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Alberta has never had a one-term government. Will Rachel Notley’s NDP be first?

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Rachel Notley leaves the stage after speaking at the Alberta NDP Convention in Edmonton on Oct. 28, 2018. (Amber Bracken/CP)

Rachel Notley riffed on elemental NDP themes near the end of her speech at her party’s fall convention: hope beats division, working together beats working alone, and being “our sister’s keeper.” Political boilerplate next line: “That is my conviction, and that is why I’m not done fighting, because we have only just begun.” Then, to wrap up, she stated two obvious facts. “My name is Rachel Notley, and I am running again to be your premier!”

To her fellow Alberta New Democrats, it was a throwback to the declarative statements Notley made in her 2015 stump speeches, themselves a nod to the late Jack Layton’s assertion that he was running for prime minister in 2011, when he came closer to that goal than any federal NDP leader in history. Pundits and rivals initially waved off her claim as wide-eyed optimism, until Notley’s sails were filled by a perfect storm—fury at the too-long-governing Tories and the near collapse of the Wildrose Party—and she won a majority by quadrupling the NDP’s traditional vote share.

READ MORE: Ottawa’s offer of financial aid for Alberta’s oil industry falls flat

At the close of 2018, Notley’s declaration sounds about as audacious as it used to. Coming into the spring election, the current premier is again an obvious underdog facing rotten odds. Pro-NDP sentiment in the province has definitively not quadrupled: a punishing recession, record budget deficits and the carbon tax sank the party’s popularity early on, and polls show it has never come close to the highs it enjoyed on voting day 3.5 years ago. More daunting still for Notley: even if the NDP miraculously repeats its 40 per cent haul in the popular vote, it would not be enough—not with the United Conservative Party (UCP), Jason Kenney’s consolidated right-wing squad, routinely polling above 50 per cent. Alberta has never had a one-term government before, but NDP rule is equally foreign here. Unless some profound, unforeseen shift reverses Kenney’s solid lead—and last time shows that zany surprises can happen—he’ll become premier next spring.

In some ways, the energy around Kenney’s party echoes the days of the old Tory dynasty, a 44-year power streak when the province often felt like a one-party state. In many ridings outside the NDP’s historical Edmonton base, UCP nominations have been as hotly contested as general elections, while there’s virtually no jostling for NDP slots. The opposition party and its aligned third-party groups dominate fundraising. In question period, the governing side often attacks more than it defends, as if it’s auditioning to be the official opposition. With this massive advantage, Kenney plans to test how much of a rightward correction Albertans are willing to make. More than just angling to erase the NDP’s four-year imprint on Alberta, he wishes to roll back the political moderation of the Progressive Conservatives before that, too.

In speeches over the course of his 2.5-year project to unite Alberta conservatives and drive them to victory, Kenney has traced a hagiography of past Tory premiers. It begins with party saint Peter Lougheed, leaps to the populist Ralph Klein—and that’s it. Absent are the four Tories who led Alberta after 2006; they belong to those fog-shrouded years when Kenney says the party lost its way, and the further-right Wildrose party ascended. His party’s mission statement is to “renew the Alberta Advantage”—the alliterative slogan Klein coined for his anti-regulation, low-tax provincial ethos, before King Ralph’s successors discarded the brand for something with less swagger. Kenney has spoken of rolling back a cluster of NDP policies and laws (promised first bill for the UCP: a carbon tax repeal act), and has a recent example to follow: Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s summer sitting at Queen’s Park to hastily bulldoze the Kathleen Wynne Liberals’ accomplishments.

RELATED: Government’s tight grasp on Alberta oil: A short(ish) history

After years of a gentler approach on climate change and anti-pipeline activists, Kenney vows a return to Alberta’s old pugnacity with a “fight-back strategy” involving a pro-oil information “war room” in the energy department, and by launching and funding third-party lawsuits against environmental groups—inflammatory measures that may divide even the oil sector itself. Kenney speaks fondly, too, of returning to Alberta’s flat-rate income tax (ended by Jim Prentice, the Tory era’s final premier), and of welcoming more privately delivered health care, a plank no premier has touched since Klein. “I think we’re going to have a mandate to be ambitious with a policy reform agenda,” he told Maclean’s in May.

Various impulses are behind his hawkish push. First, Kenney believes the economic and fiscal times demand it. “We’re broke,” he has replied to questions about the future of solar-panel subsidies and arts funding. Second, his new party includes most of those Wildrosers who found the latter-day PCs far too squishy, while some moderates bolted for the Alberta Party, a minor centrist faction. Third, Kenney’s inner circle believe Albertans crave conservatism; internal polling shown to Maclean’s indicates they prefer ditching the carbon tax and reducing spending rather than hiking taxes and piling on debt; they believe cuts need not affect front-line public services. A key UCP platform author is Mark Milke, a former senior fellow at the conservative Fraser Institute (and occasional Maclean’s columnist). In his newly released book, Ralph vs. Rachel, Milke writes that the post-Klein premiers “were little different from Canada’s perennial interventionist political collective, the New Democratic Party.”

Finally, this all speaks to Kenney’s own values. While he maintains he’s evolved from (or at least doesn’t want to act on) his earlier socially conservative positions on abortion and same-sex marriage, he proudly touts his days as an anti-tax gadfly and head of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, which used to prod Klein to be more fearlessly conservative.

READ MORE: Alberta’s handful of anti-pipeline protesters wage a lonely war

Provincial conservatives aren’t the only ones uniting behind Kenney. The federal Conservatives are keen to help the former Harper cabinet minister sweep Alberta next spring, after they’d long been split between Alberta’s PC and Wildrose factions. He’s the Canadian conservative movement’s most articulate messenger, and many of their number hope he’ll help combat the carbon tax. Restoring such a stalwart in the mythical conservative heartland, then, is a keenly sought prelude to ousting Justin Trudeau as Prime Minister—and one that’ll provide a much needed tactical rehearsal for next fall’s federal campaign.

For the NDP, this Alberta election won’t be the national project the last one was. In 2015, heavyweights from the Manitoba government and the Layton and Thomas Mulcair camps flew in for a training run. This time, federal leader Jagmeet Singh’s camp is threadbare, while the only other New Democrat government is John Horgan’s in Victoria, which Notley banned her team from helping during B.C.’s last campaign due to the Horgan NDP’s anti-pipeline stance. Trudeau’s Liberals would love to retain Notley as a provincial ally, but as much as Kenney is treating Trudeau like a campaign punching bag (an old Alberta pastime), he would be doing Notley no favours by punching back. For an Alberta New Democrat these days, getting help from the federal Liberals is about as politically appealing as buddying up to the B.C. NDP—like choosing between drinking bleach and ammonia.

Notley’s team will fight on undeterred against the mightiest archconservative foe they’ve had in Alberta in ages. Warnings about dire spending cuts, privatization and tax cuts for the wealthy are a key part of the NDP’s defence against Kenney—all classic NDP positions from their opposition days. “We run the risk of rerunning the worst of the Klein years,” says Gil McGowan, long-time head of the Alberta Federation of Labour. (Public-sector and private unions remain the core of Alberta NDP’s base; a former AFL executive authored the party’s 2015 platform.)

RELATED: All the green, leafy, pun-filled names of the pot stores coming to Alberta

New Democrats also assert that Albertans are more progressive than the conservative stereotype suggests. Between their win and past PC victories over Wildrose, they note, voters have repeatedly chosen the party that pledged to safeguard the public sector over one vowing to cut it. Notley’s party says it can balance the budget by 2023; UCP by 2024. Her backers also argue, accurately, that the economy has been recovering, and that the NDP has restrained program spending growth better than past Tory governments. Still, thanks to continuing oil-sector sluggishness, unemployment levels remain ugly while stagnant government revenue has kept deficits high. And party insiders concede that if the election is about the carbon tax, they’ll almost certainly lose.

Fearing they’re outflanked on the economy, Notley’s side has relentlessly attacked Kenney, a former immigration minister, as an extremist on social issues, highlighting would-be candidates and party members with records of racist or homophobic comments—along with some things Kenney himself has uttered. A similar ploy worked to repel the Wildrose Party in 2012, preserving the PC dynasty. But by most indications, Kenney has a long way to fall before he risks losing. Prentice, days before losing as premier in 2015, declared that Alberta “is not an NDP province.” Kenney and his Conservatives are confident Prentice had a point, one brief historical blip notwithstanding.

MORE ABOUT RACHEL NOTLEY:

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Ottawa unveils funding for poultry and egg farmers hurt by free-trade deals

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Canadian egg and poultry farmers who’ve lost domestic market share due to two recent free-trade agreements will soon have access to $691 million in federal cash, Canada’s agriculture minister announced Saturday.

Marie-Claude Bibeau shared details of the long-awaited funds in a virtual news conference.

“Today we position our young farmers for growth and success tomorrow,” she said.

The money follows a previously announced $1.75 billion for the dairy sector linked to free-trade deals with Europe and countries on the Pacific Rim, one that came into effect in 2017 and the other in 2018.

The dairy sector funds were to flow over eight years, and the first $345 million payment was sent out last year.

But on Saturday, Bibeau announced a schedule for the remaining payments that will see the money flow over three years — beginning with $468 million in 2020-21, $469 million in 2021-22 and $468 million in 2022-23.

Bibeau said the most recently announced funds for dairy farmers amount to an average farm of 80 cows receiving a direct payment of $38,000 in the first year.

Payments based on formulas

David Wiens, vice-president of the Dairy Farmers of Canada, said the money will help farms make investments for the future.

“I think particularly for the younger farmers who have really struggled since these agreements have been ratified, they can actually now see opportunities, how they can continue to make those investments on the farm so that they can continue on,” he said.

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Employee of Ottawa Metro store tests positive for COVID-19

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Metro says an employee of its grocery store on Beechwood Avenue in Ottawa has tested positive for COVID-19.

The company says the employee’s positive test result was reported on Nov. 25. The employee had last been at work at the Metro at 50 Beechwood Ave. on Nov. 19.

Earlier this month, Metro reported several cases of COVID-19 at its warehouse on Old Innes Road.

Positive test results were reported on Nov. 2, Nov. 6, Nov. 11, and Nov. 19. The first two employees worked at the produce warehouse at 1184 Old Innes Rd. The other two worked at the distribution centre at the same address.

Metro lists cases of COVID-19 in employees of its stores and warehouses on its website

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Tinseltown: Where 50-year-old ‘tough guys’ become youngsters again

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Audy Czigler wears glitter like a Pennsylvania miner wears coal dust. It’s on his face and hands, in his hair and on his clothing. It’s an occupational hazard that he says he just can’t get rid of.

And when he’s sifting through job applications from people wanting to work at his Tinseltown Christmas Emporium on Somerset Street W. in Hintonburg, the glitter is a consideration. For he’s not looking for people who can simply endure it; no, he’s screening for people who revel and carouse in glitter, for those for whom the 10,000th playing of I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus is as refreshing as the first, for those who believe that the 12 days of Christmas last 365 days a year. The believers.

Sure, he has heard the voices of skeptical passersby on the sidewalk outside his shop, especially in the summer months when visions of sugarplums have receded from many people’s minds.

“I hear them out there a few times a day,” he says, “wondering how a Christmas store can possibly survive year-round.

“I want to go out and tell them,” he adds, but his voice trails off as a customer approaches and asks about an ornament she saw there recently, of a red cardinal in a white heart. Where is it?

There’s scant room for sidewalk skeptics now, crowded out by the dozens of shoppers who, since October, have regularly lined up outside the store, patiently biding their time (and flocks) as pandemic-induced regulations limit the shop to 18 customers at a time.

Once inside, visitors will be forgiven for not first noticing the glitter, or even the rendition of Baby, It’s Cold Outside playing on the speakers. For there’s no specific “first thing” you notice. The first thing you notice is EVERYTHING — a floor-to-ceiling cornucopia of festivity, reminiscent perhaps of how the blind man in the Gospel of John may have felt when Jesus rubbed spit and mud in his eyes and gave him sight for the first time.

https://ottawacitizen.com/news/local-news/tinseltown-where-50-year-old-tough-guys-become-youngsters-again

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