OTTAWA – Justin Trudeau’s promise to let backbenchers to be the voice of their constituents in Ottawa is being tested as B.C. Liberal MPs grapple with the political fallout from the decision to approve Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline.
A number of the Liberals’ 17 MPs from the province frankly acknowledged Wednesday that they’re disappointed with the decision, which they said is deeply unpopular with many of their constituents.
And at least one backbencher, Vancouver’s Hedy Fry, predicted the move will cost her votes in the next election.
But at the same time, the B.C. backbenchers made a distinction between their own roles in defending the interests of their constituents and the prime minister’s duty to make decisions in the national interest.
“I have been advancing the perspective of Vancouver Quadra constituents since many years ago on these issues and, at a certain point, a government needs to make a decision on what they believe is in the national interest and this is the decision that’s made,” said Joyce Murray, a former B.C. environment minister.
Immediate reaction to the decision has been so fierce in Murray’s riding that she’s advised staff in her Vancouver office, who are “bearing the brunt of people’s anger and sense of betrayal and concern,” that they need to “protect their own well-being.”
Protests to block the pipeline are also “a real possibility,” she acknowledged.
Still, she said opposition may be ameliorated somewhat by the fact that Trudeau has listened to the concerns and respects the right of pipeline opponents to express their views.
Indeed, even as he announced the pipeline decisions Tuesday, Trudeau gave something of a shout-out to one of his B.C. backbenchers, Noth-Seymour MP Terry Beech, who had publicly urged the government to say ‘No’ to Kinder Morgan.
Beech had little to say Wednesday, beyond describing plans to hold an open house this weekend for his constituents.
Other B.C. Liberal MPs seemed resigned Wednesday to having lost the argument over the pipeline. They said their focus now must be on ensuring that the environmental conditions attached to the project are kept.
Jonathan Wilkinson said he felt the government had responded thoroughly to the concerns of people in his North Vancouver riding.
“I work on the climate change file every day. I’ve dedicated the last 20 years of my life to professional work in the area of climate change,” said Wilkinson, parliamentary secretary to the environment minister.
“There is nobody within the B.C. caucus that is more concerned about climate issues and environmental issues than I am, and I think we’ve addressed those concerns.”
Other B.C. MPs said they will talk to constituents in the coming days about the decision. Some, like Pam Goldsmith-Jones, said the decision is in the best interests of all Canadians.
She said the decision shouldn’t be seen as a betrayal of West Coast voters, including those in her southwest B.C. riding.
Still, she acknowledged: “This decision is going to be very, very difficult for many in my community. I know that they are disappointed, but they also know that I will not stop working on their behalf.”
The pipeline would link Alberta to the southern B.C. coast around Vancouver, and is opposed by environmental groups, First Nations communities and local politicians, including Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson.
The decision could have political implications for Liberals in the province, many of whom were in tough battles in the last election. Beech won by 3,401 votes. Joe Peschisolido won by a similar margin in his Richmond-area riding.
Hedy Fry, who represents the riding of Vancouver Centre, won by a comfortable 20,936 vote margin. She said she expects the pipeline decision to cost her votes in 2019.
“It is something that people in my riding feel strongly about, and it will cause me problems,” she said. “That’s why I’m going to start looking forward and working with constituents to see what are the things we can do.”
Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi said the pipeline decision wasn’t made based on politics. Sohi played down any tensions in caucus over the pipeline decision.
“We are a very strong team and we have diverse views, obviously, and we respect those views,” said Sohi, who represents the Alberta riding of Edmonton Mill Woods.
The decision would help workers in resource-rich provinces like Alberta, he added.
“As a collective we work together, and we work together for the best interest of all Canadians, and this decision reflects that.”