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The federal NDP's 'Leap' of faith advocates and Alberta's right-wing opposition: Strange bedfellows?

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Photo: Chris Schwarz/Premier of Alberta/flickr

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With friends like the Leap Manifesto's advocates in the federal New Democratic Party, does the Notley government need enemies?

Seriously, it's fair to wonder if some Leap Manifesto supporters inside the NDP are really all that different in important ways from Alberta's frustrated, infuriated right-wing opposition.

Seriously, both groups appear to want the NDP government of Premier Rachel Notley to fail. If that means Alberta's economy has to fail too, they're apparently good with that. Neither seems to care how much Alberta or Albertans have to suffer in the process.

The reason Alberta's right-wing opposition parties want the NDP to fail should be pretty obvious.

They're out of power for the first time in 80 years and they don't like it. They were expecting evolutionary change in a rightward direction in the May 5, 2015, provincial election. Instead they got something that seemed like epochal change -- Notley as premier and leader of a majority NDP government. That makes them furious.

Up to now, they have had very little strategy beyond nattering negativity and constant repetition of market-fundamentalist bromides. Plus a few outright lies about the government's farm safety legislation, of course.

With nothing to offer but ideologically driven austerity, privatization and permanent revenue shortfalls, the right wants Alberta to fail economically so they can stumble back into power without having to answer for blowing it so spectacularly in 2015.

About all they had going for them until last weekend, when the apostles of the Leap Manifesto blew into Edmonton, was the collapse in the world price of oil. That was working for them, but there was always the danger prices might perk up too soon.

OK, enough about them. What about their strange bedfellows?

Why, one might wonder, would NDP proponents of a vague document proposing our country confront a real environmental crisis with simplistic solutions that are simply impossible in a democracy wish the same fate on our NDP government as our hopelessly far right opposition?

Premier Notley may very well have nailed it in her speech to the NDP convention Saturday morning, when she told delegates that the last Alberta election "did something very evil to all of you from our fellow provinces and territories …

"In electing a progressive NDP government last spring, the people of Alberta took away one of your favourite enemies. There's no climate change denying, science muzzling Tory government here any more.

"So it's time" -- for you, NDP delegates from the rest of Canada, she meant -- "to start thinking differently about the 4.4 million fellow Canadians who live here."

The Leap Manifesto's most enthusiastic advocates weren't about to do that. Indeed, from their perspective, there might be something to be said for having an easy-to-hate environmental villain back in charge in Canada's oilpatch again.

From a point of view where anything less than perfection is deemed unacceptable -- the ideological doppelgänger of the right's dogmatic market fundamentalism -- perhaps that wouldn't be such a bad outcome. From that viewpoint, a climate change policy based in meaningful metrics, which stands a chance of working without destroying the economic lives of tens of thousands of citizens, could be a threat, not a promise.

At any rate, in the heat of the moment -- not to mention the wake of former Ontario NDP leader Stephen Lewis's pro-Leap speech Saturday night -- NDP delegates chose to ignore Notley's plea and handed the right-wing opposition a club with which to batter what will likely soon be the only social democratic government in Canada.

So it's not really that big a leap, if you'll pardon the expression, to conclude apocalyptic proponents of what Notley soon labelled a naïve, ill-informed and tone-deaf document would want her incremental but meaningful plan to fail for reasons not so different from those of the apocalyptic right.

"Alberta has the most progressive and effective climate change policy in the country," Duncan Kinney of Progress Alberta observed in an email newsletter promoting his excellent blog. "A $15 minimum wage is on the books. But unfortunately a document written to help promote a book and a movie will hijack the political debate in this province."

Of course there's always the possibility the Leap Manifesto was written to promote more than that. Increasing numbers of observers on the left and right are noticing that the maker of the movie in question, Avi Lewis, is suddenly being touted as a potential leader of the NDP to replace Thomas Mulcair, who was given the bum's rush by NDP convention delegates the same day.

It was Lewis's father who exhorted delegates to ignore Notley not long after she had left the stage and endorse a plan to keep the divisive Leap debate at a boil right until the next Alberta provincial election.

So while a legitimate criticism of the NDP plan may be that it doesn't go far enough, fast enough -- and that its cap on oilsands emissions is so big it negates efforts by other provinces to cut emissions -- this is still preferable to a vague plan just to leave everything in the ground. Realistically, that is no plan at all -- unless the plan is to assist the election of a less sympathetic government in Edmonton.

Whatever its intention, this strategy presents a genuine threat to the success of the NDP's environmental program, which even the National Post concedes is "one of the most progressive climate-change policies in the country.

"It's a thorough, technocratic protocol that levies a province-wide carbon tax, phases out coal-fired electricity plants and imposes a hard emissions cap on the oil sands," wrote the paper's Jen Gerson. "Stephen Lewis wants the party to debate and adopt a 1,300-word anti-capitalist manifesto about transitioning to sustainable energy, somehow."

Even some die-hard environmentalists, by the sound of it, are having their doubts about this. The manifesto "may have hurt the NDP when it was released before the federal election and I worry that introducing it as a motion at the NDP convention in Edmonton has seriously hurt the NDP's chances of getting re-elected and given way too much fodder to the far right, especially given the layoffs in the last year and impact of low oil prices," said high-profile Vancouver environmentalist Tzeporah Berman on her Facebook page.

Whatever the actual intentions and strategy of the Leap advocates may be, the negative impact of the vote on the Alberta NDP's program was immediately apparent -- and should have been obvious to everyone well before the vote.

If you believe in the NDP's policies of fair labour laws, women's rights, accessible education, public health care, fair treatment of sexual minorities, respect for Indigenous peoples -- and a response to climate change that stands a chance of working -- this situation should concern you.

Supporters of the Notley government immediately assailed the vote as terrible optics and a dumb decision. I'm not so sure many of the people who backed it see it that way at all, though.

Many rank and file NDP supporters in Alberta immediately began talking about the need to disaffiliate from the federal party, although if their leaders were obviously having trouble with that idea.

Call me Pollyanna, but I'm inclined to think this situation, as truly damaging as it appears, can be managed and even exploited.

The Notley government has about 1,140 days, give or take, to make the point, over and over and over again, that they have nothing to do with the Leap Manifesto and the Leap Manifesto has nothing to do with them. After a while, as tends to happen in such circumstances, that may begin to register with voters.

This is an argument for remaining inside the national NDP for the time being, because something is also going to have to be done about the Leap Manifesto itself, its sponsors, whatever their agenda may be, and the federal party's current risky direction.

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

Photo: Chris Schwarz/Premier of Alberta/flickr

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