Horgan vs. Not­ley vs. Singh: It’s the NDP’S fam­ily feud

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Jag­meet Singh fi­nally had his chance. For months, the fed­eral NDP leader had been say­ing he op­posed Kinder Mor­gan’s Trans Mountain pipe­line project be­cause of how it had been ap­proved. The project — in­tended to nearly triple the ca­pac­ity of an ex­ist­ing pipe­line that runs from Ed­mon­ton to Burn­aby, B.C. — had been green-lit un­der a flawed en­vi­ron­men­tal as­sess­ment process, he ar­gued, but it was a com­pli­cated mes­sage that earned lit­tle at­ten­tion for him or his party as the war of words be­tween gov­ern­ments over the pipe­line’s fu­ture grew hot­ter seem­ingly by the day.

Then on Wed­nes­day morn­ing, fed­eral fi­nance min­is­ter Bill Morneau walked out in front of a row of Cana­dian flags at the Na­tional Press The­atre in Ottawa to an­nounce his gov­ern­ment was will­ing to reimburse Houston-based Kinder Mor­gan for any fi­nan­cial losses caused by the on­go­ing efforts of the B.C. gov­ern­ment, led by Premier John Horgan, to stymie the pipe­line’s con­struc­tion. Singh saw an op­por­tu­nity.

In the pre­ced­ing weeks, New Democrats in Ottawa had been telling re­porters that if the Lib­er­als gave the com­pany a bailout, there would be hell to pay. Singh’s Twit­ter ac­count broad­cast his new line: “Lib­er­als are giv­ing Texas oil com­pany #Kin­der­mor­gan a blank cheque while dump­ing all the risks on Cana­di­ans,” it read. “It’s clear this pipe­line should not be built.”

If it was an at­tack on the fed­eral Lib­er­als, how­ever, the most note­wor­thy re­sponse came from Ed­mon­ton.

“I think Jag­meet Singh is ab­so­lutely, fun­da­men­tally, in­con­tro­vert­ibly in­cor­rect in ev­ery as­pect of that tweet,” Al­berta Premier Rachel Not­ley told re­porters later that day. And so on the most im­por­tant po­lit­i­cal file in Western Canada, the coun­try’s three most prominent New Democrats — Singh, Horgan and Not­ley — turned on each other while the cam­eras rolled.

The NDP should be rid­ing high, tak­ing ad­van­tage of what is for them a rare op­por­tu­nity. The party holds power in two of Canada’s four largest prov­inces for just the sec­ond time in its his­tory, and half a year ago New Democrats across the coun­try voted de­ci­sively for a young, charis­matic new leader in Singh, in the hope he would re­ju­ve­nate the fed­eral party af­ter its dis­ap­point­ing show­ing in the 2015 elec­tion.

But for a po­lit­i­cal fac­tion so of­ten united in vi­o­lent agree­ment, the Trans Mountain pipe­line project is in­stead re­veal­ing the frac­tures. As Not­ley and Horgan’s feud has grown in­creas­ingly bit­ter, Singh has been left to try and strike a po­si­tion that keeps the fam­ily to­gether — leav­ing him, until Wed­nes­day, ped­dling what one NDP in­sider bluntly called a “po­si­tion with­out a con­stituency.”

The NDP’S fed­eral and pro­vin­cial wings are more tightly in­te­grated than those of the Lib­er­als or the Con­ser­va­tives, with mem­ber­ship in most pro­vin­cial NDP wings au­to­mat­i­cally con­fer­ring fed­eral mem­ber­ship as well. So as New Democrats find them­selves gov­ern­ing prov­inces with dra­mat­i­cally op­pos­ing in­ter­ests, called on to rep­re­sent both Cana­di­ans who be­lieve their liveli­hoods de­pend on a pipe­line and those who will risk ar­rest to stop it, the party that sees it­self as one fam­ily is reck­on­ing with a threat to its sense of unity, and iden­tity.

Not­ley and Horgan first met in the early 1990s as staffers for Mike Har­court’s NDP gov­ern­ment in Bri­tish Columbia. Two decades later, when Not­ley won a sur­prise vic­tory in Al­berta’s 2015 elec­tion and formed the prov­ince’s first-ever NDP gov­ern­ment, Horgan — then B.C. op­po­si­tion leader — trav­elled to Ed­mon­ton to at­tend her swear­ing-in. “It was one of the hap­pi­est days I can re­mem­ber,” he said in a re­cent in­ter­view.

But the fault lines were vis­i­ble even then. Horgan said he had been up-front with Not­ley about his plan to campaign against Kinder Mor­gan’s pipe­line ex­pan­sion in the 2017 B.C. elec­tion. “I ex­plained to her where we were go­ing to go dur­ing the elec­tion campaign and she was look­ing for any al­ter­na­tives there might have been,” he told Post­media. “We didn’t find any solutions.”

Un­able to find com­mon ground — and with any chance of her earn­ing a sec­ond man­date from Al­berta vot­ers likely linked to mak­ing head­way on one of sev­eral stalled pipe­line projects — Not­ley fired a pre­emp­tive shot across her erst­while col­league’s bow.

Though it’s com­mon for po­lit­i­cal staffers of the same stripe to lend a hand on cam­paigns in other ju­ris­dic­tions, five months be­fore B.C.’S May 2017 elec­tion she for­bade Al­berta gov­ern­ment staffers from tak­ing leave to help B.C. New Democrats campaign, mak­ing it clear she viewed B.C.’S po­si­tion as in­com­pat­i­ble with her gov­ern­ment’s goals.

De­spite re­ceiv­ing vir­tu­ally no help from their Al­berta coun­ter­parts, Horgan’s NDP formed a mi­nor­ity gov­ern­ment un­der a power-shar­ing deal with the Green Party.

Pipe­line pol­i­tics also played a role in last year’s fed­eral NDP lead­er­ship race. As a can­di­date, Singh came un­der fire from some of his ri­vals for be­ing slow to take a po­si­tion on Trans Mountain. When he fi­nally came out against the project last June, he said it was largely be­cause of the con­cerns of In­dige­nous peo­ple.

Since be­com­ing leader last Oc­to­ber Singh has fo­cused his ar­gu­ments on the en­vi­ron­men­tal as­sess­ment process, leav­ing room for the in­ter­pre­ta­tion, by those who wished to parse it that way, that un­der slightly dif­fer­ent cir­cum­stances his NDP could have sup­ported the ex­pan­sion. In April, he called on the fed­eral gov­ern­ment to re­fer a le­gal ques­tion about B.C.’S ju­ris­dic­tion to reg­u­late the project to the Supreme Court of Canada, which he said would “pro­vide much-needed clar­ity to all in­volved.”

Still, his cau­cus rec­og­nized they could only strad­dle the fence for so long.

“We’ve per­haps re­lied too much on the ar­gu­ment around process to make our case in the past,” MP Nathan Cullen, the party’s B.C. li­ai­son, said in an in­ter­view with Post­media last week.

“Be­ing more de­fin­i­tive … even if they dis­agree with it, (peo­ple) can re­spect it.”

Fel­low B.C. MP Peter Ju­lian, sug­gested that if Morneau de­cided to spend tax­payer dol­lars on the project, the NDP would re­spond with a “very clear re­jec­tion of that.”

En­vi­ron­ment critic Alexan­dre Boulerice also sug­gested a fi­nan­cial com­mit­ment from the Lib­er­als would be a turn­ing point. “The kind of lan­guage we will use will be quite dif­fer­ent if Mr. Trudeau makes the incredibly crazy de­ci­sion to put bil­lions of dol­lars of tax­pay­ers’ money into that project,” Boulerice said last week.

Until this week, Not­ley’s gov­ern­ment had main­tained a stud­ied in­dif­fer­ence to the fed­eral party’s po­si­tion on the pipe­line. Asked in Feb­ru­ary by re­porters whether she ex­pected the fed­eral NDP to join her side of the bat­tle, Not­ley’s an­swer was suc­cinct: “No.”

But on Wed­nes­day, Not­ley found stronger words. “I don’t think the po­si­tions of Mr. Singh nec­es­sar­ily re­flect the vast ma­jor­ity of opin­ions in the NDP across the coun­try,” she said. “It is not, in my view, in any­one’s best in­ter­est to forget work­ing peo­ple in the for­mula go­ing ahead. And I ac­tu­ally think that that’s a fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ple that most New Democrats share.”

If Singh has cho­sen a side, it ap­pears in­formed at least in part by elec­toral cal­cu­la­tion — the fed­eral NDP has far more to lose in B.C. than it stands to gain or even hold in Al­berta. Not­ley’s for­tunes are far from cer­tain in next year’s pro­vin­cial con­test, with Ja­son Ken­ney lead­ing the prov­ince’s newly uni­fied con­ser­va­tive op­po­si­tion. The fed­eral party holds a sin­gle seat in Al­berta com­pared to 14 in B.C. — more than a third of its cau­cus — and it is in B.C. where the party hopes to gain ground in next year’s fed­eral elec­tion, in part by pick­ing up votes from those dis­il­lu­sioned by Justin Trudeau’s pro-pipe­line ap­proach. Singh’s op­po­si­tion to the pipe­line is nec­es­sary if, as some are spec­u­lat­ing, he is con­sid­er­ing run­ning for of­fice in Burn­aby — the heart of op­po­si­tion to Trans Mountain — where a seat will soon be va­cated by NDP MP Kennedy Ste­wart, now a can­di­date for mayor of Van­cou­ver.

How­ever, the sense among B.C. NDP of­fi­cials is that Singh has been try­ing to avoid say­ing too much about the is­sue, and that they’ve largely forged their own path in the pipe­line dis­pute with­out help or in­put from their col­leagues in Ottawa.

The rap­port be­tween the B.C. and Al­berta NDP, once ef­fu­sive and friendly, has in the past few months grown chilly, though it re­mains pro­fes­sional. Not­ley her­self has de­scribed her new re­la­tion­ship with Horgan as “a lit­tle tense.”

Even some flesh-and­blood fam­i­lies are af­fected by the im­passe, as in the case of B.C. MLA Ravi Kahlon, whose sis­ter, Parm, is Not­ley’s spe­cial as­sis­tant.

“We have this un­writ­ten rule at home; when she’s here we don’t talk about it,” said Ravi. “We try to keep it no pipe­line pol­i­tics dis­cus­sion at all.

“It’s the only way you can main­tain it. … She’s staunchly loyal to Premier Not­ley. She’s got her strong views and I have my strong views.”

De­spite the ten­sion, New Democrats in Ottawa, Ed­mon­ton and Vic­to­ria in­sist they’re not let­ting the fight be­come per­sonal. If there’s a civil war within the party, Horgan joked in an in­ter­view, it’s per­haps more of a “civil civil war.”

“How we deal with issues is we have way more in com­mon than we dis­agree on,” he said. “The NDP is a col­lec­tion of in­ter­ests, it has been go­ing back to the 1930s, with farm­ers, in­tel­lec­tu­als and trade union­ists. The NDP in the 21st cen­tury is no dif­fer­ent.”

And yet, some things have changed. NDP gov­ern­ments have rarely, if ever, had to grap­ple with each other over an is­sue as di­vi­sive as Trans Mountain. And in Ottawa, since form­ing the of­fi­cial op­po­si­tion in 2011, the fed­eral NDP has seen it­self, per­haps for the first time, as a party that could form gov­ern­ment.

“We’re a com­pletely dif­fer­ent party than we were 10 to 12 years ago,” said Ju­lian. “It’s the im­men­sity of Canada that we’re re­flect­ing as a party.”

On Wed­nes­day, dur­ing a press con­fer­ence in which he con­demned Morneau’s “blank cheque” for Kinder Mor­gan, Singh was care­ful not to crit­i­cize Not­ley, but he put some dis­tance be­tween them. “I re­spect what Premier Not­ley’s do­ing,” he said. “She’s rep­re­sent­ing the in­ter­ests of Al­berta and Al­berta alone. My anal­y­sis is at a na­tional level.”

Last week, Cullen said his party is fo­cused on Trudeau’s mis­han­dling of Trans Mountain. When it comes to how Al­berta might react to a stronger stance from the fed­eral party, he said, he hopes to “at least earn their un­der­stand­ing of where we’re at.”

But it can’t have been easy for Singh to get to this point. Ac­cord­ing to Cullen, there’s a sim­ple ex­pla­na­tion for the NDP’S re­luc­tance to con­demn the pipe­line out­right.

“Be­cause it’s fam­ily,” he said. “Rachel Not­ley is a friend.

“I don’t want it to get to the point where it’s so toxic that we can’t talk to each other.”

WE TRY TO KEEP IT NO PIPE­LINE POL­I­TICS DIS­CUS­SION.

DAR­RYL DYCK / THE CANA­DIAN PRESS FILES

Fed­eral NDP Leader Jag­meet Singh, at left, is caught in the mid­dle of the in­creas­ingly bit­ter dis­pute be­tween Al­berta NDP Premier Rachel Not­ley and B.C. NDP Premier John Horgan over the Trans Mountain pipe­line ex­pan­sion.

IAN KUCERAK / POST­MEDIA NEWS FILES

DAR­RYL DYCK / THE CANA­DIAN PRESS FILES

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