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Photo by Justin Quaintance

With pipeline decision, Trudeau crosses the Rubicon

By Wyatt Schierman, June 15 2018 — 

Justin Trudeau has a penchant for Roman history. His eulogy to his late father opened with the Shakespearean line, “Friends, Romans, countrymen” from the play Julius Caesar. His son, Hadrien, shares his name with one of the ‘five good emperors’ of Roman history.

Using a Roman analogy the prime minister would appreciate, Trudeau had his ‘crossing of the Rubicon’ moment late last month with his government’s decision to purchase the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion project.

Standing upon the banks of the Rubicon River in 49 BCE, Julius Caesar pondered the future of the Roman republic. Choosing to cross the river with his army would commit himself to civil war, leaving no room for recourse. After some hesitation, Caesar forded the river while uttering the famous line “alea iacta est” — “the die is cast.” There was no turning back. 

The Liberal government’s decision to purchase the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion similarly leaves no room for recourse. In purchasing the project from Kinder Morgan for $4.5 billion, Trudeau has committed the government to completing the pipeline, with significant political risk.

Legions of young, progressive voters who came out to support Trudeau and the Liberal party in 2015 may turn their support over to the federal New Democratic Party or Green party. That, or they will refrain from voting altogether as a result of their disillusionment with the PM and his perceived lost credibility on environmental matters. And support from Alberta by working towards getting the project built is also unlikely to translate into any substantial seat gains for the Liberal party in the province.

Yet the government’s decision to buy the pipeline comes with its own set of rewards. Whether you agree with the decision or not, the most notable benefit results from the renewed display of leadership from Trudeau.

Through his almost three years as prime minister, Trudeau has been plagued by lingering questions over his fitfulness for office. Too much style, not enough substance. All sizzle and no steak. An overload of promise with little action on policy.

However, with the government’s decision to purchase the Trans Mountain project, Trudeau has demonstrated the most fundamental element of leadership — boldness. Disenchanted voters who were drawn to Trudeau after his scrappy debate performance in the 2015 election may yet return to the Liberal fold. Older voters who recall and yearn for the conviction of Pierre Trudeau may similarly renew their support.

However, an applicable comparison for Justin Trudeau on the risks of bold decision making arise with a different one of his predecessors.

In the 1988 election, then-prime minister Brian Mulroney campaigned for re-election primarily over the issue of free trade with the United States. It was an incredibly daring move.

Fortunately for Mulroney, the decision paid off and the Conservative party was re-elected with another majority, albeit reduced.

But Lady Luck — or the Goddess Fortuna, as she was known to the Romans — can be blind, and Mulroney’s luck soon ran out.

In his second term, Mulroney failed spectacularly in his attempts at constitutional reform. The fiasco that started earlier with the Meech Lake Accord negotiations and continued with the similarly unpopular Charlottetown Accord effectively squashed any chance of a third term for the Conservatives.

Similarly with Trudeau, time will tell whether his pipeline decision leads to either a renewed triumph or his political ruin. What is certain, however, is that there is no turning back now. As Caesar would say, “The die is cast.”

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