For Trudeau, there's no political reason to fight for Keystone XL

·6 min read

After U.S. President Joe Biden moved recently to revoke permits for the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline project, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he was "disappointed."

That was a fairly tepid reaction to losing an infrastructure project billed as a job-generator and an essential prop for a struggling Canadian energy sector.

But Trudeau doesn't really have an incentive to take on the Biden administration over Keystone because — economic and environmental arguments for and against the project notwithstanding — there simply isn't much of a political case for fighting for it any longer.

Like Trudeau, most Canadians just want to move on.

A survey by the Angus Reid Institute published on Tuesday found that 59 per cent of Canadians would "accept Biden's decision on Keystone XL and focus on other Canada-U.S. priorities" if they were in the prime minister's shoes. Only 41 per cent said they would instead "press for the authorization of Keystone XL above other Canada-U.S. priorities".

That doesn't mean Canadians are indifferent, however.

The poll found that 52 per cent of Canadians think Biden's decision is a bad thing for this country, while just 30 per cent think it's a good thing. While there were some regional divides on the issue, pluralities in every part of the country said losing Keystone is bad for Canada.

So Trudeau's response might have been an accurate reflection of how most Canadians are reacting to the news — with grudging acceptance.

Canadians also might be taking a dim view of the federal government's chances of convincing the U.S. president to abandon a campaign promise — one that Biden thought was important enough to get out of the way on his first day in the Oval Office.

Biden has his own supporters to think about. So does Trudeau.

Keystone a big issue where Liberals have little support

Among those who voted for the Liberals in the 2019 federal election, 77 per cent of those polled by the Angus Reid Institute said they believed it would best for Ottawa to focus on priorities other than Keystone with Biden. The share of NDP and Green voters polled who felt the same way was even higher — at 81 and 87 per cent, respectively.

Those NDP and Green supporters happen to be the voters the Liberals need on their side to secure a majority government in the next election.

Regionally, the survey shows how the Liberals have little to gain by bringing up Keystone XL again. Only in Alberta and Saskatchewan did a majority of those polled by the Angus Reid Institute say they believe that the defence of Keystone XL should be placed above other priorities.

AP
AP

The Liberals don't hold any seats in either province. They also don't have great prospects to change that situation any time soon. The party fell 13 seats short of a majority government in the last election — and not one of the 13 seats the Liberals came closest to winning was located in either Alberta or Saskatchewan.

Those near-miss seats were in Ontario (seven), Quebec (three), British Columbia (two) and Nova Scotia (one) — all provinces where a majority of voters expressed a willingness to let Keystone go.

In fact, the seat the Liberals came closest to winning in Alberta or Saskatchewan last time — Edmonton Centre — would rank just 30th on their list of target ridings based on voting margins in 2019.

It may sound cynical, but when an entire region of the country is no longer politically competitive for a particular party, that party no longer has a strong incentive to compete for those votes.

Canadians want the U.S. relationship to work

And there's little for Trudeau to gain in picking a fight with Biden.

In the days after the U.S. vote, the Angus Reid Institute found that 61 per cent of Canadians expected Biden's victory to have a positive impact on U.S.-Canada relations. Just 12 per cent expected the impact to be negative.

More recently, an Abacus Data survey conducted between Jan. 15 and 18 found that 49 per cent of Canadians held a positive impression of Biden and just 16 per cent had a negative one. By comparison, 80 per cent of Canadians polled have a negative impression of Donald Trump, and just nine per cent have a positive view of the ex-president.

Polls indicate Canadians were relieved to see Biden defeat Trump in the November presidential election. The former U.S. president was deeply unpopular in this country and most Canadians are unlikely to perceive the actions taken by the Biden administration as negatively as they viewed the decisions made by Trump — even the ones that could have a bad impact on Canada's interests.

Preaching to the choir

So this is a relatively easy political choice for the Liberals. The Conservatives are in a trickier position.

According to the Angus Reid Institute poll, 79 per cent of Conservative voters think Keystone XL should be given priority over other issues. Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole has criticized the Liberals' "total failure" on Keystone XL. He has not, however, gone as far as Alberta Premier Jason Kenney by calling for retaliatory sanctions.

It's the duty of the Official Opposition to oppose — but going hard against the Liberals over Keystone is unlikely to appeal to many people outside the Conservative base.

The Conservatives already have 47 of 48 seats in Alberta and Saskatchewan. They need that last seat (Edmonton–Strathcona, occupied by a New Democrat) a lot less than they need to win dozens of new seats across Ontario, B.C. and Atlantic Canada.

Justin Tang / Canadian Press
Justin Tang / Canadian Press

It makes sense for Kenney to go on the offensive against the federal government over Keystone XL, of course. He's doing what most of his constituents would do in his shoes, according to the Angus Reid Institute poll.

Kenney also needs a political boost. Polls have shown he is now one of the least popular premiers in the country. Since the end of last summer, polls have consistently shown his United Conservative Party either statistically tied with or trailing the opposition New Democrats. The NDP even out-fundraised the UCP last year.

O'Toole doesn't need to worry about his Alberta flank. But he still used his opening question in the first House of Commons question period of 2021 to needle the government over Keystone XL — on the one-year anniversary of the first recorded case of COVID-19 in Canada, during a week when no vaccines were being shipped into the country.

According to a poll released by Nanos Research this week, 42 per cent of Canadians think the pandemic is the top issue facing the country. Just 12 per cent said it was jobs and the economy. Less than one per cent pointed to pipelines or energy issues.

After the trauma of the Trump presidency, most Canadians appear ready to go along to get along — especially when there are plenty of other things to worry about.