Angus Reid poll shows plenty of potential support for Northern Gateway
By Markham Hislop
If you’ve been wondering why Christy Clark has been squabbling with Alberta lately over the Northern Gateway pipeline, you need look no further than an Angus Reid poll released last week.
The poll says Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline is in big trouble in BC. Only seven per cent of British Columbians support it, while 35 per cent firmly oppose it. No surprise, really. The BC NDP and environmental groups have been winning the public relations battle for months.
NDP Leader Adrian Dix’s mantra of “too few benefits, too much risk” has become the dominant meme in the Northern Gateway public narrative. It’s a simple message that’s easy to understand. Several recent Enbridge pipeline spills, not to mention record fines levied for a 2010 Michigan spill that received a lot of publicity in the Canadian media, only underscore the meme.
The meme is so powerful and pervasive in BC that even Clark had to buy in. In the weeks leading up to her July 22 announcement setting out conditions for a possible pipeline approval, Clark parroted Dix whenever she was asked about Northern Gateway. When was the last time you heard a sitting Canadian premier adopt the opposition’s line on an issue? The correct answer is, almost never.
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British Columbians have been paying attention. Angus Reid found that 71 per cent of respondents said they followed the pipeline issue “very closely” or “moderately closely.” That’s a huge number. I bet not that many people pay attention to the Stanley Cup playoffs. Clearly, pipelines, oil tankers off the coast and the Alberta oil sands have grabbed the attention of BC voters.
Clark hopes to turn that attention to her advantage. The BC Liberals are a distant second behind the NDP, with the BC Conservatives, led by John Cummins, trailing in third. Another Angus Reid poll, this one released Friday, shows the Liberals lagging at 22 per cent, while the NDP is up four points at 49 per cent. As my Beacon colleague Bruce Stewart argued in today’s column, the BC Liberals appear headed for political oblivion.
What’s a politician to do when their party is circling the great white bowl with less than a year to go before election day? Why, look for a wedge issue, of course.
Strange as this may sound, Northern Gateway could be that issue.
The pipeline Angus Reid poll shows 51 per cent of respondents are sitting on the fence. According to the polling company’s press release, “half of British Columbians are currently taking a moderate position of support or opposition that could change depending on specific considerations.”
Respondents who were completely or moderately opposed to Northern Gateway were asked if their support would change if any of Clark’s five conditions were met and this is what they said: “About a third of opponents to the Northern Gateway say they would be more likely to back the project if world-leading marine oil-spill prevention and response systems are established (37%), if on-land spill response is enhanced to world-leading standards (35%), if an environmental review process is completed (34%), and if clear fiscal and economic benefits to British Columbia are outlined (32%).”
Opposition to Northern Gateway is soft, at least softer than the prevailing wisdom would indicate.
You can bet Clark and the Liberals have similar polling data, which explains the Premier’s combative attitude during the recent Council of the Federation (a fancy handle for a meeting of Canada’s premiers), where she locked horns with Alberta Premier Alison Redford over a national energy strategy (BC isn’t participating in discussions until it gets it way over the pipelines) and used the national stage to advance her five conditions.
Clark needs a big political bun fight and Northern Gateway is the handiest excuse.
Dix has conveniently painted his party into a corner. The NDP is the anti-pipeline, anti-oil sands defender of the environment and it’s difficult to imagine a scenario in which that changes. An NDP strategist would argue his party’s strategy doesn’t need to change; it’s propelled Dix et. al. to a 49 per cent lead, which under usual circumstances would be insurmountable.
Nor has Clark proven to be a very able campaigner thus far, stumbling from crisis to crisis, and displaying a ham-handed touch on policy issues, thereby justifying NDP smugness. But the new feisty Clark might have a better chance of moving the public opinion polls this fall.
And there is a wild card about to be played that may make a significant difference.
The Alberta energy sector is not pleased with Enbridge’s complete bungling of the Northern Gateway issue. While the pipeline might belong to Enbridge, it’s a conduit to Asian markets for some very big oil companies that have been eagerly anticipating the $15 to $25 per barrel premium they might enjoy from Chinese customers. A meeting of energy CEOs will take place in September and for the first time all the adults will be around the board table.
Expect a major PR push to support Northern Gateway. And not a repeat of the ill-advised $5 million advertising campaign Enbridge launched in June that drew media scorn (“Enbridge on the defensive” was a typical headline).
And as I pointed out in a previous column, a$5 per barrel toll on Northern Gateway and the upcoming expansion of Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline could give Clark as much as $1.5 billion a year to bribe BC voters, who could be quite agreeable to voting for the Liberals if promised shorter surgery wait times, more teachers or lower taxes.
Never underestimate the willingness of voters to be bought.
A comeback by Clark and the Liberals is a long shot. But an aggressive public push from energy companies combined with a Hail Mary play from the premier is the only hope Clark has of beating Dix and the NDP.
Angus Reid’s poll of 804 online respondents points the way. Over the next nine months we’ll see if Clark and her supporters can deliver.