When Stephen Harper travels to New York to lob what can only be described as a stun grenade within political shouting distance of the White House, who, exactly, should run for cover?
On the surface the Prime Minister’s public warning Thursday that he will not take no for an answer from the U.S. on the Keystone XL pipeline would seem to be aimed at an indecisive American president.
The fate of the pipeline designed to link Alberta’s oilsands to the Gulf of Mexico has rested in U.S. President Barack Obama’s hands since his re-election last fall.
But it is hard to imagine that Harper seriously believes that rattling a paper sabre at Obama will exact the approval that the pressures of a host of influential American lobbies have so far failed to obtain.
Or that the Prime Minister would not think that his statement might have the opposite effect to the one Canada seeks.
Here are three alternative explanations:
1. The Prime Minister was having an off day. As Harper was speaking in New York, Dean Del Mastro — a former parliamentary secretary who he defended tooth and nail in the House of Commons — was being charged with four counts of breaking federal elections law.
Such news could easily distract a party leader from the official business at hand — especially since Del Mastro is the fifth Conservative to leave the government caucus in disgrace in a year.
Harper was taking part in a question-and-answer session in front of the Canadian American Business Council when he made his Keystone comment. After seven years in a tightly controlled media cocoon, he may have become rusty and have overstated his case.
2. The prime minister is engaging in preventive damage control. For months every Canadian ear on the U.S. ground has been attuned to the Keystone XL issue. Through informal channels, Harper may have come to the informed conclusion that Obama is not going to give the pipeline the green light.
If that is going to be the case, the prime minister has an interest in casting the refusal as a temporary setback, if only to focus minds on something beyond his government’s failure to get the positive answer that it so actively sought.
Harper’s remarks on Thursday suggested that he is pinning more hopes for a win on the front of the free-trade deal that Canada has been negotiating with Europe than on Keystone. He described CETA as the top priority of his government.
3. The prime minister’s message was really meant for Canadian provincial consumption. It would not be the first time that Harper would have been more explicit about his policy intentions when he is abroad than when he is at home.
In 2012, he telegraphed his government’s intentions to clip the wings of Canada’s pension regime from the stage of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
Parliament was only apprised of upcoming changes to the Old Age Security program some weeks later.
Year in and year out, Canadians have been as likely if not more to get substantive answers from the current prime minister over his travels abroad than in Parliament.
His office routinely offers more debriefs about his dealings with various international counterparts than with the country’s other first ministers.
As often as not — as in the case of labour training or health care — the premiers are presented with take-it-or-leave-it federal statements of intent.
If Harper says that he will not take no for an answer from the U.S. on Keystone — a project over its future he ultimately has no real control — should one not conclude that he will also not accept that provinces such as British Columbia, Quebec or Ontario throw roadblocks in the way on the pipelines that are on the drawing board to bring Alberta’s oil to the East and West coasts?
In those cases the prime minister actually has the power to walk his talk.
Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.