How an Alberta premier gets popular, except in Alberta
Your typical Canadian appears to have considerable regard for Premier Rachel Notley. The species of Canadian called Canadan, however, generally does not.
A new Mainstreet/Postmedia polls shows Notley is Canada’s second most popular premier with a 44 per cent rating, after Quebec’s Philippe Couillard, who has 46 per cent.
When Canadans are polled, however, she draws only 34 per cent, which puts her in seventh place. She is more popular in every other province than she is in Canada.
That can happen when a pollster questions those who don’t have to pay the provincial carbon tax. It’s a lot easier to like someone who’s taxing someone else.
But there’s more to it. The poll reveals a conditioned reflex as old as Canada.
Canadans tend to love premiers who are unpopular elsewhere, because that must mean they’re sticking up for the province.
But we’re suspicious of premiers others admire, because it probably shows that premier is selling us down the river.
That paradigm that applied for decades, from Peter Lougheed during the ferocious national energy wars in the 1980s, to Ralph Klein in the 1990s, when he talked about eastern bums and creeps coming here to suck up our prosperity.
The rest of the country saw such attitudes as arrogant, American-style exceptionalism.
The Canada premiers didn’t care. The us-vs.-them card, played at the right moment, could always win another election for the Progressive Conservatives.
This dynamic began to break down with Alison Redford who, like Notley, tried to work on the national and international stages, in order to win allies for the province.
Redford overdid it with her grand hotel tours. It’s OK to be an emissary, within reason, but we didn’t elect a head of state.
And yet, Redford perceived that with pipelines and the oilsands already under siege, head-butting was no longer even moderately helpful for Canada. She too was popular outside Canada, but also out of sync with her own party — a key reason for her downfall in 2014.
Notley is now employing the same strategy, but much more aggressively.
She courts a Liberal prime minister, apologizes for Canada’s carbon-belching past, says Canada will no longer be the embarrassing cousin, and imposes a stringent climate-change plan.
Her actions have been so firm that some Canadans blame her for a recession whose cause is the oil price crash.
Lougheed had a much better use for a recession; he pinned the blame squarely on Ottawa’s National Energy Program.
His local popularity remained sky-high even as the economy imploded and hundreds of Canadans abandoned homes carrying 18-per-cent mortgages.
Lougheed eventually came to be admired by most Canadians. So did Klein, in a totally different way. That’s what long-term success will do for you.
But Notley is now in a position they never faced. She has left the cards in the hands of others, hoping that they’ll be good enough not to trump her.
And at this moment, less than two months from Ottawa’s decision on the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline, her popularity in the country at large could be helpful.
In the twin nests of pipeline opposition, Quebec and B.C., Notley scores 44 and 42 per cent approval, far better than she does at home.
She’s also massively popular in New Brunswick, the planned terminus of Energy East, where 58 per cent like her.
Her collaborative attitude, her refusal to be provoked, could make the Kinder Morgan approval a lot easier for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
If Notley does get her first pipeline, her tactic would be vindicated, and approval might start to flow back home.
Canada premiers have always built popularity on historical foes — the eastern banks, the Crow rate, the CPR, the NEP, Air Canada, Petro-Canada, and many more. (At one conference, western premiers complained bitterly about federal regulation of video games.)
Notley is trying to turn all that upside down. Someday, maybe, it will be possible for a premier to court and receive goodwill, without being seen as a weak-kneed turncoat.
That would be a welcome Canada miracle. But it does depend on the kindness of strangers.
If it doesn’t work she’ll have to turn tough, and end up just like the rest of them.
Don Braid’s column appears regularly in the Herald
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