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On stage in Edmonton: The tough Rachel Notley who frightens conservatives, and may scare certain New Democrats too

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Rachel Notley

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NDP Premier Rachel Notley called out Alberta’s conservatives yesterday for their climate change denying, science muzzling, regressive and deceptive ways.

But in her speech to the New Democratic Party's national convention in Edmonton, she also also delivered a sharp rebuke to proponents of the Leap Manifesto, the radical green turn in party policy sought by some delegates at the first national convention. This is the party's first gathering since the Oct. 19 federal vote that saw the NDP returned to third-party status in Parliament.

Potentially, that stance could put Notley at odds with federal NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair … if he survives today's leadership review vote by delegates.

Notley walked this political tightrope, Rabble's Karl Nerenberg accurately observed, with "the rare political quality of seeming to be entirely genuine and without the slightest hint of guile."

But by standing her ground with opponents on both sides of the political spectrum and seeking to strip the debate over pipelines of the highly emotional discourse that has come to typify it, Notley also demonstrated the steely resolve that made her Alberta's social democratic premier in the first place.

On the huge stage of the Shaw Conference Centre, Notley may have looked tiny to the groups of delegates who either leaped to their feet to roar their approval or sat on their hands in silent disapproval, but there is no denying the long shadow she casts over this debate.

Premier Notley began her evisceration of the modern conservative movement in Alberta by praising Peter Lougheed, the visionary founder of the late Progressive Conservative dynasty 44 years ago, who "urged Albertans to act like owners of their natural resources."

"He pursued a vision of a diversified and resilient economy," Notley told the NDP delegates, elaborating on a theme Albertans may now be more familiar with. "And he laid the foundation for many of the social services we enjoy in Alberta today."

"Let me offer you a laugh-out-loud understatement," she went on. "Today's conservatives are a very different proposition. … They want to fire nurses and teachers, and make pay and working conditions worse for those who remain."

"They want to privatize public services, because what social service can't benefit from diverting 10 or 20 per cent of the budget to insiders, shareholders and senior managers?" This last point, of course, was delivered sarcastically.

"There are no forests they don't want to cut. There are no streams they don't want to foul. There is nothing sacred or important about our climate, or our land or our water … or at least, there is nothing we should be doing to protect any of these things, since every environmental measure is always opposed by today's conservatives, while also denying the science and trying to muzzle the scientists."

Their big idea? "That every possible benefit and every support for families, for the poor, and for the middle class must be cut to the bone … to pay for tax cuts for rich people."

"If today's Conservatives were being honest about what they really stood for," Notley asserted, "I don't think too many people would vote for them. So, since they can't campaign on what they really want to do, what do they do? We got a look at that in the federal election: They make the issue what women are allowed to wear!"

There are still good people in Conservative parties, Premier Notley reminded delegates. There are admirable roots in progressive conservatism. And maybe, some day, "our blue friends will find their way back to them."

"But based on the angry, raging, talk-about-anything-but-what-we'd-actually-do performance we get from our conservative oppositions here in Alberta, I’d say our conservative friends, at least in this province, are going to try everything else first!"

Notley then turned to the achievements of her NDP majority government -- elected only 11 months ago on May 5. She enumerated a list of accomplishments in the government’s short life that included abolishing the "disgraceful and regressive flat tax system," dumping the plan for a similarly regressive health care premium, banning corporate and union political donations, ensuring maintenance of health care and education funding, sticking with the commitment to a $15-per-hour minimum wage, and introducing what she called one of the most far-reaching job creation and diversification plans in Canada.

Moreover, she said, "we introduced Alberta's Climate Leadership Plan -- the single most important step any Canadian government at any level has taken so far to actually act on climate change." This includes such actions as phasing out coal-generated power, implementing a carbon tax, putting in place an oil sands emissions cap and a methane reduction plan.

"We are also implementing this plan because it will be good for the economy of Alberta. It is about moving to a cleaner, greener, more energy-efficient, more diversified, value-added economy. We are not making a choice between the environment and the economy. We are building the economy!"

Then Notley turned to the challenge presented to her government by the Leap proposal … and the genuine electoral danger it presents to her government:

“We're acting, really acting, on the basis of a concrete plan that is actually being implemented," she said. "That is what you get to do when you move up from manifestos, to the detailed, principled, practical plans you can really implement by winning an election."

In other words, as the Edmonton Journal's Graham Thomson interpreted her statement, "the Leap Manifesto is a naïve and impractical diatribe that will not win any elections."

Notley challenged NDP delegates from the rest of Canada to deal with the change wrought 11 months ago when Alberta voters "took away one of your favourite enemies."

"There's no climate change denying, science-muzzling, regressive Tory government here any more. So it's time to start thinking differently about Alberta and the 4.4 million fellow Canadians who live here… I am asking you to always remember that hundreds of thousands of Canadians work in resource industries -- here and across Canada."

"I am asking you to leave here more persuaded than perhaps some of us have been that it is possible for Canada to have a forestry industry, an agriculture industry, a mining industry and -- yes -- an energy industry... while being world leaders on the environment."

"We need to be able to get the best possible world price for the oil we produce here, at the level of production that will be responsibly allowed under a climate change plan that is focused effectively on reducing the amount of carbon in each barrel of oil. And the way to do that is through pipelines to tidewater that allows us to diversify our markets and upgrade our products -- here in Canada."

"Pipelines that are built by Canadians," she argued, "support the national goal of being a smart, sophisticated, progressive energy producer on the international stage even as we use the prosperity from that endeavour to carefully reposition our economy and the working people within it to a move diversified, greener future."

"There are voices in our party who want to wave all this away -- and give those Conservatives I was talking about exactly what they need to return to office and to carry on with their agenda," she said. "Progressive parties of government don't let that happen."

This was exactly the Rachel Notley those conservative parties -- still reeling from their loss of power in Edmonton and Ottawa -- fear the most.

As one participant put it during a desperate-sounding unite-the-right rally in Edmonton last week, there's a "Doomsday Scenario" in which the NDP "actually get a pipeline built. … If that ever happens, they're going to govern for the next 20 years!"

Whether or not you agree, and whether or not you think it's very likely, that is Notley’s goal.

Whatever the future holds, after a speech like yesterday's, surely the conservative refrain Notley isn't fighting for what Albertans want is starting to wear pretty thin!

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

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