Leadership Race?

A touchy subject for some means candidates must plan carefully, say observers.

By Jeremy J. Nuttall 3 Mar 2017 |

Jeremy J. Nuttall is The Tyee’s reader-funded Parliament Hill reporter in Ottawa. Find his previous stories here.

The debate over pipelines has been touted to be a big issue as federal New Democrats prepare to choose a new leader. With three candidates having officially entered the race so far, stances on pipelines may well be varied — and controversial.

Political observers who spoke with The Tyee are split on how much pipelines will play into the race, however.

Pipelines have long been an issue that creates friction among progressives in Canada. In general, environmentalists oppose pipeline projects, while others, particularly in unionized trades, say they provide well-paid jobs for the working class.

University of Toronto political science professor Nelson Wiseman said the topic was so touchy during the 2015 federal election that current NDP leader Tom Mulcair “spoke on both sides of the issue.”

Little has changed since then, according to Wiseman. “The NDP are quite divided on it, as it was on the Leap Manifesto,” he said. “This is part of that in a way.”

The ultra-progressive Leap Manifesto was introduced at the party’s convention last April and argues that no new energy infrastructure should be built that would “lock” Canada into resource dependency.

Alberta Federation of Labour president and former federal NDP candidate in Edmonton Gil McGowan decried the document, saying it was written by “downtown Toronto Dilettantes.”

The divide in the party is compounded by provincial concerns, Wiseman added.

Alberta is the only NDP government in Canada and can’t afford to appear hostile to the oil industry, which is a major employer in the province.

Meanwhile, according to Wiseman, the 2013 election in British Columbia was the NDP’s to win until a reversal on the provincial party’s stance on pipelines.

The divide means some candidates will likely come out arguing a balance needs to be found between pipelines and the environment, which isn’t an easy stance to take, he said.

“Go back and look at what Mulcair did and said,” Wiseman suggested. “I think you’re going to get an imitation of that by some of the candidates for the NDP leadership.”

During the 2015 federal campaign, the NDP plan was to leave the tarsands open and bring in a cap-and-trade emissions plan while toughening environmental regulations on new projects.

Some charged the plan wasn’t clear, while others rejected it for not outright calling for a pipeline moratorium.

But another political observer said he doesn’t see pipelines being an issue that will gain traction during the leadership race at all.

University of British Columbia political science professor Michael Byers said the party supports the current pipeline policy and he expects it will continue to do so.

“I don’t think there’s going to be any significant disagreement between the candidates,” Byers said.

He said the Alberta NDP membership, where much pipeline support is concentrated, is a minority of the total across Canada — and won’t be much of a factor in the race.

But “enemies of the party” could try to make an issue out of pipelines in an effort to create an internal wedge during the 2019 election, he said.

“I don’t expect it to feature prominently,” he said. “Except as an issue that is raised by opponents of the party seeking to cause fractures.”

But Peter Julian told The Tyee he takes a solid stance against pipelines and said he expects it to be contentious during the campaign, yielding some healthy debate.

Julian told The Tyee last week he doesn’t think there can be a balance.

“There are some that say putting the pipelines through in some way will help the transition to clean energy,” he said. “I can’t agree with that.”

Part of Julian’s riding is in Burnaby, a part of Metro Vancouver poised to be affected by any pipeline debate. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently approved an expansion of the controversial Trans Mountain pipeline, which ends in Burrard Inlet. There, oil products will be loaded aboard tankers for export.

In 2007, a pipeline breach coated a neighbourhood in Burnaby with oil. Julian said he fears 150 workers at a refinery there will lose their jobs in favour of shipping more oil overseas for processing.

Meanwhile, during his leadership announcement Ontario MP Charlie Angus told a crowd at the Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto that Canada needs to phase out fossil fuels, but didn’t say he was explicitly opposed to building new pipelines.

Quebec MP Guy Caron’s office told The Tyee it would let Caron’s stance on pipelines be known in the future, but he went on the record as being opposed to the Energy East pipeline project earlier this week.

Caron told iPolitics the environmental and economic case for the pipeline does not exist.

He said the process to approve that pipeline was “broken” by the previous Conservative government.  [Tyee]

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