There were no fireworks, no rockets, not even a sparkler.
When Canada’s western premiers gathered for their annual meeting Thursday in Edmonton, some observers anticipated a conflagration would erupt between Alberta’s Jason Kenney and British Columbia’s John Horgan.
By all accounts both premiers were on their best behaviour behind closed doors at Government House. No one needed to call the fire department.
That’s not to say they became best friends. There’s enough political friction between these two men it’s a wonder Government House didn’t spontaneously erupt into flames. They’re at odds over construction of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project that will triple the amount of oil products flowing from Alberta to the West Coast.
But they knew how far apart they were heading into the meeting. Neither was going to change the other’s mind. Kenney is still threatening to “turn off the taps” to B.C. if Horgan escalates his opposition to the project. And Horgan is continuing with his legal reference to the Supreme Court to determine if B.C. has the legal power to regulate what oil products flow through pipelines.
Premiers make ‘commitments’
“I think we understand each other’s positions very clearly,” Kenney said in the understatement of the day.
This meeting wasn’t about finding common ground on Trans Mountain. It wasn’t a political marriage counselling session. No tears, no hugs, no reconciliation.
It was a western premiers conference. So, nothing substantial was accomplished.
If there’s one thing that’s less relevant and more impotent than the annual national premiers’ conference, it’s the annual western premiers’ conference.
Not that they don’t try.
But premiers, whether western or eastern or central, usually end up with limp communiques where they express their “commitment to” something (usually more interprovincial trade) while “calling on the federal government” to do something (usually send more federal funding to the provinces).
The reality of Canadian politics is that it’s difficult to find consensus among the seven players that make up the western conference: four provincial premiers and three territorial leaders.
This year was no different.
According to their final communique, they are “committed to enhancing competitiveness and sustainable development through economic corridors,” are “committed to responsible resource development and action on climate change,” and that old standby, “premiers are committed to improving internal trade.”
Their eight-page communique also made sure to “call on the federal government” to balance the goals of the federal Species at Risk Act with the practicalities of resource development. They also made a point to “call on federal parties to articulate how they will commit to advancing progress in [the] Arctic and Northern Canada.”
And in a new twist to the old “we call upon” cliche, they called on Canada, Mexico and the United States to “work quickly to ratify the (new North American trade) agreement to provide certainty to business and workers across Western Canada.”
Nothing shouts political impotence like a declaration calling on somebody to do something.
Kenney wanted co-operation
Kenney said the meeting made some “groundbreaking” progress dealing with improving interprovincial trade. But no new deal, just a commitment to, among other things, “improve the process of recognizing foreign qualifications.”
And for anyone shocked, or encouraged, that Kenney agreed to the communique’s reference to “action on climate change,” keep in mind no specific action was described. The communique also obliquely admitted the premiers “expressed a variety of views” on issues such as the federal carbon tax. Not surprising when you have three conservative premiers in the room who oppose a carbon tax while others, including one NDP premier, support it.
This was Kenney’s first time as premier playing host to his colleagues. He wanted co-operation, not conflagration. That’s what he got.
When Horgan left the post-meeting news conference early, he joked he would walk slowly so the media couldn’t accuse him of storming out.
Thus ended the conference with a polite whimper, not a fireworks bang.