Alberta's new allies and Notley's finest hour

“Albertans love a premier who can pick a fight and win. It's a crowd-pleaser, every time.” Jen Gerson on how Rachel Notley is capitalizing on the moment and making friends.

‘Suddenly this province seems to have some national allies in unlikely places'

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley and her NDP government had a rough start after winning a historic provincial election in 2015, but the tide may be turning, writes freelance journalist Jen Gerson. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

It's been a long time coming, but Alberta finally seems to be winning.

After years of smarting on the wrong side of too many pipeline proxy battles and dead-duck scandals, the legitimate complaints of this beleaguered province seem to be earning their due. And much of this has to be credited to Premier Rachel Notley.

The past few weeks, culminating in her wine ban, have been her finest hour. This could go down as Notley's "Peter Lougheed" moment.

"Let the Western bastards drown in decent plonk" may not have quite the same ring to it, but the spirit of the thing stands.

Alberta's new allies

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is campaigning for Alberta in lefty outlets like the National Observer.

We might fairly ask whether the prime minister is doing enough, but at least there can be no question that this is a man who is trying to fight for Alberta's interests — even if those interests align neatly with a defence of his own jurisdictional authority. It feels warm and bubbly.

He gave an interview and said of the B.C. premier, "John Horgan is actually trying to scuttle our national plan on fighting climate change." Horgan's plans to stall out Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain pipeline by tacking on more diluted bitumen studies appears to be going nowhere.

Whatever leverage Horgan might have claimed on this file is largely gone, outside a narrow base. He overplayed his hand and has created a national interest in getting behind Alberta.

Meanwhile, the National Energy Board on Thursday issued three decisions that will allow Kinder Morgan to begin construction on the Burnaby Mountain tunnel entrance of the line, although the decision is still subject to municipal and provincial permits. It also approved the line's route.

NOT AN ALLY: B.C. Premier John Horgan, who leads a minority NDP government that is propped up with support from Green Party MLAs, has tried to stall the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion. (Chad Hipolito/Canadian Press)

And on the domestic front, United Conservative Party Leader Jason Kenney is outflanked on one of his strengths. Notley has outmanoeuvered him with a trade war retaliation that does almost no harm to Alberta business. This is a stark contrast to his own proposal, which included cutting oil shipment permits to B.C. in order to force a temporary fuel crisis.

The wine embargo is making the same point. It was a brilliant political chess move that seems to have repositioned all of the other players on the board to Alberta's advantage.

This province has had a rough couple of years.  

After years of watching its primary industry paraded about as an evil effigy of the fight against climate change, suddenly this province seems to have some national allies in unlikely places. It remains to be seen if that will be enough, but in a roundabout way, Horgan has handed Notley an incredible political gift.

And she has shown the instincts to unwrap it.

A legendary response

The CBC archives retain a delightful clip that highlights the crisis of the National Energy Program — and Lougheed's still-legendary response to it.

On a Thursday night in November 1980, the premier delivered a long speech to local televisions stations. In it, as a result of the federal government's plan to pay less than the world rate for Alberta's oil reserves, Lougheed said he had decided to retaliate.

"We decided … that we should reduce the rate at which we are producing our oil to about 85 per cent of its capacity," he told the province. "But with two very important conditions, which I want to emphasize to Albertans. The first condition is this: if there becomes any shortage problem in Canada, we will suspend such order. We will not put any Canadian in an position of being concerned with regard to supply."

He went on. "Secondly we, of course, would cancel such an approach if we can get to sit down and negotiate with the federal government a new and fair arrangement."

Peter Lougheed, who was premier of Alberta from 1971 to 1985, delivered a legendary response to the federal government's National Energy Program in 1980. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

It was a great bit of blackmail.

Albertans were overwhelmingly supportive, agreeing with the patrician premier at a rate of five-to-one.

Note the tone here: it is with great reluctance that we must kick the country in the shin. Always, Alberta sought to be fair, to operate within the boundaries of federal jurisdiction.

That late former premier was never more beloved than the moment when he promised to cut the oil taps eastward, inspiring then-mayor Ralph Klein to coin the everyman bumper sticker phrase: "Let the Eastern Bastards Freeze in the Dark."

This is a policy that played well with everyone.

Lougheed, Klein, even Don Getty — Albertans love a premier who can pick a fight and win.

It's a crowd-pleaser, every time.

Hitting her stride

The NDP's ideology may not be a natural fit for Alberta, but Notley is still one of this province's prodigal children. And after almost three years in office she seems to have finally hit her stride. She now has a statesman-like air, a polite but cutting defence of her province in the nation.

Her first few years have been marked by contentious policy shifts like carbon taxes, climate change policies, farm worker legislation, minimum wage hikes and high rates of debt accrual: none of it has gone over well in a deeply pro-energy province that was suffering a serious economic recession.

Notley now seems to have found a way to play the middle, softening hard-line NDP ideology with a kind of plucky Alberta practicality and grit. One might disagree with Notley and the NDP at home, but what Albertan won't cheer for his own in the away stands?

And, it must be noted, that for all the hell and fury her climate change plan has earned, Trudeau is now using it as a cudgel in the fight for Trans Mountain.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is blaming B.C. Premier John Horgan for putting the national climate change plan at risk. (Jason Franson/Canadian Press )

"Social Licence" is a stupid, meaningless bit of jargon (Alberta's climate change policies haven't "bought" anything, least of all the consent of British Columbia). But it sure can be effective leverage. As Horgan is learning.

Trudeau told the National Observer, "By blocking the Kinder Morgan pipeline, he's putting at risk the entire national climate change plan, because Alberta will not be able to stay on if the Kinder Morgan pipeline doesn't go through.

"If the Kinder Morgan pipeline doesn't go through, Alberta will withdraw its support for the national plan on climate change. We will not have them fighting to reach their carbon targets, and we will not, then, have them as partners in reaching our Paris targets," Trudeau added.

To translate this into Klein-speak: Hear that, lefties?

You want to hit those climate change targets; we'll start burning barrels of tar and rolling them down hills into pristine muskeg filled with duck ponds for sport if you don't start to play fair. We'll take out a few caribou herds while we're at it. We'll call it Alberta Barrel Ball.

Of course, this point sets up a bluff that Notley may not be willing to call.

Tallying corpses

Is this NDP government really going to cut its oilsands emissions cap and scrap the carbon tax if B.C. continues to obfuscate? Given these were key tenets of Notley's agenda and, presumably, her legacy, it seems unlikely that she would renege.

Jason Kenney would think nothing of it, however.

That's the balance that the rest of Canada needs to weigh right now. There are no viable climate change targets without Alberta's co-operation. Undermine Notley, as Horgan has done, and any small chance she may have at re-election will disappear. Support her, on the other hand, and the country can show Alberta that it's been paying attention.

The nation needs to understand that this province has tried, very hard, to address its environmental concerns while struggling through a downturn.  

The smart money is still on a UCP win next election, but note: Kenney is having a harder time scoring points against the NDP of late. It's difficult for him to play Alberta's white knight when her current premier is already suited up and tallying corpses in the fray.

He seems to be agreeing and standing in line with Notley more often than not — what other option does he have?

When Kenney was voted leader of the newly merged conservative party, he was prepared for a relentless slate of attacks on social issues. What he couldn't have expected was this; something far worse.

That Notley would own his.

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Jen Gerson is a journalist, political commentator, and co-founder of the online newsletter The Line.