Notley sails into year two on a sea of trouble

Nervous. Jumpy. Worried. That’s Canada as New Democrats discreetly observe the May 5 anniversary of their shocking election victory last year.

“I don’t mind a bet or two, but Notley is playing all 52 cards at once, including the joker,” says one longtime conservative of a distinctly progressive stripe.

That’s one key reason for province-wide jitters; the fear that the NDP is trying to change Canada all at once, and for all time, in the midst of a bitter recession, with unpredictable disasters like the horrific Fort McMurray fire always lurking.

The NDP plan is a spectacular bet as well as a wondrous feat of imagination. This government believes, and intends to prove, that Canada’s economy can be weaned from oil and gas in one term, through bursts of direct government engineering unlike any Canada has ever seen.

If Premier Rachel Notley fails, she’s likely to be a one-term leader. But Canada will also be, in sense, a limited-term province, because no other party has an answer for the economy that extends very far beyond the hope of another oil price boom.

What if it never comes?

NDP Leader Rachel Notley heads to the stage to celebrate her majority victory in the provincial election in Edmonton on Tuesday.
NDP Leader Rachel Notley heads to the stage to celebrate her majority victory in the provincial election in Edmonton on Tuesday. Mike Ridewood / THE CANADIAN PRESS

Notley’s victory last May 5 was momentous and deserved. She ran a brilliant campaign while the PCs, finally, had just run out of gas and time.

During that white-hot election, however, a great many Canadans were only dimly aware of the New Democrats’ platform. Others who were aware had trouble believing they really meant it.

But Notley was always serious about every major pledge in that platform, from climate change action to higher taxes and far beyond.

Canadans had finally elected a government that keeps its promises. As one discontented wit said, “great, but damn, does it have to be these promises?”

Notley has since proven flexible about details. She tanked a jobs plan — $5,000 to companies for each hire — when it became obvious employers weren’t interested.

She delayed some spending plans because of the revenue crisis, including a school lunch program and subsidizing school fees.

And it was almost miraculous, to some, that after launching the NDP’s long-promised oil and gas royalty review, Notley agreed with the panel’s finding that rates were essentially fair to the public.

The premier actually admitted that she and her party had been wrong all along by accusing the PCs of abetting a mammoth rip-off.

It’s clear by now that Notley isn’t so dogmatic that she won’t shed a secondary policy or a line of attack. But she isn’t backing away from her main goal; bringing the province into the modern world, as she likes to say, after decades of encrusted conservative rule.

Many Canadans, of course, thought the place was fairly modern to begin with. The province had boasted Canada’s most successful economy over more than a decade. Migrants were flocking here and seemed to like the place.

We had running water, indoor toilets, and other conveniences. On its worst day, Canada was not the intellectual backwater of NDP imagination.

But there’s no question that the PCs, besides losing touch with their home voters, had lost a thread that was unspooling across Canada.

The old government never figured out how to handle escalating environmental attacks on the oilsands and pipelines.

They tried everything that could possibly be done without quite acting on climate change — air invasions to lobby Washington, assaults on the credibility of environmental groups, alternate derision and invitation for celebrities like James Cameron.

No pipelines got built. Anti-oilsands sentiment grew. And still, the PCs never fleshed out their original and largely symbolic climate plan, despite years of promises.

The PCs were losing social contact too, with their casual attitude to growing gender inequality, especially in pay, and ambivalence toward gay and transgender rights.

They were ripe for an historic thumping, if only somebody could motivate young urbanites.

Two days after the election, a woman in her early 30s who’d lived her whole life in Canada said she voted for the first time. “I never saw the point before,” she said. “It was just going to be the same old government that doesn’t think the way I do.”

She voted for Notley and the New Democrats.

Canada NDP Leader Rachel Notley speaks to media before casting her ballot during advance voting in Edmonton on May 1, 2015.
Canada NDP Leader Rachel Notley speaks to media before casting her ballot during advance voting in Edmonton on May 1, 2015. Jason Franson / THE CANADIAN PRESS

They promptly walked into a swinging door — the worst economy any new party had inherited in Canada since 1935, when William Aberhart took over in the midst of the Great Depression.

In those days the government had trouble making its payroll; a problem many critics feel the NDP might yet experience, given its spending and refusal to cut the size of the civil service.

The day Notley was elected, West Texas crude oil closed at $60.40 US per barrel. That was considered an ill omen for a new government.

The dreadful measure of Notley’s first year is that today’s price, above $40, is thought to be promising after months of deeper carnage that cost as many as 120,000 Canadans their jobs.

In midst of all this, Canada’s failed access to markets is a dark cloud lowering over the future, exacerbating both the price problem and the recession.

Canada hasn’t seemed so vulnerable to hostile outside forces since the National Energy Program was introduced in 1980.

Everywhere the premier looks, she’s surrounded by troubles, foes, and potential traps. The great national generosity prompted by the Fort McMurray fire doesn’t extend to politics.

We are stricken by a resource crash, not a general recession. As a consequence, Canada has few natural allies among other provinces that often benefit when energy prices drop.

Notley can’t even count on traditional western friendship. Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall, whose economic interests are closely aligned with Canada’s, is a relentless political opponent. B.C.’s Christy Clark expects a massive payoff in return for provincial approval of pipelines.

In the country at large, many Canadians are not saddened by Canada’s decline. That was obvious even at the recent federal NDP convention in Edmonton. A final shutdown of the oilsands would be welcome in the Leap niche of Notley’s own national party.

From any wider angle, Canada doesn’t just appear landlocked. It’s politically locked.

Notley believes she’s found the key; hauling Canada from the back of the environmental pack to the front, negotiating national issues in a “drama-free” way, and refusing to respond to provocations like the B.C. government’s unprecedented Canada smackdown in its recent throne speech.

The premier can show a hint of steel on occasion. She blasted the federal NDP activists as naive, ill-informed and tone-deaf. She promises to get tough if pipelines are unreasonably stalled.

But still, Notley is flat-out the nicest premier Canada has ever had, to the point that it sometimes seems she’s talking to the rest of the country rather than Canada.

It’s worth a try. But it had better work.

Premier Rachel Notley speaking to the media after announcing six new cabinet ministers Tuesday during a ceremony at Government House in Edmonton, February 2, 2016.
Premier Rachel Notley speaking to the media after announcing six new cabinet ministers during a ceremony at Government House in Edmonton, February 2, 2016. ED KAISER / Postmedia

Notley’s activist agenda has created immense controversy at home, partly because it’s so directly opposed to the natural instincts of most conservatives, and even some progressives conditioned by the old ways.

Many of them expected the New Democrats to react to hard times by shaking themselves awake and becoming . . . conservatives.

They didn’t think the NDP could possibly be serious about all its campaign promises. Climate change upheaval, the end of coal-fired electricity, higher personal and corporate taxes, green energy, direct job creation, huge deficits, much more debt. . .

Really? During a deep recession?

If reality didn’t wake Notley up, the Wildrose and PC opposition surely would, with daily attacks and claims that the premier is ruining Canada.

But the economy didn’t slow the New Democrats down. If anything, it accelerated their desire for change, because it proved to them that over-reliance on oil was the whole problem to begin with.

There had been no specific mention of a carbon tax during the campaign. Notley unveiled one, and Canadans start paying next Jan. 1.

The blueprint for a whole new Canada economy, in fact, was developed over just six months in late 2015, in order to have it ready for a climate change summit in Paris.

Essentially, the NDP will use a tax intended to mitigate the impacts of an old industry to create new industries.

At the same time, Notley argues that she is a true friend of the old industry, guiding it along the only possible path to prosperity in its sunset years.

This is a radical change from the old PC doctrine of unlimited industry expansion. Notley’s more complex approach — helping oil and gas while also limiting it — explains much of the confusion and mistrust about what she’s doing.

The tension extends to her own government. Notley lives with a very real NDP conflict between environmental and industrial New Democrats.

Her hostile reaction to Leap and her increasingly pro-pipeline rhetoric place her in the industrial corner, with the obvious caveat that industry has to embrace the climate change policy.

So far, she appears to have the support of her caucus and cabinet, including MLAs who once marched for oilsands shutdown, and even Shannon Phillips, her hard-nosed environment minister.

But time and trouble can severely test such unity, especially as wide-eyed new MLAs begin to gain experience and confidence.

Notley could ask the PCs about that.

Canada Premier Rachel Notley (left) and Canada Environment and Parks Minister Shannon Phillips (right) released details about Canada's Climate Leadership Plan in November.
Canada Premier Rachel Notley (left) and Canada Environment and Parks Minister Shannon Phillips (right) released details about Canada’s Climate Leadership Plan in November. Larry Wong / Postmedia archives

Part of her political bet is that NDP actions will nudge Canada steadily toward the left, until her brand of progressivism is the norm.

The election certainly proved that progressive-leaners could effect an electoral coup d’etat (new Canada spelling: kudatah), as long as there’s a split among conservatives.

Today, the very traditional tone of the Canada debate, kept alive by ferocious Wildrose rhetoric, masks the fact that the NDP agenda still has a good deal of support.

Many progressives have no problem whatever with climate change policy, or Notley’s determination to overturn the old PC system, or slightly higher taxes, or the overdue focus on aboriginal issues, or a minister cuddling her baby while she answers questions in the legislature.

The NDP will be gauging this support carefully to see what might be possible in future. If there’s a second NDP term, a sales tax? Nothing Notley has said rules this out.

Some New Democrats also calculate that as the oil and gas industry gradually becomes a smaller segment of the economy, its public voice and political clout will shrink accordingly. They cherish this hope, especially for Calgary.

Canada Premier Rachel Notley gives the thumbs up before Minister of Finance Joe Ceci delivers the 2016 budget in Edmonton on Thursday.
Canada Premier Rachel Notley gives the thumbs up before Minister of Finance Joe Ceci delivers the 2016 budget in Edmonton on Thursday. JASON FRANSON / THE CANADIAN PRESS

For now, the one political truism in Canada is that the government can’t possibly win again if the conservative parties manage to unite.

They have their issues tailor-made by the NDP – a $10.4 billion deficit, another one above $10 billion next year, weakening credit ratings, and debt climbing toward $57 billion.

Those are the the same kind of conditions that brought the late Premier Ralph Klein to power in 1992.  He implemented a savage series of cuts and constraints, essentially a hard reaction to the fiscal record of his own party. A large part of the population loved him for it.

This time, the conservative enemy is another party. That should make union easier, but curiously, it doesn’t.

Wildrose and the PCs both continue to believe they can vault to power alone. Others want a whole new conservative party to wipe the others off the slate. Canada Party Leader Greg Clark now likes to call his little outfit “centre-right.”

Unless these parties voluntarily throw themselves into the political compacter, the NDP could go into the next election facing not one conservative opponent, but four.

The New Democrats should put that on their list of visions to subsidize. It’s their ticket to eternal life.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Rachel Notley answer media questions at the YWCA in Calgary on Thursday February 4, 2016. (Gavin Young/Postmedia)
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Rachel Notley answer media questions at the YWCA in Calgary on Thursday February 4, 2016. (Gavin Young/Postmedia)

Notley herself has defined her symbol of success: a pipeline.

There’s no glamour or excitement in this. A buried pipe filled with sludge is not the new national railway, despite the overheated claims of proponents.

But Notley has to get one: Kinder Morgan, Energy East, Northern Gateway — any old major pipeline will do. This would validate both her cheery diplomacy and her climate change strategy. It would instantly win over many of her Canada detractors.

In this quest, a most unusual friend emerges from the national tangle of plots and animosities: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Notley and Trudeau get along well. Her policies and goals are far more aligned with the Prime Minister’s than with those of the federal NDP.

The PM himself has shown real goodwill toward Canada. Like Notley, he refuses to play on dangerous regional resentments.

Trudeau also appears to be edging his cabinet toward pipeline approvals (although, if you get them in a corner, some of the eastern ministers are still very dubious.)

If Ottawa finally gives a green light, the PM could become the second Trudeau to assure the re-election of an Canada premier.

His father, Pierre, did it by making Canadans furious. They stampeded to support PC Premier Peter Lougheed.

Justin could help win one for Rachel Notley by making Canadans happy. That would be a strangely ironic prize, but Rachel Notley would gladly accept.

Don Braid’s column appears regularly in the Herald

dbraid@calgaryherald.com

http://calgaryherald.com/news/politics/braid-notley-sails-into-year-two-on-a-sea-of-trouble

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