Skip to main content
gerald caplan

Gerald Caplan is an Africa scholar, a former New Democratic Party national director and a regular panelist on CBC's Power & Politics.

Some old axioms offer insights. Take "Where you sit determines where you stand." It tells you everything you need to know about the federal NDP and its relationship with its cousins in the only NDP government in the country. And vice versa.

In Alberta, Rachel Notley has little alternative but to repudiate the federal party's uncompromising commitment to tough steps against greenhouse gases, with or without the Leap Manifesto. The federal party has equally little choice but to continue its stand, maybe even toughen it, regardless of how it effects the fortunes of the Alberta government. Politics trumps kinship.

If there is any room for compromise here it's not evident. If I were advising Ms. Notley, I'm pretty sure I'd say there was almost none on her part. She must be seen by Alberta citizens as standing up for the economic health of her province, symbolized for Albertans by more pipelines. The federal NDP, similarly, cannot be seen to be supporting any new pipeline. I'm convinced its members are overwhelmingly, passionately anti-pipeline and won't allow it to.

This is all not just sad but, for many of us, heartbreaking. It sometimes seems that if it weren't for bad luck, the NDP would have no luck at all. There's finally an NDP government in Alberta, under a quite wonderful leader, and it faces nothing but trouble, for none of which Rachel Notley is remotely responsible. But you wouldn't know that from some of its more reckless enemies, starting with Kevin O'Leary, whose integrity matches that of The Donald.

Then there's the federal NDP, increasingly predisposed to keeping our resources exactly where they lie, seemingly indifferent to those lost Alberta jobs and the hurt being felt by many Albertans.

Yet if the roles were reversed, so would the positions. If members of the Alberta NDP government were to find themselves in the opposition elsewhere in the country, you can bet most of them would be hard-core global warming warriors, as all sensible people must be. Similarly, I'd bet that if the Leapers were running the government of Alberta, they'd be that much more focused on the province's economic woes than the world's carbon woes.

And yet the fact of the matter is that Ms. Notley is trying to do both. On the one hand she's become the country's highest-profile advocate for a new pipeline. Hearing her push this proposition, I must confess, makes one's heart heavy.

But Ms. Notley is no Brad Wall. You might say much of Leap is already part of her agenda. If she were just a good western politician opportunistically following the example of Saskatchewan's uber-successful premier, Ms. Notley, too, would be a global warming denier and a national unity divider. But listen to her actual message:

"After years of inaction from the previous government, Alberta is now at the forefront in the fight against climate change."

Both the Harper Tories and Alberta Tories failed to get pipeline approval because of their "refusal to deal with climate change."

And in Washington to make sure American politicians are aware of Alberta's new climate change plan, Ms. Notley emphasized her government's determination to reduce its carbon footprint. "Alberta is not the Alberta they [Americans] thought of a year ago, or two years ago, or three years ago," Notley told them. "And the more we can [emphasize] that, the more that helps us finding new markets around the world."

Clearly, Ms. Notley has no illusions about the singularly wretched lobbying job Stephen Harper and her Alberta predecessors inflicted on D.C., infuriating an Obama administration that takes global warming at least somewhat seriously. But the obsessive, mind-numbing focus on pipelines by those Conservative governments, and their flagrant indifference to the climate crisis, made them the least effective lobbyists in world history.

But can the federal NDP live with Ms. Notley's nuanced position, and can the two learn to agree to disagree on this vexed issue? Both sides have problems in such a compromise. The likes of Kevin O'Leary make it very awkward for Ms. Notley to be seen to be compromising in any way with a federal party that has global warming as one of its major priorities. But how can the carbon crisis – already well upon us – be anything less than an overriding priority? And can the federal party accept that Ms. Notley's attempt to satisfy both worlds is a serious way to reduce global warming?

Like me, almost all New Democrats love Rachel Notley, empathize with her great dilemma, and are prepared to cut her a fair amount of slack. I'm pretty sure some revisions to the Leap document dealing more expansively with Alberta's legitimate economic concerns would be acceptable to most NDPers outside Alberta. If I read him right, my good friend James Laxer, among others, has suggested some ways to do so.

But I fear Ms. Notley couldn't buy even a revised and improved Leap, or anything like it, under any circumstances. For both Alberta and the federal NDP, pipelines are the bottom line, the very talisman of their positions.

Eventually, I predict, the Alberta government will feel forced to formally distance itself from its federal kith and kin who will not be able to come up with an offer Ms. Notley can't refuse. For both sides, where they sit will preclude them from taking any other stand.