Premier Rachel Notley is likening her fight to build pipelines to former U.S. president Richard Nixon's historic battle to establish relations with China in the 1970s.

In what will likely be the last full calendar year before Albertans go to the polls in a provincial election in 2019, Notley said during a year-end interview with CBC that her government is focused on getting a pipeline built to tidewater and bringing economic recovery to the entire province.

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Positioning herself as an unlikely champion of pipeline expansion, at least compared to NDP leaders outside Alberta, Notley cited Nixon's visit to China in 1972, the first time a U.S. president had visited the People's Republic of China and a move that was a key step in normalizing relations between the two countries.

"It may be more of a Nixon-going-to-China thing," said Notley, referring to the extraordinary and unanticipated inroads made by Nixon during his China visit.

'People don't expect me to argue for it'

Nixon's overture opened doors in China to the West that hadn't been seen for decades. Similarly, Notley sees herself in a unique position to bridge divides on pipelines between organized labour and industry for a common cause.

"Because people don't expect me to argue for it, yet I do," she said.  "I do so, I think, with a lot of credibility and a lot of ability to talk to different groups that may not have been part of the speaking tours of previous governments."

Notley said she is convinced her efforts have already made a difference.

She said her clarion call for the federal government to "step up" to get the Trans Mountain pipeline project moving resulted in the federal government urging the National Energy Board (NEB) to come up with a system for permit approvals.

She also says she expects to hear more from the federal government on pipelines in the New Year.

A big factor in the economic recovery across Alberta, says Notley, is the go-ahead of the Trans Mountain pipeline project from Alberta to Burnaby, B.C.

Although approved in November 2016 by the federal cabinet, Kinder Morgan's pipeline has been delayed by protracted municipal permitting and a court challenge.

The NEB ruled Dec. 7 that Kinder Morgan doesn't need permits from the City of Burnaby to begin construction on the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion terminal in British Columbia. 

However, First Nations, environmental groups and local governments have challenged the pipeline project in the Federal Court of Appeal in Vancouver. A decision rejecting the pipeline would send it back to the NEB for assessment.

​Notley said there's "no question" a pipeline to tidewater plays a big role in Alberta's economic recovery, especially for those who are "still worried about their future, worried about their job security, worried about how they're going to pay for their kids college tuition." 

And that uncertainty, was one of the factors why Notley believes the NDP did so poorly in the Calgary Lougheed byelection Dec. 14. 

'They actually liked us'

The outcome was partly due to the newly-elected leader of the United Conservative Party, Jason Kenney, running in a seat previously held by the PCs, Notley said. But Notley acknowledged voters also sent the Alberta government a clear message about the economy.

"They actually liked us," she insisted, referring to the response at the doors in Calgary Lougheed for the NDP candidate and his supporters. "But they're worried about the economy.

"That is the message that we're taking from it and just continuing our efforts, redoubling our efforts, to grow the progress (economy) and we are making progress, but I also understand not everyone's feeling it."

The NDP came a distant second in the byelection, with its support evaporating by almost half since the May 2015 provincial election.

Governments often don't do well in byelections, however the overwhelming result, with Kenney garnering 72 per cent of the vote, did make the government take notice.

The coming year will also see a shift in the way the NDP government spends money, from focusing on stimulating the provincial economy to "compassionate belt tightening." It's a phrase the premier has tossed around in recent weeks delivering speeches to large audiences.

Strategic belt-tightening

The NDP has racked up the largest debt in Alberta history through its infrastructure stimulus plan, and by refusing to cut spending across the board, particularly from core services such as health and education, which account for huge portions of the provincial budget.  

That approach will change in 2018 to "strategic" but compassionate reductions. 

"We're going to do everything we can to preserve the best parts of our education system and our health care system," said Notley, apparently no longer promising all jobs in the public service will be maintained.

Notley said her barometer will involve assessing how a change in spending or service delivery will affect an average family planning their own budget.

She added: "I don't want our government adding costs."

Notley hinted there could be more delays on capital projects that haven't begun.

"Whether there are some things that maybe haven't been put into place yet, where people would be able to deal with them to take a little bit longer to happen, that kind of thing," Notley said.

In an unusual foray into collective bargaining, Finance Minister Joe Ceci has signalled the government will be looking for public servants to forgo pay raises to bring down spending.

'We got zeros'

While senior government managers and those who work outside collective agreements have had salaries frozen, Notley admits more substantive bottom line savings will come through concessions from larger employee groups.

"We got zeros with the teachers, and now we're going to speak respectfully to our public servants at the bargaining table," she said. "No question we're going in there with the message that we need to be careful, and all Albertans expect us to be careful, and I'm hopeful we'll be able to come to a good conclusion."

A spokesperson for the  Alberta Union of Provincial Employee (AUPE), Mariam Ibrahim, said in an email that 21,400 members employed by the Government of Alberta are currently in bargaining.

Ibrahim said the employees are in a diverse range of jobs from fish and wildlife officers to social workers to correctional officers and sheriffs.