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Liberals take remedial measures to recover their fortunes ahead of federal election

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Centre Block, Parliament Hill. Photo: Thomas Dimson/Flickr

Amid all the hoo-ha emanating from the nation's capital over the partial holiday weekend, the bit that didn't seem to fit was the dispiriting news -- for many Albertans, anyway -- that the federal cabinet won't make a decision until summer at least on whether the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion Project will proceed.

Local news commentators here in Alberta interpreted this as a stall by the cabinet of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. For once, it's possible there's something to this beyond their habitual anti-Trudeau spin.

But the national news was dominated by the SNC-Lavalin scandal (if a scandal it is), the fallout from the resignation of former justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould during the mismanagement of that same affair by the Prime Minister's Office, and the decision by someone, somewhere that the prime minister's principal secretary must fall on his sword to atone.

The biggest headlines of the weekend were devoted to "the bombshell departure," as the CBC put it, of Gerald Butts, the PM's friend and close adviser, who will now depart in partial payment for the embarrassing brouhaha.

My friends of the left and right, not to mention my old pals from the Calgary Herald picket line, will have to forgive me if I say I agree with the basic premise of Conrad Black's rambling column in the National Post Friday. That is, that while the PMO has clearly bungled the SNC-Lavalin affair, the Quebec corporation's business practices abroad don't amount to all that much of a scandal, and if Wilson-Raybould felt she had been demoted for actions as yet unknown when she was shuffled to the associate defence portfolio, that would have been the time for her to quit.

Regardless, what we are now seeing, I strongly suspect, is the lizard brain of Canada's National Governing Party reasserting itself and engaging its primal understanding of the real scandal of this crisis. To wit, that the PMO has fumbled things to the point they can be meaningfully exploited by the ex-Rebel Media twerps who surround Opposition Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer!

So, if I am right, we are about to see the stuff that makes the Liberal Party of Canada the Natural Governing Party. This, it is said here, is where the pipeline "stall" comes in.

I reckon someone in the Liberal Party brain trust -- and I don't use that term sarcastically, for once -- has done the arithmetic and concluded the Trudeau government has gained very little from its co-operation with the Notley government and its heavy investment of political and actual capital in the TMX project.

Indeed, it must by now have concluded the party stands to lose significantly -- and, in the present situation, potentially fatally -- in other regions of the country if this is allowed to continue. Therefore, remedial measures must be taken.

To put this another way, Alberta Opposition Leader Jason Kenney has it precisely backward when he says Premier Rachel Notley's efforts to achieve social licence have been a spectacular failure in getting Alberta the pipeline it demands. In reality, as has been argued here before, it is Notley's social licence effort that has gotten the project closer to completion than anything ever done by Conservatives in Ottawa or Edmonton.

Alas, Kenney may be right insofar as Notley's manifest success has apparently not gotten her as far as she needs to get with her own voters here in Alberta. Indeed, the more she fights for the pipeline, the stronger Kenney seems to get because the file is seen, however wrongfully, by too many voters as a United Conservative Party strength.

That said, Kenney is certainly delighted with this delay, since it means there will likely be no pre-election announcement that all is well on the pipeline-expansion front and he can continue with his claims of NDP-Liberal failure unchallenged except by bloggers with insignificant readerships.

Meanwhile, although the Trudeau government's efforts moved the needle on the popularity of the expansion project elsewhere, going along with Alberta's pipeline crusade has done nothing whatsoever in Alberta for the prime minister.

So, it is said here, realpolitik has finally reasserted itself in the NGP brain and the likely result is that the pipeline expansion will indeed be stalled until after the Alberta election, after which it will be reassessed.

If Premier Notley somehow manages to pull the fat out of the fire and her government is re-elected, it will probably be back on track.

If Trudeau's rival and sworn enemy Kenney wins, as current polling suggests is likely, the best Alberta pipeline advocates can hope for is that the project will eventually proceed well after the fall federal election.

In the event the Liberals win the fall federal election with the help of voters in British Columbia whom Trudeau not long ago seemed willing to alienate and even lose, maybe the TMX project won't be restarted for a very long time. At least, that is, until Kenney has been eliminated as a threat, and possibly even as an annoyance.

If after that, as also seems likely, Democrats recapture the White House, the policies of our large neighbour to the south seem likely to return to cautious efforts to slow global climate change -- more bad news for Alberta's bitumen miners that makes additional pipelines even less likely.

Given that all Alberta oil booms nowadays are principally construction booms, over the longer term, angry war-room rhetoric and protest convoys will make little difference and Alberta will have pissed away a final oil boom before it even started.

Meanwhile, as for SNC-Lavalin, Wilson-Raybould, and all that, as was said of the third-rate burglary attempt at the Watergate Hotel that brought down U.S. President Richard Nixon in 1974, the cover-up is usually worse than the crime.

So, if the thesis of this column is correct, expect revelations soon.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Toronto Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Photo: Thomas Dimson/Flickr

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