Does anyone actually believe Alberta Premier Jason Kenney's startling claim that Gerald Butts, then Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's principal secretary, secretly conspired with the White House in 2015 to engineer "a co-ordinated surrender" by Canada on president Barack Obama's veto of the Keystone XL pipeline project?
Judging from the conversations on social media, either some members of the United Conservative Party base here in Alberta (or whoever runs the bots that attack Trudeau night and day) think Kenney was speaking the gospel truth at the highly respectable Wilson Center in Washington on Friday morning.
As for the rest of us, probably not so much.
But there's "absolutely no doubt" about it, according to the premier.
Here's the key passage from the Wilson Center's recording (beginning at 22:22) wherein Kenney, sharing the stage with Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe, responds with characteristically pious pomposity to the moderator's question about whether there was more the prime minister should have done when president Obama vetoed the Keystone XL pipeline in the hours after Trudeau was sworn into office.
"Prime Minister Trudeau, what more could he have done? He could have done something," intoned Kenney. "I mean he, he was, uh, the announcement of president Obama's veto of Keystone XL came 48 hours after Prime Minister Trudeau was sworn into office."
Now, many of us might have thought this was a mitigating factor for Trudeau since he had so little time to respond. Kenney, though, had an alternate theory.
"And I have absolutely no doubt there had been back-channel conversations between his then principal secretary Gerry Butts and the White House that there would be no negative reaction, and there wasn't. It was a news release, and they walked on to the next issue."
"They never wanted that project," Kenney continued -- the "they" in this yarn being the Liberals in Ottawa, not the Obama White House -- "and they were not willing to employ any political or diplomatic leverage against a political decision by U.S. administration, uh, to violate the spirit of NAFTA, which was about, in part, open access to the U.S. market for our energy exports." (This bit, at least, is sort of true -- although at the time the original Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement was negotiated in 1994, it had more to do with guaranteeing U.S. access to Canadian resources than the other way around.)
"So, we think, there's, uh, I think there's a reason why the Obama administration did not veto the project in the several years that prime minister Harper was there waiting for an approval, because they knew there would have been a very serious diplomatic conflict with Canada."
At that moment Moe, looking every bit the ventriloquist's dummy he often seems to play when Kenney's in the vicinity, loyally piped up: "All of that is absolutely correct …"
In reality, if a possible Canadian response was considered at all, the timing of Obama's veto of a bill authorizing construction of the pipeline was driven by lawmakers' efforts in the Republican-dominated Congress to use legislation to force his hand.
Kenney's crack about co-ordinated surrender occurred a few moments earlier, while he was answering a question about whether Trudeau now supports the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project. Well, yes, Kenney admitted, before airing a laundry list of complaints about the prime minister, real ("the tanker ban on the northwest B.C. Coast"), imagined ("the 'no more pipelines' law"), and spun beyond all recognition ("his arbitrary cancellation of the approved Northern Gateway pipeline").
Shortly after Kenney's startling pronouncement about the unlikely Butts-Obama conspiracy (first reported on Politico, the Washington-based public policy website) an exasperated Butts tweeted that this was "an extraordinary thing to allege by the Premier."
"Have been staying out of Canadian politics since the election, but this is not true. I would appreciate it if @jkenney would retract that statement," he said.
Well, we wish Butts good luck with that aspiration. Knowing Kenney, he probably ought not to hold his breath.
Neither documentary evidence from the Toronto Star tweeted by Butts nor his statement he "publicly and privately promoted and defended" the Keystone XL project from 2012 to 2019 is likely to result in a retraction from Kenney. That's just not the way our premier rolls.
Nor will commentary by observers who are paying attention, like University of Alberta economist Andrew Leach, reviled by the Kenney government for his role in the previous NDP government's climate change strategy.
Leach tweeted yesterday that the conversations between Canada and the U.S. that mattered on Keystone XL took place in public view, and the government of Stephen Harper refused to co-operate with the Obama administration in ways that could have resulted in U.S. approval of the pipeline -- in other words, that social-licence thing again.
Given that, Leach concluded, "Obama's decision was a no-brainer."
So why would Kenney, an intelligent man with a reputation as a shrewd political operator, who was a federal cabinet minister and is now the premier of Canada's richest province, spout silly conspiracy theories before a sophisticated audience in Washington, D.C.?
Maybe he was simply pitching his message to the base back home.
Or maybe he just can't stop himself when he rambling on about Trudeau, who after all defeated his mentor Harper, just like he apparently can't restrain the urge to lecture Democratic presidential nomination candidates like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. (I can't imagine Rebel Media talking points about "dictator oil" are very effective with a policy wonk like Warren, but whatever.)
Who knows? Not us, that's for darned sure.
And unless Butts sues Premier Kenney for defamation and compels him to testify, we almost certainly never will.
David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on his blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca. By day, he is an employee of United Nurses of Alberta.
Image: Wilson Centre
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