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Wildrose and Alberta NDP tag-team Tom Mulcair

Brian Jean asked Rachel Notley to condemn Mulcair’s position on the oil sands. Her deputy premier obliged.
Alberta Premier Rachel Notley speaks to guests at the annual Premier’s Stampede breakfast in Calgary, Alta., on Monday, July 6, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

Mark it in your history books. April 7, 2016, was the day Alberta’s Wildrose opposition perfectly teed up a pre-planned and spiky attack by the provincial NDP on the party’s federal leader.

Premier Rachel Notley’s provincial foes have long been eager to use her ties to Tom Mulcair’s orange brand and anything sounding remotely anti-oil-patch. Wildrose operatives filmed the pair’s campaign appearance together last October, the last time Mulcair visited Edmonton before this weekend’s NDP convention. On Thursday afternoon, Mulcair was again strolling the city’s downtown streets and handing money to an often-aggressive Jasper Avenue panhandler (this according to a friend’s Facebook status update). At the same time at the Alberta Legislature a few blocks away, the at-least-for-now leader received a multi-partisan upbraiding.

How do we get from Notley hand-in-hand with Mulcair six months ago to her deputy premier saying his “remarks are unacceptable” on Thursday? The Wildrose had expected to make the Alberta NDP squirm at an association with Mulcair’s new environmental rhetoric, not smash the association—let alone to compare such talk to that outlandish time former MP Rob Anders called Nelson Mandela a terrorist.

But let’s get to what should come after the previous paragraph’s question mark first. After a federal election setback, many NDP activists are entertaining a markedly less centrist tack, and the Leap Manifesto has become one of the focal avenues in which to do so. While it doesn’t explicitly call to leave oil in the ground, it does call for a 100 per cent clean economy by 2050, which would give the oil extraction at the centre of Alberta’s economy about 34 more years before it’s kaput. It’s more blunt about being anti-pipeline: “The new iron low of energy development must be: if you wouldn’t want it in your backyard, then it doesn’t belong in anyone’s backyard.”

This becomes awkward for Notley’s provincial wing, which advocates for both Energy East and the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion to B.C.’s Lower Mainland—and isn’t anywhere near eager to declare the oil sands an industry with limited days ahead of it. So the Alberta New Democrats aren’t anywhere near delighted, either, to hear Mulcair tell CBC’s Peter Mansbridge that he’s open to the NDP embracing the manifesto, and perhaps getting far tougher on fossil fuel development.

“If the party decides that’s the way, as the leader of the party, I’ll do everything I can to make that a reality,” he said.

Cue the Alberta question period on Thursday, with Wildrose Leader Brian Jean leading off.

“It’s time to elect Thomas Mulcair as our Prime Minister. (eds: More floor-crossing from the Wildrose! I can’t believe it!) Those were the premier’s words last October in the federal election. (eds: oh) Today the federal NDP leader says that if his party tells him to, he will do everything he can to keep Alberta’s oil in the ground. We know this premier has fundraised for the NDP politicians who have said this in the past, but Albertans expect her to condemn this when she speaks at the convention on Saturday. Will the premier stand in her place and commit that she and her cabinet will do everything they can to condemn this motion in the strongest terms possible?”

Deputy Premier Sarah Hoffman responds:

“Thank you very much, Mr. Speaker, for the opportunity to make it crystal clear that I absolutely do not agree with what Tom Mulcair said about keeping the oil in the ground yesterday. Those remarks are unacceptable, and I will certainly be there to convey that message to membership and that they know how important it is we get our product to market, Mr. Speaker.”

While Notley has a Saturday afternoon speaking slot at the convention, it’s Hoffman who will be on the convention floor, assigned to similarly denounce the federal activists who push too hard against oil development and pipelines.

Jean again: “The federal NDP have made several statements campaigning against Alberta pipelines. Will the premier advocate to her provincial and federal colleagues to proudly stand in her place and support Alberta’s oil sands and pipelines right across the country and around the world?”

Hoffman: “Absolutely, Mr. Speaker. We’ve been consistent on that. We know that pipelines are the safest way to get our product to market, and we absolutely are committed to making sure we have a drama-free method of getting our product to tidewater. In terms of party members not always agreeing, like for example we have a few people here who are a former colleague of the honourable leader, not that long ago said that Nelson Mandela was a terrorist: did he agree with what that party member said? I sure hope not.”

If there’s any living Canadian politician who’s a more widely reviled and toxic comparator than Rob Anders, he at very least hadn’t been elected to 18 years of recent federal office. Hoffman has taken a universally condemned comment and compared it to some environmental sentiments a not-insignificant segment of the federal NDP harbour.

Notley doesn’t necessarily have to hit the big red Anders button, but her political survival relies on her embracing pipelines and environmentally responsible oil sands and energy extraction. Mulcair’s next few days of political survival rely on his not alienating the Leapers.

Notley’s budget next week, and her TV infomercial speech released Thursday, lay clear that while the federal party is lurching leftward, she’s rushing for the centre. Notley cannot possibly balance the budget with oil at US$35 a barrel, but she is still promising red ink will cease as the economic pain does, and in the meantime “cost control” is her new mantra. And she also reiterated, and urged all Ottawa politicians: “We must get to ‘yes’ on a pipeline.”

The Wildrose will doubtless keep up this practice of trying to drive a wedge deeper between Notley and Mulcair and whatever New Democrats continue to Ottawa beyond Sunday. The bigger the divide is between Alberta and federal NDP, the more hopeful Notley’s foes will be that they can catch her saying something that yokes the two camps to each other once again.