Battle over Bill 6 takes centre stage for Notley and the NDP

When Rachel Notley returned to Edmonton from the climate change talks in Paris this week, the conversation ought to have been about Alberta’s emerging role in addressing global warming.

Contentious Alberta farm safety bill appears to be a boon for the opposition

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley spent her first news conference since she returned from Paris defending Bill 6. (CBC )

When Rachel Notley returned to Edmonton from the climate change talks in Paris this week, the conversation ought to have been about Alberta's emerging role in addressing global warming.

There's the issue of how the coal industry will sustain a $2-billion hit from the early phasing out of coal-fired electrical plants. And there should have been more details released about the role of individuals and families in the transition to a sustainable energy source.

Instead, all questions to the premier during her half hour news conference Thursday afternoon — her first since Paris —were about Bill 6. It's the divisive farm safety bill that has pitted urban against rural, and thrust a political wedge into the heart of Alberta, already struggling with low oil prices and job losses.

The fact that Alberta's first NDP government would champion worker safety in the early days of its mandate should come as no surprise.

A quick perusal of CBC news archives shows discussion about bringing farm employees under the jurisdiction of the Workers' Compensation Board, and occupational health and safety rules goes back decades, and so has opposition to the proposal.

Thousands of people opposed to Bill 6 took part in protests and spoke out at town halls across the province this week. (Michelle Bellefontaine/CBC)
As a former labour lawyer, protection of workers is an issue very near and dear to the heart of the premier.

In 2009, as a newly elected NDP MLA, Notley stood in the legislature media room next to a member of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) to champion the rights of farm workers.

It was the very same podium she stood behind this week as premier, to defend her government's decision to push ahead with Bill 6, despite rural angst and outrage across  Alberta.

"What drove us," said Notley, "is there had been a gaping hole in a fundamental human right for decades, and I felt personally for a very long time we needed to move on it."

Author and political science professor Dr. Roger Epp of the University of Alberta characterizes the rural reaction to Bill 6 as  somewhat "overheated."

"Rural people, especially farm people, are a small minority of the provincial population these days, and the trend lines aren't in their favor.  I think there is a sense of having lived on the defensive and the patron that used to be the provincial government is not as reliable as the patron once was."

Invoking closure?

The Bill 6 showdown has forced the NDP government into a political corner.

NDP MLAs were frequent vitriolic critics of limiting debate under the previous PC government. Now the government faces the unpopular choice of hoisting the bill entirely for another day, or possibly having to invoke closure — to end what government House Leader Brian Mason has called filibustering by the opposition — if the bill is to pass third reading.

While Bill 6 has been unpopular for the NDP in rural Alberta, it has been a boon for the Wildrose and emerging right-wing political interests.

A noisy demonstration in front of the legislature this week attracted a country singer, who chimed "naughty Notley's running the show" to a Vietnamese pot-bellied pig called Minnie, wearing a sign that stated "pigs are smarter than dogs, and both are smarter than the NDP."

Wildrose leader Brian Jean took advantage of the event to encourage everyone to "vote Wildrose" in the next provincial election four years away. And those wanting to form a new, even more Conservative political party than the Wildrose, wandered through the crowd collecting signatures.

Clearly the bill has stirred the passion of farmers and politicians alike, and it's not over yet.

More demonstrations against the bill are planned in the coming week.

And Wildrose finance critic Derek Fildebrandt is holding a townhall meeting on the bill Saturday in Bassano, Alta. in his home riding of Strathmore-Brooks, to strike while interest is still fresh, and before the bill is passed.