Les Leyne: Two governments are rupturing long friendship

Les Leyne mugshot genericThe single most dismaying political development in B.C. so far this century is the deterioration in our relationship with Alberta.

They are friends and family, partners and neighbours. It’s an ongoing disgrace that political differences have gotten to the point where those relationships are starting to fray.

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I spent a fun night last summer with B.C.-born friends formerly from Victoria, who hosted us in Calgary, where they have lived for years. The fun stopped for a while when we talked seriously about pipeline politics.

It was striking how deep-seated their resentment was about B.C.’s position. And what sometimes gets overlooked in B.C. is how prevalent that resentment is.

B.C. is split on the pipeline between the diverging views. Alberta is virtually united. That makes for a government that will be determined in pressing its case.

That solid majority support for the pipeline and the deep frustration that it’s still hung up on processes was a big part of Jason Kenney’s taking power in Alberta with such ease on Tuesday. He exploited that sense of resentment and now has free rein to ride as far as he can.

There has never been an election campaign where a full-scale economic assault on a neighbouring province was one of the big issues.

The pipeline was a significant disagreement when the NDP took power in B.C. in 2017. It turned into a serious argument soon after, and that in turn became a legal war with duelling court cases.

Now it’s going to turn into the political equivalent of a fistfight, unless Kenney gets too preoccupied with his carbon-tax fight against Ottawa.

It would be a shame to see the argument intensify.

There has been lots of rhetorical crossfire between the two provinces, but there two specific actions that started us down this road.

The first was the Jan. 30, 2018, announcement by B.C.’s Environment Ministry: “Additional measures being developed to protect B.C.’s environment from spills.”

Buried near the bottom — the fifth of five points — was the news that B.C. wanted feedback on the idea of imposing restrictions on the increase of diluted bitumen transport, pending environmental studies. A unilateral blockade of any new pipeline, in other words.

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley reacted harshly, calling it an unconstitutional attack on Alberta’s economy.

“There need to be consequences,” she said.

A few months later, those consequences arrived. A remarkable bill that gives the Alberta government full authority over what goes in the existing pipeline to the coast was introduced. The “Preserving Canada’s Economic Prosperity Act” passed unanimously, another sign of the solidarity in that province.

The energy minister can dictate details of any shipments — how much of what product can move, by what mode. Volumes can be changed at any time. The minister is immune from lawsuits. Breaching licence requirements can bring fines of $10 million a day. It’s only a signature away from taking full effect.

The pipe used to be just a supply line to the coast. Now it could turn into a weapon, aimed at B.C. The legal cases began soon after. B.C. backed up slightly and referred its idea of restrictions to the B.C. Supreme Court for a ruling on the validity. And suits were readied against Alberta about the “turn off the taps” bill.

In the midst of all that, B.C. imposed a tax on vacant homes that hits Albertans with B.C. vacation properties. It was even going to be at a higher rate for Albertans than for British Columbians, before the government relented and made it even. Albertans with lakeside cabins and condos don’t have much to do with B.C.’s urban housing crisis. So it’s another source of resentment.

B.C.’s opening salvo about restricting new movements of heavy oil is so innocuously worded, it’s hard to know what judges will make of it. But it looks pretty dubious from a constitutional point of view. Alberta’s retaliation looks well offside, since all the debate makes it clear the bill’s only purpose is to punish another province.

The enduring shame is that whatever the courts make of it, the damage is done. It will take more than court verdicts to smooth this over.

lleyne@timescolonist.com

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