OTTAWA - Stephen Harper and his key ministers are on the cusp of three of the most crucial decisions his government will make — decisions that will shape his government’s legacy and go a long way to determining its chances of re-election.
Here’s a look at the trio of issues, on energy, jobs and defence, in descending order of importance.
• The Northern Gateway pipeline:
As early as this week, Harper will pronounce on the future of the proposed $7.9-billion pipeline.
It is the second time in this mandate he is at the crossroads of an energy decision that appears to have no good outcome for the prime minister.
He could end up expending much needed political capital for a pipeline that is never built.
Harper pulled it off 18 months ago, with an expertly-crafted response to a $15.1 billion Chinese government bid for control of Calgary-based Nexen in the Alberta oilsands.
Harper escaped his box, approving the bid, while announcing it would be the last such takeover and rules governing state-owned foreign firms from taking control in Canadian resource sectors were changed.
The prime minister will have to be equally creative in finding a politically palatable way around this decision, which is due Tuesday.
He can give a green light or a red light to the giant Enbridge project, but history and Harper’s pragmatism suggests he will find a yellow light, a decision that will seek to push the issue off the front burner during an election year.
He will, in effect, be looking for a way to punt, even as the government and its supporters have bristled at U.S. President Barack Obama’s refusal to pronounce on the Keystone XL pipeline and booting that ball downfield himself.
He could determine the western terminus should be moved from Kitimat to Prince Rupert.
The fear has always been that the treacherous path from Kitimat to open water would increase the potential for an oil spill because of its narrow route and often dangerous weather.
But a potential reroute would solve one problem for Harper — it would likely require another analysis for safety and environmental impact by the National Energy Board and moving it back into hearings during an election year.
He could give the project approval subject to Enbridge either gaining more aboriginal buy-in or improving the aboriginal financial stake in the project.
Enbridge has indicated it won’t be able to begin construction until it meets the 209 conditions placed on the project by the National Energy Board and it is already facing legal challenges, with more likely.
Any type of green light, even a flashing amber, will likely cost Harper in British Columbia, a province that could deny him a majority — or victory — next year.
• Fixing the Temporary Foreign Worker Program:
The government has endured months of embarrassing revelations about abuse of this program and its unbridled growth under Harper’s watch has called into question the Conservatives’ economic competency.
Employment Minister Jason Kenney is under pressure to end a moratorium on the restaurant industry’s use of the program, but he is trying to reboot a national program that needs to take into account huge gaps in regional employment and need for temporary workers.
In his home province of Alberta, there are calls to return the program to its previous status, even as nationally it appears to be a program that artificially tamps down wages and is being used by Canadian business as a cheap source of foreign labour.
Getting this right is crucial for Conservatives because, rightly or wrongly, they are dealing with an emotional perception across the country that Canadians are being denied jobs that are being handed to foreign workers.
• The F-35 fighter jets:
Canadians can be forgiven for feeling they are caught in a scene from Groundhog Day on the jet procurement program.
After freezing the program following a damning auditor general report in 2012, which found it wilfully underestimated the final cost of the Lockheed Martin F-35s, the government last week released a report giving itself the green light to go back and make the same decision.
An expert panel said the government had made a fair assessment of the costs and capabilities of four potential fighter aircraft, a response to the auditor general’s assessment of the previous sole-sourced bid for the plane.
Their report is public, but the Air Force report that they’ve assessed is not, and with a cabinet decision looming, Canadian taxpayers are still in the dark about the criteria used in making a multibillion dollar commitment.
Defence procurement has been another blind spot of this government and however they justify their purchase, there will again be blowback for the way this was handled.