How Rachel Notley’s success cracked the NDP’s unity in 2016

Opinion | by Gillian Steward

Mark 2016 as the year the NDP developed such an irreparable split they may never again be a political force to reckon with.

Their undoing came, ironically, with the election of an NDP premier in Alberta, which until May 2015 had been unimaginable in both conservative Alberta and across the country.

But once NDP types finished celebrating Rachel Notley’s surprising win, it soon became clear she wasn’t going to toe the usual NDP line when it came to pipelines and fossils fuels.

Unlike NDPers in the rest of country she actively promotes both. She is the premier of Alberta, after all, and keenly aware that most Albertans depend on a thriving petroleum sector for well-paying work.

Maybe something else will eventually replace that valuable export, but it’s not going to happen overnight.

So Notley not only pushed hard for pipelines that would take Alberta’s oil to offshore markets, she enticed some of the major oilsands players to help her government design climate change policies that would reduce the province’s heavy carbon footprint.

This was seen by many on the left, both inside and outside the province, as buckling under to the sway of big oil as so many conservative premiers had done before her. They wanted her to savage big oil and put it in its place.

The fight came to the floor during the national NDP convention in Edmonton last April when Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein, Canada’s most high profile leftivists, promoted from the podium the Leap Manifesto, a vision of the future that does not include fossil fuels or pipelines.

Alberta NDP delegates were outraged and saw it as an insulting attack on the Notley government right in their hometown. Delegates then voted to have the Leap Manifesto discussed at the constituency level for the next two years.

Shortly after that vote, federal NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair received a devastatingly low leadership rating but then agreed to stay on as interim leader until a new one emerged. He’s still there, but Notley has had as little as possible to do with him.

Instead, she spends her time and photo-ops with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

But while Notley has stayed away from Mulcair, she lured high-profile federal NDP operatives, such as Brian Topp and Anne McGrath, to work with her in Edmonton. They helped her aggressively pursue pipeline approvals from the federal government while Mulcair was still dithering about them (Topp has since left).

When the Trudeau cabinet recently approved the Kinder Morgan pipeline, which will stretch from Edmonton to Burnaby and carry heavy diluted bitumen, Notley was ecstatic. Mulcair, on the other hand, said Trudeau’s decision “betrayed” the people of B.C.

Notley has also set herself and her government against the NDP in B.C., who as the official opposition are very much opposed to the Kinder Morgan pipeline and will probably make it a key issue in the B.C. provincial election (currently scheduled for May 9).

Notley is an old friend and colleague of B.C. NDP Leader John Horgan, but they are definitely not on the same page on this issue.

Another Notley ally, NDP MP Linda Duncan, is also caught between a rock and a hard place. Her constituency and Notley’s overlap in downtown Edmonton; they have helped each other get elected.

As the only NDP MP from Alberta since 2008, Duncan, like Notley, has been a strong advocate for tougher environmental and climate change policies in Ottawa. But she won’t endorse the new pipeline to B.C.

The NDP is in the midst of a civil war between environmentalists and those who support the NDP because they believe workers are their first priority.

No doubt, Notley wishes that NDPers in other provinces, and even some in Alberta, would understand that her strategies are designed to get her a second shot come the next election, which is just over two years away.

Without that, all her advances on climate change policies, such as carbon taxes, emission caps, electricity generated by renewables, and stable markets for Alberta’s resources will likely be swept away and Alberta will be back in the dark ages.

And the NDP will have lost one of their most powerful voices, not just in Alberta, but across the country.

Gillian Steward is a Calgary writer and former managing editor of the Calgary Herald. This column originally appeared in The Toronto Star.