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Column: 2019 political prospects riding on pipeline outcome

Parties stand to gain or lose in the year ahead from potential Trans Mountain project restart
Trans Mountain
Photo: Kinder Morgan

The political landscape will be tested heavily in the coming year, and there are prospects for change.

Justin Trudeau’s Liberals think their re-election prospects are strong, but polls suggest next October’s election remains an open question. The Conservative Party of Canada was hardly vanquished in 2015, and some of the initial lustre from Trudeau’s global charm offensive has gone stale.

Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives, while not particularly inspiring, have quietly built momentum to stand in a statistical dead heat. They appear to be benefiting from, of all places, the NDP under the tentative leadership of Jagmeet Singh, whose star has fallen fast.

Singh will try to secure a House of Commons seat through a by-election in Burnaby South in 2019, but has yet to galvanize his party as his two predecessors did in pre-election periods. If there is a wild card to thwart the Tories, it is the new People’s Party of Canada under Maxime Bernier; no one expects it to secure seats, but it may drain enough Conservative support to ensure Liberal re-election.

For Trudeau’s government to minimize despair, it needs to deliver on the Trans Mountain pipeline, bought from Kinder Morgan in 2018 and now idling while a new National Energy Board (NEB) process reconsiders its viability. The pipeline-related direct despair for Trudeau is not in how it affects his re-election prospects – few believe it will prove decisive in the outcome – but in what happens in Alberta.

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley has little or no hope of sustaining her NDP government if the pipeline is not proceeding by election time this spring, and that would become a Trudeau nightmare. Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party, an amalgam of right-of-centre forces from the last election, is poised to regain the four-decade power lost to the NDP in the last election if Notley cannot deliver the pipeline – and very possibly even if she does. Kenney would revel in making Trudeau’s life difficult.

The pipeline’s political impact extends, of course, into British Columbia, and an NEB decision could well coincide with a decision by John Horgan’s BC NDP government to shed the BC Green Party’s support in a minority alliance to try to secure a stronger mandate. It has been many in the party’s plan to go back to the electorate this year.

The NDP knew, even in sanctioning a proportional representation (PR) referendum, that a spring 2019 election would still be conducted under the first past the post system because of the logistical challenges in moving to a new format. The PR vote was the last real obligation to the Greens, and the NDP has deferred many of the toughest political calls – but not a batch of taxes – to keep open the spring election option. It is confident because it perceives the BC Liberal Party has not rebuilt under Andrew Wilkinson as leader. This may prove a conceit, because only a year and a half ago, the Liberals won more votes and seats. There is also a slight – but only slight – chance the legislative Speaker, Darryl Plecas, will lose the confidence of the governing parties for firing two top officials and be forced to step aside, wilting the NDP-Green seat advantage.

At a municipal level, 2019 will be a year of election fallout. The city most worth scrutinizing is Surrey, where Doug McCallum’s return to the mayoralty after 13 years has been nothing short of sheer disruption. He has tossed aside the city’s light-rail transit plan for a SkyTrain option and argued Surrey can replace the RCMP with a local police force – both at little incremental expense. Almost everyone believes this is preposterous, so 2019 will determine if he is the smartest person in the room.