Tom Mulcair's awkward Alberta problem

Mulcair’s awkward Alberta problem

The NDP leader and his Alberta counterpart went to great lengths this week to show there is no tension between them. Don’t be fooled.

(Jenna Marie Wakani/NDP)

(Jenna Marie Wakani/NDP)

As much as NDP Leader Tom Mulcair has tried to prevent the mythical Angry Tom character from emerging in leaders debates, Snarky Tom has shown up a few times. His Munk Debates quip against Justin Trudeau—“I leave the pomp to you, Justin”—not only got a goodly number of guffaws, but had the added benefit of largely overshadowing the Liberal attack that Mulcair was interrupting.

“And even as you approached, as you announced with tremendous strength and pomp your—your climate change plan—[Mulcair interjects here]—we have your friend and ally, the NDP premier of Alberta who said that, you know what? She’s not so crazy about your approach on climate change reductions,” Trudeau said. “When you can’t even get an NDP premier to endorse your environmental plan, you know you’re in real trouble, Mr. Mulcair.”

Soft-spoken Tom replied: “Actually, Mr. Trudeau, Alberta is of one mind with us on the obligation of result.”

Trudeau was seizing on something Alberta Premier Rachel Notley said earlier Monday: that her government is seeking a serious carbon emissions strategy but isn’t much interested in joining Ontario and Quebec in a cap-and-trade plan, because it would force Alberta’s petroleum and coal power sectors to spend heavily to buy out-of-province carbon credits, a harmful wealth transfer for a resource province.

“A national cap-and-trade program may not be our best foot forward,” Notley told a Montreal business audience. Why, that’s the backbone of the federal NDP climate change platform, isn’t it?

“Rift!” the headlines suggested. But many stories also pointed out that Mulcair’s recently released environment strategy would let provinces opt out of the trading regime, as long as those jurisdictions’ own plans achieved the emissions reduction targets.

This was actually the second part of Notley’s own point on cap and trade. The hitch is, she waited 24 hours to make it—initially via Facebook, the new preferred home for statements of contrition/clarification—because for whatever reason her speechwriters and team apparently never figured bringing up disagreement on cap and trade would signal such tensions. In the meantime, the Liberals got to wield a Notley-shaped mallet against the premier’s federal relative.

Alberta’s premier is a lifelong New Democrat (her dad was a former party leader). She’s repeatedly noted her federal lawn sign is orange, but also that Alberta’s four-month-old government has its own policies and platforms to carry out, regardless of what’s happening federally. But the last thing Notley wants, or the federal party and its slumping poll numbers need, is for her actions or remarks to be easily fashioned into a federal campaign weapon. Harper has already been gravely linking Alberta’s economic woes to NDP corporate and income tax increases, to warn of national disaster. The provincial government is waiting until after the Oct. 19 election to release its budget, a red-ink-stained document that would likely be full of darts and cudgels for Mulcair’s rivals.

    In her party statement, Notley made a bid to shutter any apparent policy daylight between herself and Mulcair. “The climate change plan set out a few days ago by federal NDP Leader Tom Mulcair will get us there, which is why I strongly support it,” the statement said. She added to reporters: “Very clearly and very intentionally the comments I made yesterday always aligned with the framework that was announced by Tom Mulcair on the weekend.”

    This strain to make sure Canada understood that Notley and Mulcair remain aligned may have eased tensions in the federal campaign that many provincial ministers and MLAs are actively supporting. It also had a boomerang effect back at home, where the Calgary Herald said she “denies caving in to federal NDP,” and opposition parties accused her of proving that Alberta’s NDP are a client government of Eastern overlords.

    The Alberta NDP’s surprise victory in May helped elevate the federal party’s popularity, and had Mulcair proclaiming that wildest dreams really can come true. It’s not a two-way street: Notley never needed or would have likely benefited from a Mulcair Bump. She managed her win without a single federal leader’s appearance in Alberta (though several key federal players, like campaign manager Anne McGrath, Brian Topp, and national director Nathan Rotman, headed West to run the campaign). Notley has gamely bashed Harper in response to some of his attacks, but this week was the first case of the premier rushing to Mulcair’s aid. (The Liberals, it could be noted, though probably not by an NDP premier, would also allow provinces to carve out their own climate change strategies.)

    There’s a widespread view in Alberta that voters chose change, not necessarily the NDP platform. There’s even less doubt that they voted NDP in May for reasons that have nothing to do with Mulcair, a very different political creature than Alberta’s new premier.

    Notley has said we’ll probably see her at a rally with Mulcair toward the end of the campaign, which is the best strategic time for the federal party to wield that card. By this point, to not do so could appear to be seen as a political snub. To do so would also risk Notley’s popularity at home, especially if she’s investing political capital in a leader who could very well remain stuck in third place through October.

    —with Laura Payton