Alberta NDP throws down gauntlet, opposition parties accept the challenge

James Wood

Canada New Democrats left their convention Sunday ready to fight for their agenda over the next three years, while opposition parties say they are eager to have that battle with the government.

Premier Rachel Notley — who received nearly 98 per cent support of members in a leadership review — set the tone a day earlier in a celebratory speech in which she signalled the government would go full speed ahead on its plans through the rest of its mandate.

In one example, she said the government would keep its promise to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2018 and dared opposition parties to campaign on rolling it back in the 2019 election.

Brian Mason, the NDP’s former leader who is now a key figure in Notley’s cabinet, said the message from the convention should be clear.

“It’s a sign to our side and our opponents that we are not going to back down,” the government house leader told reporters Sunday at the downtown Hyatt Regency.

“We have a clear program for this province and we’re going to carry it out.”

The three-day event was the first convention for the NDP since the party’s surprise win in the May 2015 provincial election. Taking office for the first time in Canada history, the NDP government embarked on an ambitious program that included significant public sector spending — leading to a projected $10.4-billion deficit — tax hikes for corporations and high-income earners, and a sweeping climate-change plan that includes an incoming carbon tax.

Interim Progressive Conservative Leader Ric McIver said he’s not surprised by the NDP’s determination to forge ahead.

“They’ve been very dogmatic and not at all practical with what they’ve done so far. They’re not thinking of the welfare of Canadans,” said McIver.

Both McIver and Wildrose Leader Brian Jean said the NDP’s $15 minimum wage won’t look so appealing when it drives up unemployment in a province already suffering through a recession because of low oil prices and bad policy.

Jean — who like McIver was at the Mayor’s Pride Brunch in Edmonton — said the NDP backed “draconian ideological measures”

“I’m going to challenge the NDP with a very strong professional political organization that is going to be putting forward big ideas and small ideas that represent the values and priorities of Canadans,” he said.

One potential flashpoint in the future is the government’s planned overhaul of Canada’s labour laws.

The government has already started a review of the various pieces of legislation involved, such as the Labour Relations Code and the Occupational Health and Safety Act, and delegates on Sunday unanimously backed a resolution calling for a modernization of labour laws.

Veteran union leaders such as Canada Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan and United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401 president Doug O’Halloran used strong language to call for changes to a labour playing field they say is tilted in favour of employers.

O’Halloran called for the workers’ compensation system to be fundamentally reformed and for legislation that would limit strikes to eight weeks before mandatory binding arbitration.

“It gives us the option to kick the hell out of the company for eight weeks but they can’t starve us out. We need these laws changed,” he said.

Earlier Sunday, McGowan thanked the government for its stance of “rejecting austerity” and its moves to bolster the provincial minimum wage, bring in farm safety legislation and revamp public sector bargaining.

But he told the party to remain bold and not “lose your nerve in the face of this onslaught of right-wing rhetoric.”

“The window for real progressive legislative action is going to remain open for the next two years or so, before you have to pay your full attention to . . . organizing your re-election campaign,” said McGowan.

“We believe that the best way to prepare for that next win — and there will be another win — the best way to prepare for that inevitable win is to stay strong and focus on what got you here, which is a progressive platform based on our progressive values.”

The labour resolution was one of only a handful passed by delegates, with vows to improve the provincial AISH program, employment opportunities for disabled people and early childhood learning among those also getting approval.

While the mood was generally buoyant among NDP members, some delegates expressed disappointment over a lack of debate over controversial resolutions on pipelines and hydraulic fracturing.

Paul Lawson, a labour delegate from Calgary, said he sensed the party is fearful of anything suggestive of the Leap Manifesto, an anti-fossil fuel agenda under discussion by the federal NDP that has been strongly condemned by Notley and her government.

He said in an interview that the resolution calling for a moratorium on fracking in Canada should have been brought to the floor given the concerns that exist in rural areas.

“There is a fundamental moral obligation to be responsive to the needs of the community the elected representatives serve,” said Lawson.

— With files from Emma Graney, Edmonton Journal

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