STEPHENSON: B.C. premier channels Williams
Canada’s premiers attempted to scramble their way back to relatively safe and familiar territory on Friday by complaining about health-care funding and taking a few kicks at the federal government for ignoring the provinces.
British Columbia Premier Christy Clark, though, was having none of it.
She came to the premiers’ annual Council of the Federation meetings, hosted this week in Halifax by Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter, as a rebel with her own agenda. The Danny Williams of the West, you might say.
She left in the same costume, no doubt scoring big political points back home, where she will be in the fight of her political life in an election expected next year.
Not only has she refused to play ball on developing a national energy strategy, one that all the other premiers signed on to and declared a major initiative of the federation, she is standing firm in her demands that B.C. receive a bigger slice of the revenue from a controversial pipeline project.
“There is only one person at this table whose job it is to stand up for the interests of British Columbians and that’s me,” she said.
The $5.5-billion Enbridge pipeline project, which has not received federal approval, will run from northern Alberta to the B.C. coastline at Kitimat, where heavy oil would be loaded into tankers bound for Asian markets.
There was a bit of Danny Williams’ drama in the whole production. The former Newfoundland and Labrador premier may not have been beloved across Canada for his firebrand positions on offshore revenues, power deals with Quebec and a whole host of other issues, but he consistently scored the highest approval ratings among premiers in terms of his support among the voters at home.
Clark catered to the home crowd in defence of her position, which she says is about acting in the interests of British Columbia taxpayers.
But she didn’t seem to grasp her own contradiction in standing up for her province in what she termed “difficult discussions” and her decision to withdraw B.C.’s involvement in the federation’s development of a national energy strategy.
“Just because it’s difficult, doesn’t mean you can step away and decide you’re not going to stand up for your province,” she said of the conflict over the pipeline project.
It was interesting to note, though, that the woman who stepped into Williams’ shoes after he left politics expressed little patience for Clark’s suggestion that working in the interests of one’s home province meant stepping aside from group discussions as premiers of the federation.
Kathy Dunderdale noted that premiers in the past have faced challenges among themselves over energy issues, but suggested the conflict between British Columbia and Alberta over the pipeline should be resolved elsewhere.
“There are difficult conversations, there are challenges, but we don’t get to walk away from them,” said Dunderdale.
“We’re looking forward to a time when British Columbia is comfortable enough with this process that they’ll be part of it. We’re not going to negotiate at the (federation) table an agreement between two provinces.”
The rebel-with-a-cause routine didn’t sit too well with the other premiers, particularly Alberta’s Alison Redford, who was too smart to take the bait on questions at the closing news conference about the lack of universal backing among premiers for the energy strategy initiative.
Redford has been a driving force in moving the federation toward a national strategy, and suggested the current disagreement with British Columbia is “an illustration as to why we need to have a Canadian energy strategy.”
The premiers made significant progress in a number of areas, producing reports on national health clinical treatment guidelines and a blueprint on how Ottawa’s plan to alter health transfers in future years will shift a significant burden of costs to the provinces.
There is no indication whether Prime Minister Stephen Harper will accept an invitation to come to Halifax to meet with the premiers at a first ministers meeting in November. It’s been over three years since he attended such a conference.
The premiers were wise to throw the ball back into the federal court and force Harper to provide an answer.
Marilla’s column returns Aug. 22.