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When the prime minister gets out of the nation’s capital and sees how his policies affect people lives, welcome changes occur. They’re often subtle and sometimes hard to interpret. But Stephen Harper listens to local opinion, allows questions from the media (which he almost never does in Ottawa) and adjusts his course ever so slightly.
Last week’s West Coast visit was an interesting example. Harper went to Vancouver to attend Senator Gerry St. Germain’s barbecue, a 28-year Conservative tradition, and to re-announce his party’s plan to offer paid leave to parents who take time off work to care for a child with a life-threatening illness.
But British Columbians wanted to talk about the North Gateway project, a 1,172-kilometre pipeline proposed by Enbridge to carry bitumen from Alberta’s oilsands to tankers plying the dangerous waters between Kitimat and the Queen Charlotte Islands. And talk they did, giving him an angry earful.
In Ottawa, Harper had been adamant that he wanted the $6-billion pipeline built and clear that he was prepared to use his executive power to dislodge obstacles and prevent delays. On the eve of his departure, he imposed a strict deadline (Dec. 31, 2013) on the National Energy Board, now holding public hearings on the proposed pipeline.
To complement these moves, Enbridge ran full-page newspaper ads across the country defending its safety record and emphasizing its determination to prevent oil spills. But when the prime minister arrived in B.C., he discovered how complicated and politically volatile the situation was.
He softened his hard-line stance, setting tongues wagging. “Decisions on these kinds of projects are made through an independent evaluation conducted by scientists into the economic costs and risks,” he told reporters, showing more respect for the regulatory process than he had ever done in Ottawa.
Green Party Leader Elizabeth May hailed this as an about-face. “It was a complete abandonment of all Harper message-machine management over the last year.”
British Columbians greeted the prime minister’s apparent retreat with relief.
For the rest of this column, please go to the Toronto Star website: http://www.thestar.com/opinion/editorialopinion/article/1241903–prime-minister-hedges-his-bets-on-b-c-pipeline