As Rachel Notley and the Alberta NDP prepare for a spring election campaign, they have their sights trained squarely on Danielle Smith and her UCP government. But they ought to keep an eye on Justin Trudeau’s Liberals as well because they seem determined to play a role in May’s provincial election outcome — and not the one most people are expecting.
For all the talk about the “Notley-Trudeau-Singh” alliance, the prime minister keeps doing and saying things that put Alberta’s former premier on her heels. And for a guy who said he wasn’t interested in fighting with Alberta, Trudeau is sure throwing a lot of jabs these days. “One of the challenges is there is a political class in Alberta that has decided that anything to do with climate change is going to be bad for them or for Alberta,” he said recently in an interview with Reuters. “We’ve seen for a while Alberta hesitating around investing in anything related to climate change.”
To most Canadians, this probably sounds like an uncontroversial statement of fact. And in fairness to the prime minister, the current government and the oil and gas establishment that backs it have been remarkably stubborn when it comes to accepting the existence, much less the necessity, of a clean energy transition. They still cling to the idea that Alberta’s future involves new pipelines and expanded oil and gas exports, and they lash out at anyone who dares to suggest otherwise.
But the Alberta government is also very clearly spoiling for a fight with Trudeau’s government, and these remarks gave them the provocation they were looking for. Even some of the province’s more sober-minded pundits worked themselves into a self-righteous lather over the prime minister’s comment and his refusal to acknowledge Alberta’s apparent leadership on carbon capture technology. As the Calgary Herald’s Don Braid wrote in an unusually hysterical column, “Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is either clueless about what’s going on in Alberta, or cares nothing for the truth.”
Trudeau and his team are almost certainly aware of what’s going on in Alberta, though, and how they can use it to their advantage. They understand having Danielle Smith continue to serve as premier will help them make their own re-election pitch to Canadians when the time comes for another federal election. They know that she will be a useful foil for their climate policies and an anchor they can tie around the waist of Pierre Poilievre. And they can see the inevitable attempts by a Smith government to drag its feet on climate policy would force Pierre into either defending or disavowing it.
That helps explain why they keep lobbing political softballs in Smith’s direction, whether it’s the tabling of “Just Transition” legislation right before an election or comments that allow her to talk tough about federal-provincial relations. Yes, they’d surely prefer to work with a Notley government, especially on key areas like climate policy and natural resource development. But more than that, much more than that, they’d prefer to win another federal election. And that will be easier to do with Smith still in power.
This political calculus puts Notley’s NDP and its otherwise decent prospects of winning the next election in serious danger. If the ballot question in May is “who do you trust to manage Alberta’s health care and education systems,” the UCP is in deep trouble. In a December 2022 Abacus Research poll, Notley had a 13-point lead over Smith when it came to who respondents trusted more to handle those two areas. But if people vote on the basis of who they trust to defend Alberta’s interests against Ottawa, the UCP is on much firmer ground.
Notley needs to find a way out of this corner that the prime minister is painting her into, and she needs to do it fast. She started that work in a press conference on Wednesday when she took aim at the federal government and the gap between its rhetoric on a “Just Transition” and the need for real funding. "The object must be to support the growth of jobs within the oil and gas sector that are focused on the work that I think everybody within the oil and gas sector agrees we need to do, which is reduce emissions and ensure that we are well-placed to be the market of choice internationally," she said.
But Notley should remember that Albertans — and, crucially, Calgarians — aren’t as afraid of the energy transition as Smith wants them to be. According to pollster Janet Brown’s research from the fall, 64 per cent of Calgarians think the idea of transitioning away from fossil fuels could be a “good thing,” while only 12 per cent of Albertans think oil and gas is the “single most important issue facing Alberta today.” That’s a far cry from the 29 per cent that chose it in March 2020, much less the 40 per cent that put it atop their list of priorities in March 2018.
Rather than running from the issue or offering up some diluted version of Smith’s pugilistic populism, Notley should lean into that change in attitudes. The best way to defend Alberta’s interests isn’t by burying our collective heads in the oilsands. Instead, it’s by recognizing and embracing the low-carbon future that’s rushing toward us, and fighting for as large a piece of it as possible. That’s a fight that she can win. All it will take is a few well-placed punches of her own.
Justin Trudeau and Rachel Notley have often been on the same page when it comes to climate policy. So why is the prime minister undermining her chances of winning the next provincial election? @maxfawcett writes for @NatObserver #abpoli