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NDP picking up the pieces in Alberta to gather support for Notley

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley announces Alberta's New Royalty Framework in Calgary, Alta., on Friday, Jan. 29, 2016. Whilel Notley's team has taken to operating the gates of media access at the Alberta legislature, federal politicians have happily left that thankless job up to parliamentary reporters since the 1800s.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Larry MacDougal

Nine months after the federal New Democrats entered an election campaign at the top of the polls and anticipating big gains in Alberta following the success of their provincial cousins, Tom Mulcair and his party will meet in Edmonton in April to chart a course for the future.

But the outlook for the NDP is not what is was in the heady days of last summer when those who had slogged in party trenches through multiple elections could finally talk about victory without feigning sincerity, and when the workers in Mr. Mulcair's war room were counting the seats they would pick up in and around the Alberta capital.

Not only have the federal New Democrats been reduced to 44 MPs from the caucus of 95 they had at dissolution – dropping from Official Opposition to third-party status in the process – their popularity provincially has fallen along with the price of oil and recent polls suggest Premier Rachel Notley's team is in third place behind both the Wildrose and the Conservatives.

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Political parties choose the location of their conventions based on the possibility of stirring excitement for their brand and making gains in the host city. That was part of the thinking in 2012 when the executive of the federal NDP decided to hold the 2016 biannual meeting in Edmonton.

The province's capital was identified as a region with strong New Democrat potential, having elected Linda Duncan in Edmonton-Strathcona in 2008.

Plus, party officials took special delight in booking their gathering in the virtual backyard of then Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper. It was seen as a chance to reinforce the message of the day that the NDP was the party best positioned to beat the Conservatives, even in Alberta.

But, after the turn of electoral events last fall, the discussions at the April meeting are likely to focus on ways to the brace the walls of both the provincial and federal parties, as much as creating opportunities to make gains.

Last "May was a big victory for the NDP to be able to break through in a province like Alberta. It was really miraculous that they were able to do that. But now the provincial NDP is on its heels. So I think it will be a combination of shoring things up as well as expansion," said Janet Brown, a Calgary-based public opinion consultant.

"I think it will be 'let's go to Edmonton and let's continue to ride the wave of the great victory in May. But let's also help the crew in Alberta who have run into some pretty tough times with the economy and pretty serious missteps,'" she said. "They are definitely a little bit beleaguered right now."

Despite the problems faced by the provincial party, Ms. Brown said, it is on a better footing than its federal counterpart because Ms. Notley remains personally popular, and the division of provincial riding boundaries around Edmonton spreads the NDP vote more effectively.

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Which is just one hurdle for Mr. Mulcair and his team.

Justin Trudeau and his Liberals are, for the time being at least, the dominant political force on the centre-left. Mr. Harper, who fuelled the kind of anger needed to persuade large numbers of "progressively-minded" Canadians to work – and vote – for the NDP, is gone from power.

Meanwhile, there are serious fundraising issues looming. With the per-vote subsidy gone, and the unions no longer providing a monetary lifeline, how can the NDP persuade Canadians to open their wallets for a party that has no immediate prospects of winning government? How does a weakened party begin to discuss expansion into places such as Alberta?

Ms. Duncan, who remains the sole New Democrat MP to hold a seat between Saskatchewan and British Columbia, concedes that the outcome of the fall election was a blow.

In Alberta, "we had some candidates that were just [losers] by a hair's breadth, I mean, within a week of the election they were winning," she said. "We were stunned when some of those priority candidates didn't win."

The closeness of those races continues to fuel party optimism, Ms. Duncan said

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"There is still a strong base in Alberta. We have an NDP government" provincially, she said. "So we're still hopeful, and that includes in Calgary, that includes in Lethbridge."

The party just needs time to rebuild, she said. "I think it's anybody's guess about what might happen next time."

Next time is, after all, nearly four years away. But there is a lot of ground to be made up between now and then.

"The NDP on the federal level are still in the hinterland in this province," Ms. Brown said. "I think the NDP has to solve their provincial problems first."

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Gloria Galloway has been a journalist for almost 30 years. She worked at the Windsor Star, the Hamilton Spectator, the National Post, the Canadian Press and a number of small newspapers before being hired by The Globe and Mail as deputy national editor in 2001. Gloria returned to reporting two years later and joined the Ottawa bureau in 2004. More

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