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For B.C. and Alberta NDP, a close – and complicated – kinship

Paul Fairie

Paul Fairie is a political scientist in Calgary.

Alberta’s unusual status as home to Canada’s only NDP government might be coming to an end, if polls in British Columbia are to be believed this time. The many close ties between the Alberta New Democrats and their B.C. counterparts suggest that Premier Rachel Notley might welcome a partisan companion to the west, but some key policy differences, particularly around pipelines, might make the B.C.-Alberta dynamic less friendly than matching party colours alone suggest.

As in any industry, it is common for parties in different provinces to trade political staff. However, the senior levels of the Alberta and B.C. New Democrats seem especially interconnected. For instance, Ms. Notley’s recently appointed chief of staff, John Heaney, was BC NDP Leader John Horgan’s chief of staff just a few years ago. Jim Rutkowski, principal secretary to the Alberta Premier, was similarly the chief of staff to Carole James, who led the B.C. New Democrats to reasonably close losses in the 2005 and 2009 provincial elections. Even Ms. Notley herself enjoyed a stint at the B.C. Legislature, working as a ministerial assistant to NDP Attorney-General Ujjal Dosanjh in the 1990s.

It would be easy to paint a picture of the Alberta Premier’s office as a satellite operation for the BC NDP, but it’s more complicated than that. Both Mr. Heaney and Mr. Rutkowski grew up in Edmonton, with Mr. Heaney himself having worked for the Alberta NDP caucus in the 1980s. Ultimately, the staffing pipeline between the two provinces flows both ways.

While the closeness of these connections seems intense, political scientists have often noted the NDP’s unusually high level of integration with its sibling parties compared with its rivals. Nationwide, various elements of the party are more closely linked than are Canada’s various Liberal parties. The BC Liberals, for instance, are probably as close to the federal Conservatives as they are to their federal namesake party, and similarly loose connections exist across the country.

The federal Conservatives are even more loosely affiliated with their provincial counterparts, and their own constitution bans them from establishing affiliates.

These ties cause the revolving doors between high-level provincial and federal staffers to be constantly spinning for New Democrats. For instance, a senior adviser on the BC NDP campaign, Bob Dewar, was previously chief of staff to former Manitoba premier Gary Doer, while former Notley chief of staff Brian Topp had previously been both president of the federal NDP and deputy chief of staff to former Saskatchewan premier Roy Romanow.

Despite these countless cozy connections, a BC NDP government might not ultimately be the result that the Alberta New Democrats are hoping for. One of the more prominent wins for the Notley government in the last year has been the long-awaited approval of the controversial Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project, first by the federal government last November and subsequently by the BC Liberal government in January.

This issue leaves the Alberta NDP as the odd one out in the national New Democratic Party family, though not for the first time. During the party’s 2016 national convention, Alberta New Democrats, and Ms. Notley most prominently, fought against the party adopting the LEAP Manifesto, which, among other things, opposed the construction of new infrastructure supporting fossil fuels, such as pipelines.

Ultimately, election night in British Columbia will likely lead to mixed emotions for Alberta New Democrats. Personal and partisan connections will have them cheering for Mr. Horgan’s success, but more Alberta-focused interests, such as the success of the province’s energy industry, will test the strength of the NDP’s inter-provincial integration and there might be some quiet cheering in Edmonton that British Columbia’s polls are just as wrong now as they were in 2013.