Backlash building as voters feel lied to, taken for granted
Surprises are becoming the norm in recent elections. Last year Rachel Notley swept the NDP to an unprecedented majority in Alberta, then Justin Trudeau vaulted from third place to win a majority government in Ottawa. This year UK voters stunned pundits by voting to leave the EU, then Donald Trump defied the polls to win in the United States.
Is there a common thread in these upset victories (or losses, depending who you were rooting for)?
Columnists and historians will write volumes on why voters in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania abandoned the Democratic Party and voted for Trump, but I think it’s pretty simple. People rebel when they feel ignored or taken for granted. Clinton lost her chance to form government because angry voters in the so-called flyover states, tired of being neglected by business-as-usual politics in the capital, abandoned her party to send a message: screw you.
Trudeau seemed to be tuned into the Canadian version of this alienation during the federal election, and his promises tapped into the zeitgeist. His first few months in power were impressive, but recently he has acted like just another Ottawa politician – especially when it comes to the interests of big banks and Big Oil.
When Trudeau swept to power many First Nation leaders were euphoric, singing the boyish Prime Minister’s praises. A month after being sworn in, Trudeau was honoured at the annual meeting of the Assembly of First Nations with a traditional blanket ceremony in front of hundreds of Aboriginal leaders. Now, less than a year later, Trudeau is being barred from Tla-o-qui-aht territory and Indigenous leaders like Caleb Behn, Chief Stewart Phillip, and Roland Willson have publicly said they feel betrayed.
First it was the approval of Site C dam permits, then a massive Malaysian gas plant in the heart of the rich Skeena salmon estuary, then the mishandling of what should have been a minor tug accident in Heiltsuk territory – which turned into a nightmare after 100,000 litres of fuel and oil escaped, poisoning a vital food harvesting area.
Now Robert Davidson, the Haida artist whose Raven design Trudeau lifted for his shoulder tattoo, has said publicly how disappointed he is in the Prime Minister. And the whiplash felt by First Nations leaders could soon spill over to B.C. voters, whose support for political parties is notoriously fickle.
Like folks in flyover America, British Columbians and First Nations are fed up with federal politicians who jet in for a few hours, make promises to get elected and then disappear when the going gets tough. The Heiltsuk, grieving the loss of their fishing grounds, have publicly challenged Trudeau to fly to Bella Bella and fulfill his promise of an oil tanker ban, “in the spirit of reconciliation”. Not only has the PM not responded, but his government is backtracking on other election promises.
If Trudeau pushes through a Kinder Morgan approval this fall, voters in B.C. will feel ignored, lied to and taken for granted; and like voters in flyover America the consequences could be far-reaching. For more than a decade, hundreds of thousands of British Columbians have been using every available tool to signal to Ottawa that we don’t want an expansion of oil tankers in our fragile waters. And for more than a decade, Prime Ministers in Ottawa have patted us on the head, muttered a few platitudes and then put their finger on the scale to push unwanted projects like Enbridge and Kinder Morgan on our unwilling province. We are fed up.
A lot of people thought our new telegenic Prime Minister would follow through on his promises: kill Enbridge, legislate an oil tanker ban on the North Coast, replace the first-past-the-post system, restore integrity to the NEB process and subject Kinder Morgan to a rigorous review.
More than a year later, rumours abound that each promise will be abandoned or significantly watered down. So how badly has this backtracking tarnished Trudeau’s image in B.C.?
A new province-wide online poll by Insights West shows strong opposition to increased oil tanker traffic on British Columbia’s south coast, especially among voters who supported Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party in the 2015 federal election.
The poll, commissioned by Dogwood, found two-in-five voters in Metro Vancouver (where the majority of Liberal seats in B.C. are located), said they would be less likely to vote Liberal next election if the federal government approves Kinder Morgan’s oil tanker and pipeline project. Fully 31 per cent of Liberal voters say they would be less likely to support Trudeau’s party if the project goes ahead. Overall, two out of three British Columbians remain opposed to oil tanker expansion and 64 per cent of respondents who voted Liberal in 2015 also oppose.
Other key findings should send a chill up Trudeau’s spine if he intends, as rumoured, to approve the controversial proposal:
- 62 per cent of British Columbians polled agree a Kinder Morgan approval would contradict Prime Minister Trudeau’s promises on climate leadership and a “new relationship” with First Nations. Among Liberal voters in B.C., 58 per cent agree with this assessment.
- 74 per cent of British Columbians (and 78 per cent of Liberal voters) say they are less likely to support oil tanker expansion when considering the impacts on the South Coast’s 80 resident orca whales.
- A whopping four in five young voters under 35 in B.C. oppose oil tanker expansion. (Trudeau gave himself the position of Minister for Youth.)
Unlike Hillary Clinton, Prime Minister Trudeau still has a shot to get himself straightened out. To do that, he should be very careful not to emulate Stephen Harper’s hamfisted efforts to shove oil pipelines down British Columbia’s throat.
Back in 2014 when Harper’s cabinet approved Enbridge, we heard the same rationale from the governing party we are hearing now on Kinder Morgan: Enbridge was just another “issue”, and there would be three years for Harper to rebuild trust. A good theory, but in practice Conservative candidates lost almost 150,000 votes in British Columbia (they lost 24 percent of their voters in ridings with Dogwood organizing teams worked in while only losing an average of 1.7 per cent elsewhere in Canada).
What Trudeau and his advisors seem to be missing out West is that the central question for British Columbians remains (as it was for Albertans after Pierre Trudeau tried implementing the infamous National Energy Plan in the ‘80s and ’90s): Who gets to decide what’s in our best interest — Ottawa or the people who live here?
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. Trudeau’s father also become intoxicated with his own popularity, blundering into a massive overreach that alienated Prairie voters for a generation. Pierre Elliott Trudeau badly miscalculated the consequences of forcing his controversial National Energy Program on an unwilling Alberta. Ironically, in trying to reboot the historically toxic Trudeau brand in Alberta, Justin Trudeau is poised to mirror his father’s mistake, by forcing a controversial oil tanker-pipeline proposal on unwilling British Columbians.
British Columbia may not be literally a “flyover” province, but many residents still feel ignored as the federal government remains fixated on placating Alberta, Quebec and the population centres in Ontario. While most British Columbians are pleased with the post-Harper tone in Ottawa, we are feeling increasingly apart from our capital, and resentful of decisions being imposed on us from afar. The slapdash Kinder Morgan review process, which failed to meet any objective standard of rigour, didn’t help.
Being lied to and taken for granted hurts, doubly so when your expectations have been raised. The rebellion of the ignored masses in flyover America surprised us all, but now is the time for our leaders to learn from the glaring mistakes that have now been made so clear. If Trudeau doesn’t smarten up and reject Kinder Morgan, or at the very least send it back for a proper review like he promised, his supporters will turn on him.
If that happens, Trudeau could become the thing all Prime Ministers fear the most: a one-term wonder.