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A compelling counter-narrative: Are Justin Trudeau and Rachel Notley singing from the same hymn book?

Rachel Notley & Justin Trudeau


Was Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's announcement Monday of a national carbon tax really a complete surprise to Alberta Premier Rachel Notley and her closest advisors, as most media were persuaded to believe? Or was a quiet and mutually beneficial deal between the Ottawa Liberals and the Edmonton NDP done first?

A compelling counter-narrative has emerged in the hours since Trudeau's "bombshell" was detonated. To wit: That the Alberta NDP and the federal Liberals have been talking to one another and the New Democrats in Edmonton know perfectly well that the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion is going to be approved by the Trudeau's government.

As my friend and former Calgary Herald colleague Jim Cunningham commented in this space on Tuesday, "I suspect the premier laid down that condition partly because she is confident the feds will approve the Trans-Mountain pipeline later this year."

If that’s right, argued Cunningham, who nowadays teaches journalism at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology, it will give her the opportunity to "(a) look strong, and (b) gain credit for helping to push the Liberals to do what she believes must be done. Very shrewd, if you ask me, and a no-fail stance in case Trudeau doesn’t come through."

It is worth noting, moreover, that it's widely believed in the higher reaches of the oil industry that approval of Kinder Morgan is all but a done deal.

And if Kinder Morgan is a done deal, Premier Notley's blunt statement Monday, conveniently ready so soon after the prime minister's announcement, brings significant advantages to both parties.

As argued here Tuesday, there is always a political advantage for any Alberta politician who is seen to be standing up to Ottawa -- which was almost everyone's first reaction to Notley's short statement on Monday.

But by framing the Alberta NDP's support for Trudeau's national carbon price plan as dependent on a pipeline approval, the Notley Government can justifiably argue in the event of a pipeline approval that its social-license approach achieved something no conservative government could do with the usual angry rhetoric and foot stomping.

All the better, this will basically be true; not mere rhetoric. So what will Brad Wall, the foot stomper of Saskatchewan and much-touted hero of Alberta's conservatives, say then?

Obviously, speaking of Wall, this solves an immediate problem for the prime minister by weakening the complaints of the most prominent, if not credible, spokesperson for his climate-change denying opposition.

For its part, with a pipeline in hand, the Alberta NDP can justify agreeing to the PM's national plan, offering a considerable help to him in return.

As for Ottawa's planned higher price for carbon, seen as a major problem by the initial mainstream media analysis of this story, it's possible it will not turn out to be that big a deal for the Notley Government. After all, going into the next Alberta election campaign, expected in 2019, the national carbon tax will be $20 per tonne, still less than the $30 levy in the NDP's program for which major Alberta energy companies have already publicly indicated their support. This means there will be no additional impact on those companies from the federal program.

The net effect will be to give Notley and her New Democrats a powerful defence against the relentless attacks by the Wildrose Opposition and unite-the-right PC leadership candidate Jason Kenney, that only conservatives look out for Alberta. Indeed, it exposes this claim as nonsense.

Instead, there will be compelling evidence that not only are the New Democrats looking out for Alberta, they're the only party with a formula for doing so that actually works!

So the NDP's shrewd announcement that they won’t support Ottawa without a deal -- approval for which may already be in the works -- must give the Jason Kenney/Wildrose Party/Preston Manning crowd hives. Remember, unlike the hapless Progressive Conservatives that Kenney wants to see taken over by the Wildrose Party, it would be the social democrats who got the oil companies to stand up on a stage with them, and who now may be on the cusp of the pipeline deal the Wildrosers have been saying only they could get through the usual bully-boy tactics.

This makes monkeys of the opposition, especially the climate-change and evolution deniers that surround Kenney, the favoured candidate of the social conservative fringe of the Alberta conservative movement and front-runner in the campaign.

But if Notley had not done some sabre rattling before the approval of the Kinder Morgan expansion project, she risked being in caught in a place where the opposition could claim Ottawa's approval was inevitable anyway, and she had nothing to do with it.

Now the NDP will look tough to Albertans, possibly tough enough to get reelected if they have some kind of a pipeline success in hand.

The Liberals will look tough to the rest of the country.

And conservatives of all stripes will be further marginalized everywhere.

No matter how you look at it, this would be a win from both Trudeau's and Notley's perspectives.

That fact alone is a compelling argument there's something to this interpretation of events.

Moreover, by accident or design, Prime Minister Trudeau has handed Premier Notley an opportunity to shift her perception in the minds of many Alberta voters from "dangerous ideologue" to "pragmatic moderate," a position much more in tune with the Alberta mindset.

"The next hurdle," observed Calgary-based pollster Janet Brown, "will be for the thing to actually get built. Spoiler alert! Look for Kinder Morgan to delay construction and blame political and market uncertainty."

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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