BRANDON -- Is it a blunder by a disinterested leader with his eye on the door, or a tactical master stroke? The actions of a tired government that has lost its way, or a trap that will ensnare and ultimately doom its rivals?
In the aftermath of Tuesday's announcement that the federal government would conditionally approve Enbridge's Northern Gateway pipeline proposal, the immediate conclusion of some in the media was that Prime Minister Stephen Harper has bungled the issue and backed the Conservatives into a corner that could ultimately doom the party in next year's federal election.
One columnist concluded Harper has learned how to turn gold into lead. Another told his Twitter followers the PM is too focused on his post-government career prospects. The Toronto Star's Tim Harper -- no relation, I'm sure -- wrote "If the prime minister's head is in a political guillotine, he placed it there himself."
Within hours of the Northern Gateway announcement, both NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau committed to kill the pipeline if either of their parties wins the next election. Green Leader Elizabeth May, no threat to become prime minister, proclaimed "this project is not going ahead; it will be stopped by British Columbians."
Sensing the Conservatives are vulnerable, the three party leaders are intent on making the next election a referendum on Northern Gateway. They should be careful what they wish for.
Hours after the government's announcement, the results of an Angus Reid Global poll were released showing 37 per cent of Canadians support the pipeline, while just 34 per cent are opposed. The remaining 29 per cent are undecided.
Of those who approve, 28 per cent voted for the Liberal party in the last election, and 20 per cent voted NDP. A whopping 68 per cent of respondents believe the pipeline will eventually be built despite the hurdles it currently faces.
If those numbers are accurate, Harper isn't doomed at all. On the contrary, the poll results suggest he could actually increase his party's majority in the House of Commons if Northern Gateway is the ballot-box question in 2015.
While the votes cast by voters opposed to the project would be split among the three opposition parties (four in Quebec), the Conservatives would have the pool of voters who support the pipeline all to themselves.
In 2011, the Tories won their majority with fewer than 38 per cent of votes cast. With 37 per cent of voters already supporting Northern Gateway and another 29 per cent willing to be persuaded, the prospect of the party garnering 40 per cent (the threshold that virtually assures a strong majority) or more in popular support in an election fought on the issue is plausible -- and that's before the PM puts on the hard sell.
He could argue that the fight against Northern Gateway is a proxy war against Alberta's oilsands, which are an essential component of Canada's economy and are the source for a substantial portion of the yearly equalization payments that the nation's have-not provinces, including Manitoba, rely on.
He could frame the Northern Gateway issue as a stark choice between jobs, health care and education on one hand and, on the other, the agenda of environmental intransigents who will not be satisfied until Canadians are unemployed and freezing in the dark.
It's the kind of polarizing script Harper excels at during a campaign, so why isn't he using it now?
The short answer is he doesn't have to. As Mulcair, Trudeau and May compete to be seen as most opposed to Northern Gateway, the opposition leaders are implicitly advertising the Conservatives as the only option for the millions of Canadians who support the project.
When a political opponent is intent on driving off a cliff or into a trap, the smart politician gets out of the way. That is exactly what Harper is doing.
As the anti-Northern Gateway rhetoric among the opposition leaders escalates, so, too, does the likelihood of his government being re-elected. He knows the pipeline is a political trap, and he's experienced enough to know he's not the one in it.
Deveryn Ross is a political commentator living in Brandon.