Invited crowd means no cold shoulder for Notley

Don Braid, Calgary Herald
More from Don Braid, Calgary Herald

Premier Rachel Notley still insists she wasn’t insulted last October, when Calgary business people were as silent as a morgue at midnight during her state of the province speech.

That wasn’t just a Calgary cold shoulder. It was more like banishment to an ice floe. The major lights of Calgary business could not have made their disdain for the NDP, and Notley, more obvious.

The audience was just watchful, Notley mildly said at the time. Right — the way an eagle watches a minnow.

But Notley’s staff was furious. That wasn’t going to happen again.

On Wednesday, it didn’t.

For the first time in memory, a premier’s state of the province speech was not delivered to a business audience under the sponsorship of an organization like the chamber of commerce.

The government rented the foyer of the Jack Singer Concert Hall. All the guests were invited.

They included people from charities, non-governmental organizations, labour, First Nations, health care, education, environmental groups and many other fields.

Business people were there, too, as one of many minorities.

The Jack Singer event cost the government slightly more than $20,000, according to the premier’s office. That includes $2,000 for rent and $18,000 for production and other costs.

A lot of people won’t like that, including some of the very business types who might have saved the money by being marginally hospitable last year.

Everything about this one was different.

Notley’s introduction to the crowd was not the usual recitation of business credentials and friendship, but an effusive tribute to the arts from Johann Zietsman, CEO of Arts Commons.

Notley got 20 separate rounds of modest applause. They rippled around the room as she reiterated her promises not to cut funding for various public areas.

It made for a gigantic contrast with last year, when she was accorded a few seconds of almost inaudible sound that may have been hand-wringing, not actual clapping.

“This year we wanted to invite a wide spectrum of people who don’t normally get to hear this speech,” says Notley’s communications chief, Cheryl Oates.

“And it was free to the guests. Nobody had to buy a ticket as they did under the other format. We think it’s good to deliver this speech to a wide variety of people in the community.”

Last year, Notley made some of her own troubles by failing to properly recognize the agony of people going through job losses and business failures.

Also, the federal election was near and she made the mistake of publicly endorsing Thomas Mulcair to the business crowd.

This time she was more attuned to the public mood.

Her comments on the late premier Jim Prentice were very touching. She reviewed his quiet helpfulness for national parks, indigenous people, and much else, including her own hectic transition to government last year.

The premier also recognized Calgary’s economic agony. “Far too many Canada families are worrying today about their employment and economic security,” she said. “I know that is very much the case in Calgary.”

Not long before she spoke, Enbridge Inc. announced it has cut 370 jobs in Canada, including many in Calgary. It’s the second five per cent staff reduction in a year.

After the speech, Notley was asked for her reaction to a new poll that shows the Progressive Conservatives ahead in Canada, with her own NDP deep in third place with less than 20 per cent support.

She repeated her standard line that polls are meaningless two and a half years before an election.

She suggested that no government could be popular in an economy like this. She said she’ll just keep working, and hope that by 2019 her record will be strong enough to appeal to voters.

It sounds almost fatalistic. Perhaps that’s why, even in a roomful of allies, her message of policies for the future didn’t generate much enthusiasm.

Meanwhile, the real friend of Canada governments was at work outside.

Oil closed at its highest price in more than a year, US$51.82 per barrel. Like many a premier before her, Notley may find that her fate comes down to that.

Don Braid’s column appears regularly in the Herald

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