It is not clear what role the members of the Alberta NDP government will choose to play in the federal election. Relations between the Alberta leadership and federal leader Thomas Mulcair became strained after Mulcair used the technical term “Dutch disease” to correctly describe what was happening to the Alberta and federal economies: the focus on a single sector, oil extraction, was jeopardizing the development of a more broadly-based economy. He did not invent this term, which economists, conservative and radical, use frequently, but the Conservative media and Big Oil claimed that he was calling the oil industry a “disease” and made it difficult for Albertans and Canadians to have an important conversation about economic diversification.
But analysis of the campaign promises of the federal NDP with the pledges that elected the NDP in Alberta on May 5 demonstrates that it will be a godsend for the Alberta government if Thomas Mulcair becomes prime minister, particularly if he leads a majority government, though a Mulcair-led minority dependent on the Liberals would also likely be able to introduce many of the pledges in the NDP platform. The federal Liberals are however at odds with the Alberta government’s philosophy and priorities on a number of issues. An NDP federal government would, to put it bluntly, help to fund many of the priorities that the provincial NDP set for itself in this year’s provincial election and give them a national character. The arguments of the Alberta right wing that the province will price itself out of the economic competition for new businesses would fall apart if policies initiated in Alberta are followed by other provinces because of federal leadership.
The Alberta NDP and the federal party are particularly aligned on the issue of implementing a universal childcare policy. The provincial NDP pledged in May to regulate and subsidize childcare to insure that the top rate for quality daycare in the province drops to $25 a day. The federal NDP is going them one better with a plan to cap childcare at $15 a day through subsidies amounting to 60 percent of daycare costs with provinces to provide the remaining funds necessary to ensure the capped childcare costs. The result would almost certainly parallel what happened when the federal plan for universal medicare was introduced in 1968. Though only Saskatchewan had chosen to introduce a universal provincial plan before the feds came into the game, the generous subsidies provided by Ottawa and popular support for a universal program forced all provinces to establish a universal scheme. At the moment only Quebec has a universal scheme and Alberta’s plans to provide a similar program to Quebec’s will be made far easier if the federal government is funding much of the plan. And when all the other provinces join in, the conservative cries of “you are making us uncompetitive” will fall apart quickly.
While the federal Liberals at the end of Paul Martin’s period in government joined the NDP in the latter’s longtime commitment to universal daycare, the election of the right-wing Harper government put the kaibosh on universal daycare. Harper, contemptuous of feminist arguments that the high costs of childcare limited women’s ability to participate fully in the workforce, argued that families rather than the government should determine how money for childcare was spent. So he introduced a modest Universal Childcare Benefit that went to families and did nothing to regulate daycare or its costs. In recent months Justin Trudeau has gone into competition with Harper regarding the size of the benefit and has justly lamented its lack of progressivity. Still, the result has been a weakening of the Liberal commitment to universal daycare–they don’t reject it but are vague about how much they would spend on it, having pledged so much money to the childcare benefit.
The Alberta NDP government would also benefit from Mulcair’s pledge to make $15 the minimum federal wage. It would apply to both federal employees and to contractors hired for federal works. We have already seen that the business lobby in Alberta is screaming at the provincial government for planning to raise the minimum wage to $15 by 2018, claiming that requiring companies to pay more than slave wages to all employees will hurt Alberta companies relative to companies in other provinces. But if the federal government were to set the same minimum as Alberta and impose it on all companies that deal with the feds, it won’t be long before other provinces have raised their minimum wage to $15.
Despite the Alberta government’s concerns about the language that Mulcair uses regarding both the fossil fuel industry and the environment, their perspectives on these issues are almost perfectly matched. The Alberta government has called for the expansion of refineries in Alberta and Canada as opposed to simply exporting oil and the jobs that go with upgrading and refining. Mulcair has similarly made clear his intention to promote refineries as part of his economic diversification strategy. His call for more federal support for non-fossil-fuel industries similarly fits well with the province’s desire to expand its role as an energy superprovince with fossil fuels gradually becoming less of the total picture. The Liberals would also likely be far more supportive on these files than Harper, the prisoner of Big Oil, but their support for the Keystone pipeline which involves only raw bitumen places him somewhat outside of the consensus that the federal and provincial NDP have on the necessity of increasing Canada’s role as a downstream producer of gasoline and other fossil fuel products.
There can be little doubt that the return of the Harper government to power would be a disaster for the Notley government. They would be dealing with a federal government that heaps scorn on social, environmental, and economic diversification programs. There would be a federal-provincial struggle over who should determine the future of Alberta and whether we are really in a “new Alberta” or in a twilight zone where a progressive provincial government faces nothing but roadblocks from an old-style, corrupt, corporate-controlled federal government that looks very much like the provincial PC government that we defeated in May. Progressive voters who voted for the NDP in May (or for that matter, the Liberals or Greens or even the Alberta Party) should give some thought to what their vote in the federal election might mean for their provincial vote. That is true whether they choose to vote for their favourite federal party, their favourite candidate, or for a party/candidate whom they believe is the “strategic candidate.”