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Christy Clark's curious overture to Alberta

As diversionary tactics go, B.C. Premier Christy Clark's invitation to her Alberta counterpart this week to sit down and discuss their differences over the Northern Gateway pipeline worked brilliantly.

No longer were people talking about the abrupt resignation on Monday of her chief of staff, Ken Boessenkool, over an unspecified indiscretion involving a female political staffer in the B.C. government. But at the same time, it did little to assure Alberta Premier Alison Redford that Ms. Clark has any kind of credible new plan to end the impasse that the two provincial leaders have reached over the pipeline's future.

The very nature of the overture itself was odd. Ms. Clark said in her letter that she was planning to be in Calgary next week and that if Ms. Redford wanted to discuss the pipeline issue further, she'd be happy to. Ms. Redford's office wasn't sure what to make of it.

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It didn't sound like a formal request to discuss areas of disagreement. And it didn't sound like Ms. Clark had any fresh ideas to offer either. So what was it exactly? A convenient distraction. And, as we say, it was successful in shifting the conversation in B.C. from the embarrassing departure of her chief political adviser to one of the few issues from which the Premier has been able to score some points with the public in recent months.

Ms. Redford's office has indicated that she will be happy to meet with the B.C. Premier when she's in Alberta next week to give a speech at the University of Calgary. But really, what choice did she have? To decline would have been seen as a snub, and then Ms. Redford would become the story. Suffice to say that expectations in the Alberta camp are low.

While most were scratching their heads over the awkward nature of Ms. Clark's solicitation, something in it indicated potential movement in B.C.'s position.

"With respect to fiscal and economic benefits, it is important to note that my government has not placed any conditions on these discussions," Ms. Clark wrote. "While others may have characterized this conversation as somehow sharing Alberta's royalty payments, we have been careful to avoid discussing the source of any benefit-sharing or indeed the very nature of any increased benefits to British Columbia."

Until now, almost every discussion about B.C.'s need to see greater economic benefit from the proposed pipeline from the oil sands to the coast given the huge environmental risks for province has centred on the idea of getting a share of Alberta's royalties. At no point has Ms. Clark ever discouraged or refuted common commentary and assumption that worked from the royalty-sharing hypothesis – even after Ms. Redford said there was no chance of it ever happening.

So it seems somewhat disingenuous for the B.C. Premier now to suggest she has never specifically said she was seeking royalty-sharing. Maybe she didn't. But at the same time, she never once discouraged the conversation about it.

Regardless, at least we now know she is open to other suggestions. This could also be interpreted as: I accept that Alberta will never share royalties for a host of good reasons so an alternative solution has to be found.

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At this point, it seems there is some onus on B.C. and Ms. Clark to come up with the alternatives. If royalties are out, what could be in to break the political logjam around Northern Gateway? Maybe it is some kind of tax, or fees on the oil. Maybe in the national interest, the federal government needs to step into the breach and offer to share with B.C. some of the billions it will realize if the pipeline goes ahead.

If the discussion concerning royalties is officially off the table, maybe it will be easier for Ms. Redford to put her thinking cap on and come up with some remedies of her own. She has the most to gain economically if this pipeline goes ahead. And the most to lose if it doesn't. So although she may not like Ms. Clark's negotiating style, she has a huge incentive to figure this out.

There is little question that the relationship between the two provinces that former B.C. premier Gordon Campbell so carefully nurtured for most of the past decade has suffered some damage as a result of Ms. Clark's aggressive tone and political posturing on this issue.

Something needs to be done, and soon, to begin repairing it. It is much too important an affiliation to have it destroyed by short-term political calculus and willful intransigence.

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About the Author
National affairs columnist

Gary Mason began his journalism career in British Columbia in 1981, working as a summer intern for Canadian Press. More

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