Notley, Singh, Horgan and the pipeline that sparked an NDP civil war

In short, being premier of Alberta trumps party ideology and partisan relationships, says political scientist Duane Bratt.

The three leaders each have skin in a different game, despite sharing a party

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and B.C. Premier John Horgan all belong to the same political party, but you almost wouldn't believe it these days, given the rift that has emerged over the Trans Mountain pipeline. (CBC, The Canadian Press/Darryl Dyck)

It's something of a civil war.

The federal government's decision to purchase the Trans Mountain Pipeline from Kinder Morgan can be analyzed in many different ways, but one fascinating feature is how it highlights the conflict within the federal and provincial wings of the New Democratic Party.

According to the party constitutions, a member of the provincial NDP is simultaneously a member of the federal NDP. But for several reasons, the party is now a house divided. This, in no small measure, because being premier of Alberta trumps ideology and partisan relationships, and because there's some cold political calculation going on.

Picking sides

Alberta NDP Premier Rachel Notley celebrated Trudeau's decision on Trans Mountain by giving her fellow cabinet ministers high fives on stage after exclaiming, "we said we would get the pipeline built and we're getting the pipeline built!"

Meanwhile, B.C. NDP Premier John Horgan maintained that the shift in ownership would not change his view of the pipeline.

"I continue to have concerns about the potential adverse consequences of a diluted bitumen spill on our marine environment, on our coast and the consequences to our economy," he said.

An aerial view of Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain marine terminal in Burnaby, B.C., seen on May 29, 2018. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

One party, two provinces, two divergent views.

And then federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh picked a side.

Previously, Singh had sought what he thought was a compromise between the two provincial NDP premiers by asking the federal government to submit a Supreme Court reference case on the jurisdictional questions surrounding the pipeline. But after the Trudeau government's decision to buy the Trans Mountain Pipeline, Singh clearly chose the side of Horgan.

And so his tweet: "The Trudeau pipeline is a bad deal that won't solve the problem," he said.

"Giving $4.5 billion to a Texas oil company is a failure of leadership that demonstrates PM Trudeau has no vision for the future. Climate change leaders don't spend $4.5B on pipelines #TransMountain."

Singh has thrown a federal NDP shadow over an Alberta NDP victory. So we end up in a sort of "all for one and none for all" situation. The NDP rift widens, but it's been there for awhile.

The first cracks

The signs of a significant dispute within the NDP over energy and environmental policies emerged in the debate over the Leap Manifesto. 

It's a policy document crafted by Avi Lewis (part of the Lewis family NDP dynasty) and Naomi Klein, a prominent global environmental activist and writer. The Leap Manifesto is a national proposal — a federal NDP concern. But back in April 2016, it was already a hot topic for the provincial NDP during the party convention in Edmonton.

Director Avi Lewis, right, and author Naomi Klein of the film This Changes Everything, crafted the Leap Manifesto, which seeks to radically alter Canadian energy policy. (Aaron Vincent Elkaim/Canadian Press)

The manifesto seeks to radically alter Canadian energy policy. Some of its most controversial clauses include: "Shifting swiftly away from fossil fuels so that Canada gets 100 per cent of its electricity from renewable resources within 20 years and is entirely weaned off fossil fuels by 2050." And, "No new infrastructure projects aimed at increasing extraction of non-renewable resources, including pipelines."

Notley delivered a stern warning about the Leap Manifesto during her speech to the convention. Even Shannon Philips, the Alberta Environment Minister who was the architect of the carbon tax, came out against it. Nevertheless, the federal NDP membership decided to adopt it. And thus arose public divergence.

What explains the different approaches from the various levels of the NDP?

Power and politics

The most obvious reason is discipline of power.

Notley is premier of Alberta and she needs to support the interests of the province. I suspect that if Notley was still the leader of a minor opposition party, she would oppose the Trans Mountain pipeline, too. After all, she had previously opposed both the Northern Gateway and Keystone XL pipelines — claiming that raw bitumen should be refined in Alberta instead. But these are the things you say in opposition.

Once she became premier, Notley became acutely aware of the costs of refineries versus the cost of pipelines. Even when she introduced her carbon tax, Notley tried to sell it as necessary for the social licence to get pipelines built.

But Notley's transformation into the accidental pipeline advocate was not because she was "captured" by the Deep Oil State, as described by former Alberta Liberal leader Kevin Taft in his recent book.

Instead, it was the full realization that there are hundreds of thousands of jobs that the oil sector supports directly and indirectly, and the billions that flow into the Alberta economy allow for schools, hospitals and other social services to be provided at the lowest taxes in the country.

In short, being premier of Alberta trumps party ideology and partisan relationships.

But the shift has cost her friends.

Political calculations

Singh's decision to back the B.C. NDP over the Alberta NDP was also a purely electoral calculation.

There is only one federal NDP MP in Alberta (Linda Duncan in Edmonton), but there are 14 seats in B.C. held by the NDP. He wants to keep those. And he could pick up a few more.

Trudeau's decision is likely to cost the Liberals seats in the Lower Mainland during the next federal election, and the NDP could win them instead.

Also, keep in mind that the other province that fiercely opposes the Trans Mountain pipeline is Quebec (home to 16 NDP MPs). If the Liberals lose any there, the NDP can also aim to pick them up. Therefore, by choosing B.C. over Alberta, and thus casting aspersions on the federal Liberals, Singh hopes for an overall net gain in seats in the 2019 election. 

Singh may also be assuming that Horgan, despite leading a minority government that is backed by the Green Party, is safer than Notley.

Despite scoring the pipeline, she and her party are facing a very tough challenge from UCP Leader Jason Kenney. Even if Trans Mountain is built, Notley could still lose the 2019 election. Meanwhile, Horgan's tough stand on Trans Mountain could possibly support his re-election efforts.

But beyond this electoral math lies an often overlooked division within the NDP ranks.

Internal tensions

The NDP civil war is also a reflection of the internal tensions between its economic coalition (farmers and private sector unions), and environmental coalition (intellectuals, social justice activists, public sector unions). Ironically, this same tension helped bring down the B.C. NDP over the clearcutting of lumber in Clayoquot Sound in the 1990s.

The NDP, taken as a whole, is, like all political parties, a motley crew of individuals, platforms, allegiances and priorities. Circumstance and time can end up pitting various factions against each other. And pit leader against leader.

The Trans Mountain pipeline expansion will nearly triple the pipeline's capacity for transporting oil from Alberta to B.C. (Kinder Morgan)

Singh, Notley and Horgan each have skin in a different game despite sharing a party. How the federal backing of the B.C. viewpoint affects Trans Mountain, and whether it hurts Notley in anyway, is yet to be seen. It could be argued that being willing to stand up to her federal counterparts will give her some social licence here in Alberta. It's a "when the chips are down, I am part of 'us,' and not a part of 'them,'" kind of thing.

Nevertheless, what the NDP civil war reveals are the tensions between federal and provincial responsibilities, as well the internal tensions within the party. These divisions exist in all parties — just look at the frequent splintering and merging of conservative parties. But the NDP describes itself as different. It's not.

The iron law of politics still applies: where you stand depends upon where you sit.

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Duane Bratt

Freelance contributor

Duane Bratt is a political scientist at Mount Royal University in Calgary.