“This campaign is coming to the party quite late. It would have been good to be persuading people some time ago.” – Lacombe

Alberta spending $700,000 on a pro-Trans Mountain Expansion advertising campaign in British Columbia is welcome. Energi News has been supporting more communication and engagement with West Coast voters for years. But the campaign is too little too late, again illustrating our argument that Alberta – both industry and government – has mishandled pipeline politics in BC over the years.

“The ‘Keep Canada Working’ message will be shared via billboards, television, radio, search engine marketing, online display and social media. Billboards and digital advertisements have been running since April 30. Television and radio advertisements are in production,” according to an Alberta government press release.

Doug Lacombe, Communicato.

That’s an ambitious campaign for less than a million bucks, especially since it’s spread around the province. The ads will run on digital board in Vancouver, Victoria, Kelowna, Kamloops and the west Kootenays, Abbotsford international and Nanaimo regional airports.

Doug Lacombe, principal of Communicato and a Calgary-based advertising and social media consultant, says the last minute effort looks like a “Hail Mary” pass designed to placate Kinder Morgan, the pipeline project proponent that has given the Canadian government until May 31 to resolve the jurisdictional issues that have plagued Trans Mountain Expansion since the John Horgan and the BC NDP formed government last summer.

“This campaign is coming to the party quite late. It would have been good to be persuading people some time ago,” Lacombe said in an interview.

This criticism applies to Kinder Morgan (still stuck in regulatory communications mode, only engaging with those Canadians required by the NEB Act), industry (whose lack of a communications effort in the lower mainland is a colossal strategic blunder), Notley (who has had three years to engage BC about TMX), and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (who knew in late 2016 when he approved Trans Mountain Expansion the project would be hugely controversial and had that message driven home when the NDP ousted the BC Liberals, but aside from occasionally shouting “the pipeline will be built” during town halls has done little to cultivate support in BC).

“I have no real complaint with the idea of a media mix and a bit of a shotgun approach,” says Lacombe. “I think the clever thing to do here would be tighter targeting, narrowcasting ads to put pressure on the premier of British Columbia and provide political cover for the project.”

He argues that the shotgun approach might have worked two years ago, but project supporters no longer have the luxury of time.

Lacombe points out that he isn’t privy to the campaign strategy and for all we know the government is narrowcasting advertising.

If Alberta chose that route, who would they target?

A recent Angus Reid Institute survey showed that 53 per cent of British Columbians disapproved of how Horgan has handled the Trans Mountain Expansion dispute with Canada and Alberta. While Vancouver respondents support the premier, the rest of Metro Vancouver does not, to the tune of 55 per cent. The “rest of BC” is even more critical, registering 65 per cent disapproval, which explains why Notley’s campaign is spending ad dollars in the interior of the province.

Interestingly, a sizable minority of NDP (39%) and Green Party (51%) voters also disapprove of BC government actions, which include supporting the City of Burnaby’s appeal of a Dec. NEB ruling (dismissed by the Federal Court of Appeal) and asking a BC court to approve provincial restrictions on bitumen shipments (pending a decision).

A March Abacus Data poll found strong supporter among BC voters who supported Stephen Harper Conservatives in 2015, but softer support among federal Liberals, suggesting that the political centre may need to be shored up.

Head pollster Bruce Anderson says “there is a lot of soft opinion, a lot of people have heard both sides of the argument and many believe that both opponents and supporters have good points to make. In this sort of situation people will tend to tune out rhetoric which sounds overly simplistic and one-sided. They instead will respond better to stakeholders who acknowledge that a decision like this isn’t easy, and involves a willingness to compromise or to have something that you care about put at risk.”

That doesn’t appear to be Notley’s approach.

“It is important that Canadians understand what’s at stake when we talk about the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion. A lack of market access is costing Canadians good jobs,” she said.

“It is putting the national climate plan at risk. And it is costing Canada billions every year – money that could be paying for things like roads, schools and hospitals from coast to coast to coast.”

So, what is Alberta up to?

As I noted in a May 10 column, polling data shows the emergence of a national consensus on energy: Canadians understand the global energy system is beginning to transition from fossil fuels and favour supportive policies with a modest economic price tag, and in return they will support pipelines and other infrastructure that gets Canadian oil and gas to market, creating jobs – always a key consideration for Canadians – in the process.

That’s the message: jobs and government services and climate action all put at risk because of the unreasonable opposition to Trans Mountain Expansion by Horgan, aided by his environment minister, George Heyman, a former BC Sierra Club executive director.

The message falls within the national energy consensus and it emphasizes that the BC premier is outside the consensus.

For that reason the “Keep Canada Working” campaign might work.

Too bad the government didn’t start it sooner and devote more resources to it.