Trudeau’s actions on energy will define his leadership style

It's not as if the photo opportunities will disappear. Witness Prince George and his all-too-picturesque parents.

It’s not as if the bromide-laden speeches will vaporize. Witness the United Nations and the repeated “we’re Canadian, and we’re here to help” groaner.

These public-facing phenomena are a continuum for our prime minister – the currency he builds with sunny ways he can later trade when the skies grey.

But it is quickly becoming checkout time in the honeymoon suite the country provided for Justin Trudeau last year around this time.

For Trudeau, that means the hard imperatives of day-to-day operations have to replace the dewy-eyed infatuation with the role, for pledges and principles to translate into policies and practices.

You could see glimpses of his challenges of confronting reality in last week’s abrupt imposition of a national carbon tax – $10 a tonne, increasing in 10-buck annual steps through 2022 – as his environment minister was in a meeting with her counterparts. Not the most elegant way to deliver a message, it had a whiff of arrogance.

But it demonstrated that on certain issues Trudeau’s take is that there is not time to let the niceties and agonies of federal-provincial discussion belabour the necessary outcome.

In this respect, he adopts the impetuousness of his no-suffering-of-fools father.

But, inasmuch as Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall is peeling paint from the wall in his condemnation of the carbon tax, this is only one of several deft manoeuvres Trudeau faces on this file. He now has to rush past the tax announcement if he wants to appear a real-life action figure and not just the Marvel Comics one.

Sure, he needs the carbon tax to show the world Canada has a more serious intent on climate change. Then, though, come the tougher moves, the steep part of the Grouse Grind, and it has the feeling of a jenga game – of a tower that might topple when he pulls a piece out.

It’s an impressive dance:

He gets the support of environmentalists, temporarily, by committing to the carbon tax.

He somehow alienates Alberta, temporarily, by committing to the carbon tax.

He alienates indigenous people, more enduringly, by conditionally approving a liquefied natural gas project.

This is merely a preamble to the elaborate big number, the presumed approval in December of the TransMountain pipeline expansion proposed by Kinder Morgan.

Here’s where it gets dicey:

He further alienates most indigenous groups, much more sustainably, if he approves the pipeline.

He loses the support of environmentalists, thoroughly, by signalling pipelines are part of the future and not simply the past.

He loses some British Columbian political support, and risks the relationship with the city’s mayor, in doing so.

He gains the energy sector’s support, at least for now, in committing to megaprojects and the longevity of the oilsands.

He gains China’s support, until the next demand, in finding a more flourishing way to deliver what it wants.

And he retrieves Alberta.

See? Not exactly a leisurely skate on the Rideau Canal.

But these moves, and how he makes them, will define his leadership style much more than the selfie and tweet. They involve significant constituencies with even more significant expectations.

By my count, he leaves out the people most accustomed to being left out and serves the folks most accustomed to getting their way.

Rather than try to shed courtship promises, Trudeau doubled down in marriage, so here we are a year later with a priority pile that has the potential of option paralysis and the likelihood of lunchbag letdown.

The first anniversary approaches. Reality has dawned on the happy coupling of Trudeau and Canada.

It’s the paper anniversary and, as he comes to grips with the relationship, Justin Trudeau’s recognition he can no longer paper over anything. 

Kirk LaPointe is Business in Vancouver’s vice-president of audience and business development