Rachel Notley, still standing
Alberta's first NDP premier surveys the Kenney-less landscape
On the day after Alberta premier Jason Kenney got such a low vote of confidence in the United Conservative Party leadership review he announced his resignation from politics, Rachel Notley was taking calls. I had taken care to talk my way into the queue.
“How much time do I have?” I asked.
“About 15 minutes,” one of the Alberta NDP leader’s staff members said.
“Really?” Notley said. Fifteen minutes is pretty long for a TV-style exchange. Fortunately I’m only pretending to be on TV. Here, watch for yourself:
”I don’t think that there was actually a significant change,” Notley said about her successor’s defeat. The NDP is concentrating on health-care affordability and “trust and competence,” Notley said. “Those are things the UCP has been completely ignoring for months and months and months because of the ongoing infighting.”
Wednesday’s vote won’t end the extended conservative movement’s arguments about founding principles, she said. “They’ll be them. And we will continue being us.”
This is a familiar line from a party leader who is watching their main rival go through internal struggles. Jean Chrétien used to say, “I don’t pick my opponent. They send me whoever they want.” Similarly, Notley says she’s not particularly interested in guessing who she’ll be running against, in an election that is at least theoretically fixed for May, 2023.
“It just became more and more of a circus,” she said of the making, partial unmaking, and un-crowning of Kenney’s party.
“I can't really speak to whether they'll go right, left, or split into one or two different parties — or three different parties,” she said. “What I know for sure will be that Albertans will not be part of that conversation.”
Notley is not assuming the May 2023 election date will hold. A new premier might want to go to voters sooner than that. The NDP has been nominating candidates to prepare. “It’s taking us a bit longer now because so many of our riding [nominations] are contested by multiple people.”
In her first public comments on Kenney’s bad night, a few hours before I interviewed her, Notley said she’d head into the next campaign applying lessons she learned as premier from 2015 to 2019 — the things they got right, and the things they got wrong. Of course I asked about the latter.
“One thing that people said to us is that they really wanted to see that we had a more experienced team.” Fair: the first NDP government in Alberta’s history had, in the nature of things, not a lot of members with government experience. As her morning remarks with her caucus showed, Notley is already taking care to list the credentials of most of her MLAs and a lot of her candidates. “Team” vs. “loner” will be one likely NDP theme.
The other lesson-learned was harder for Notley to spell out: “Our commitment to engaging more collaboratively, in a more responsive way, to stakeholders across our province. With a diverse range of interests. Doesn't mean we're always going to have consensus on every piece that we bring forward. But it does mean that we'll have listened and know where these folks are coming from. And do our best to mitigate whatever disagreement there might be.”
When Notley starts using more words, it’s usually a sign that she’s talking about implementing ambitious environmental policy in Canada’s resource heartland. And indeed, this was a variation of that. “When it came to the Climate Leadership Plan, I will say I could have done a better job hearing from folks in rural Alberta about the consequences of that plan to their farming activities, to their day-to-day life routines.”
As I’ve learned, a lot of farmers will talk your ear off about the real burden of carbon taxes on their carbon-intensive work. And you can’t exactly take an electric bus out to your fields. Notley’s heard multiples of anything I ever heard. Will she propose exemptions or subsidies for investments in new equipment? Maybe. “The trick is to get these folks in a room and really roll up our sleeves and work it out from a policy perspective.”
In a lot of ways, Alberta after COVID — exhausted, divided over the most fundamental terms of the public-health debate, let alone over specific measures — is like an old joke: first prize is you get to be premier, second prize is you get to be premier again. Can Notley survive the tidal forces that whipsawed Kenney out of a job? She argues Kenney tried to play every side of COVID, science on some days and skepticism on others. “We will not play politics with some of the folks who are, perhaps, on the fringe,” she said. “Even in a place like Ontario, with a very Conservative premier, there was a steadier hand there and more consistency.”
She used to get so mad at Justin Trudeau I could see in her eyes that she was editing the good stuff out of her answers as she scrummed. Can she get better results from his government in 2023 than in 2018? And what if the federal government, by then or shortly after, winds up being led by one of Jason Kenney’s former federal cabinet colleagues? Notley gave a long-ish answer, and then our 15 minutes were up. I’m pretty sure I’ll have occasion to ask those questions again.