“Events, Dear Boy, Events”


Column / Don Newman

“Events, Dear Boy, Events”

It was British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan who, when asked what was most likely to knock governments off-course, famously said unforeseen issues were the most troublesome.

“Events, dear boy, events,” was his famous reply.

The coming year will no doubt present enough unforeseen events to divert even the most resolute of leaders. But even without the unforeseen, 2019 promises to be one of the most controversial, confrontational and contentious years we have seen in a long time. Both here in Canada and abroad.

In Canada, 2019 will be a federal election year. That alone would make the year confrontational and contentious. But before the federal election in October, there will be a provincial election in Alberta in May. Unlike most provincial elections that have only limited impact on federal politics, this one in Alberta will likely resonate far beyond the province’s boundaries.

That’s because the unprecedented New Democratic Party government of Premier Rachel Notley is up for re-election. Bedeviled by oil prices that have fallen below the cost of production and repeated legal delays that have blocked construction of the twinning of the Trans Mountain pipeline that would open up Asian markets for Alberta oil, Notley seems likely to be defeated by the United Conservative Party under former federal cabinet minister Jason Kenney.

Until the latest legal setback on the Trans Mountain Pipeline, Notley was a supporter of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the Liberal government’s strategy of both building a pipeline and introducing a carbon tax to cut back on greenhouse gas emissions. So far, no pipeline to the Pacific has been built, but the carbon tax was due to go into effect starting in January, and for now Notley has withdrawn her support for it.

In that new position, she is halfway to joining the Conservative premiers and would-be Conservative premiers in the country. Saskatchewan and Ontario have launched court challenges to the federal tax plan, they are supported by the new Conservative government in New Brunswick and will get additional support from a Premier Kenney if he wins in Alberta in May.

All of this will add backing to federal Conservative leader Andrew Scheer. So far, he has impressed only the people who narrowly voted him Conservative leader in 2017. But he is planning his campaign around the carbon tax and will certainly get some resonance from the Conservative premiers.

The carbon tax, the split opinions on whether the pipeline should proceed, slow infrastructure spending and the decision not to change the electoral system will all be issues the Trudeau Liberals will have to contend with as they seek a second mandate. At the moment, the governing party’s best hope is that neither the Conservatives nor the New Democrats have much in the ways of new ideas, or a leader with much ability to sell those ideas if they existed.

Canadian politicians will have to deal with events outside Canada as well.  In the United States, 2019 will be the year Donald Trump either survives Democratic investigations in the House of Representatives into a myriad of his actions as president. If he does not survive the inquiries, he will be left a lame duck at best, or impeached under the worst-case scenario.

Just as threatening will be the fallout from the report of Special Counsel Robert Mueller into whether there was collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians during the 2016 election campaign that made him the 45th president.

This means American politicians and officials are going to be preoccupied with internal political issues. Things important to Canada, such as the ratification of the U.S.-Canada-Mexico trade deal replacing NAFTA, could fall by the wayside. Any other bilateral or multilateral issues where Canada has a stake could also get short shrift.

Politics in Britain will also impact Canada. The UK is scheduled to leave the European Union in March, though events could dictate otherwise. Nobody outside the United Kingdom understands the logic of Brexit, and the nostalgic view that it will restore the country to its former glory will likely produce the epiphany that nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.

One of the Brexiteers’ plans is for early trade deals with Canada and the U.S. As Canadians and Mexicans recently found out, negotiating a trade deal with the Trump administration is no walk in the park. And Canada will have to be careful of offending the European Union and disrupting CETA, the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement we negotiated with the EU two years ago, when it sits down with the British.

So, as we greet the new year there will be more than enough that can be predicted on politicians’ plates. And then, of course, there will be more.

“Events dear boy. Events.”  

Don Newman is Senior Counsel at Navigator Limited and Ensight Canada, and a lifetime member of the Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery.