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Opinion Federal NDP stance on Trans Mountain pipeline expansion exposes fault lines in party

Jagmeet Singh’s federal NDP has finally let its green flag fly, and for most of his MPs, it’s a relief.

The NDP’s long-standing line on the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion was a foggy assertion that it was sort-of against it, certainly a critic of the process, but not necessarily completely opposed.

Last Wednesday, Mr. Singh seized on the Liberal government’s unpopular suggestion that it might put public money into the project as an opportunity to finally pick a lane. “It’s clear this pipeline should not be built,” he tweeted.

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The downside is that was like chewing off a foot to get out of a bear trap. It cut loose Alberta Premier Rachel Notley’s provincial NDP.

That’s bad enough, but it was a symbol for something more. Ms. Notley’s response was an accusation that Mr. Singh was discarding workers – an argument that has some resonance in constituencies supposedly at the NDP’s core, like steelworkers. Ms. Notley argued that the “vast majority” of New Democrats across the country agree with her.

Now Mr. Singh, who won the leadership last October with a mandate to make his party a contender again, has another Job One: managing the New Democratic coalition.

Traditionally, the NDP has been pretty unified in purpose. It was the Conservatives who had to tend coalitions, like the patching of social and fiscal conservatives.

But increasingly, the NDP is struggling to satisfy both its green, environmental-activist wing and the lunch-bucket concerns of its old-school constituency of unionized workers – who are committed to the NDP in theory but not always in practice.

The federal NDP has leaned toward the green side on TMX. Burnaby-Douglas MP Kennedy Stewart was arrested protesting against the pipeline, and Mr. Singh never said boo. That was a tell.

When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau started to consider backstopping the project with public money – a prospect that, according to recent polls, is unpopular − the federal NDP saw its chance to pick a side.

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Nathan Cullen, the New Democratic MP for Skeena—Bulkley Valley in northwestern B.C., said he takes no joy that the federal party has split on the issue with Ms. Notley.

“The only comfort I take is that consistency and authenticity are really important,” Mr. Cullen said. People “may not agree, but they can respect” the party’s position.

The NDP’s lone Alberta MP, Linda Duncan, is standing behind it. She said she might not have chosen the words Mr. Singh used in his tweet, but the project should not go ahead because it hasn’t had a proper review or garnered the required First Nations support.

B.C. communities are right to worry that there might not be a proper ocean cleanup for spilled bitumen, she said. And projects like it can’t go ahead without the approval of all affected First Nations.

“It isn’t that 40 per cent of First Nations say it’s okay, so it’s okay. It applies to every single First Nation,” said Ms. Duncan, the NDP’s deputy environment critic.

Mr. Cullen is right. Parties have to say what they believe. Voters do want authenticity.

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The problem is when your party has varied views on an issue.

The current NDP split isn’t just between Mr. Singh and Ms. Notley, or between Ms. Notley and B.C. Premier John Horgan, whose opposition to TMX sparked the latest mini-crisis.

Mr. Horgan has his own coalition of environmentalist “greens” and economic-development “browns.” He doesn’t just need the support of three Green Party members in the legislature to keep his minority government alive, he must keep his own coalition together. He backed controversial proposals for an LNG plant and the Site C hydroelectric project, so supporting TMX would have strained his own party.

Federal New Democrats play down the break with Ms. Notley as an understandable difference with a Premier preaching for her province. But there are real internal fault lines. Ms. Duncan differs with Ms. Notley on TMX, but thinks Mr. Horgan displayed “hypocrisy on the B.C. side,” too.

“At the same time, they’re fracking gas and they want to build an LNG plant that’s going to emit a heck of a lot of greenhouse gas. And they approved Site C never having looked at the impact in Alberta,” she said. “So none of them are delivering on their responsibilities in my view.”

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