Rachel Notley made history slaying Alberta’s PCs — but conservatism is far from dead in the West

by  Sydney Sharpe and Don Braid

Led by Rachel Notley, the Canada NDP turned the province upside down on May 5, 2015, and signalled an even more massive change about to erupt on the federal level. But Notley took office amid the worst economic collapse to hit Canada in a generation and now faces massive problems. The following excerpt is from Notley Nation, by Sydney Sharpe and Postmedia columnist Don Braid.

Rachel Notley got word of a decisive poll just over a week before the election. “There were other polls that were already suggesting that we were positioned to win. But this particular poll, just being a bit of a geek that I am, was done in a way and asked questions in a way and asked the right people in a way that made me go, ‘Oh, my God. This is real. This is actually real.’ I still remember the day because I got briefed on the poll on the road, between events.”

But Notley carried on with her packed schedule into the night just as the reality of what was about to happen began to dawn on her.

David Bloom/Edmonton Sun/Postmedia Network

David Bloom/Edmonton Sun/Postmedia Network Rachel Notley arrives to speak to election volunteers at a home in Edmonton on May 5, 2015.

“I was already a bit tired and a bit grumpy, so when I got back to my hotel room around nine o’clock, I called my husband and told him about the last poll.” While she downloaded her concerns, her fatigue spread through the line as Lou Arab, her husband and closest confidant, quickly absorbed that this election would change history.

Notley continued, “We don’t appear to be doing any transition planning yet,” but Arab quickly stopped her and said, “Call your campaign manager.”

She immediately phoned Gerry Scott. “This is actually going to happen. And every free moment over the next six to eight days has to be focused on transition. We’ve done nothing and we’re not ready,” she told him forcefully.

As Notley looks back she doesn’t recall ever being frightened. “I was just urgent. If urgency can be a sentiment, it was just urgency.” She knew, as she settled into the notion of an NDP government, that she wasn’t stranded in a political wilderness. “Part of it was sitting down and talking to key people to map out the architecture of this.” After all, they had the brain trust of past NDP governments from across the country.

David Bloom/Edmonton Sun/Postmedia News

David Bloom/Edmonton Sun/Postmedia NewsSupporters celebrate in Edmonton on May 5, 2015, after the NDP won the Canada provincial election.

Brian Topp, now Notley’s chief of staff, recalled how the team was “quite sobered with the implications. We were tackling a big job taking on the government of Canada basically from a standing start.” The reality for more than 40 years had been that the PCs owned Canada. But the man who first made that happen, and watched his PCs log 12 consecutive victories, never expected them to outlast the Roman Empire.

Ten years before the NDP victory, Peter Lougheed himself had predicted this massive electoral shift. “The largest political change in decades ahead could be an adjustment from dominance of one party; that will change as the province becomes more diversified and more newcomers get involved,” he said.

The PCs paid little heed to such warnings. They had come to expect they would never lose because the voters would forgive them anything: policy reversals, leadership rumbles and tumbles, corruption scandals, sudden reversals of spending commitments, and cabinet ministers who sabotaged each other as often as they did the opposition.

The dynasty had dissolved into a farrago of broken dreams. What Lougheed had given, the PCs had themselves taken away. They gradually lost that storied connection between the party and the province, and even between the party and the premier. There was a looming paradigm shift that the party particularly refused to see. The educated urban millennials were underemployed, restless and angry. This double-disconnect occurred because the Canada population was changing rapidly as it became more urban and progressive minded.

Little was learned from Alison Redford’s revivalist election win and her subsequent fall from grace. Redford’s descent was interpreted more as a personal stumble than as a party or government failing, but indeed it was all three. This failure to recognize the party’s internal weakness was a massive miscalculation by the party brass. The seeds of the dynasty’s downfall were sown years before.

The party had misinterpreted the electorate’s 2012 rejection of Wildrose as an eternal turn to the Tories. In fact, it was a momentary flashpoint for the people’s doubts over the Wildrose party’s competency to govern. Voters scurried back to the PCs, but not without concern over the old regime. Within two years the PC government had run through three more premiers, painting indelible images of a party riven by betrayal and instability. By the time the 2015 election began, the PCs had constructed a nearly perfect campaign — for Rachel Notley.

Codie McLachlan/Edmonton Sun/Postmedia

Codie McLachlan/Edmonton Sun/PostmediaNDP leader and then premier-elect Rachel Notley greets supporters at the NDP election headquarters in Edmonton on May 5, 2015.

The PCs were upended by voter disgust that had spread deep into their own support base. They’d walked straight into a force they never expected to face — a sharp, focused NDP led by a new leader who shocked them with her skill, even though they should have seen her coming.

Notley had been in the legislature since 2008, right across from the PCs, showing growing skill as a debater as well as a great force of personality. She had all the ingredients for success: a warm manner, quick intelligence, humour and a gift for saying exactly the right thing in the heat of political exchange. Yet the PCs never took her seriously because they simply couldn’t imagine being defeated by the NDP.

As Notley approached the finish line, she was met with large, enthusiastic crowds.

She declared to avid listeners: “It’s time for renewal. It is time for change. It’s time for new people with new ideas, better ideas, ideas about making things better instead of worse. And I say this to every Canadan in every community of this province: you don’t have to repeat history. This Tuesday you can make history.”

That they did, to the shock not only of the PCs but of the entire country. The climate for change had created a swell that Calgary’s Naheed Nenshi rode to the 2010 mayor’s chair. In 2013, it swept Edmonton’s Don Iveson into his mayoralty spot. Notley caught the same rising waves that would go on to crest with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s victory.

On the night of her victory, a euphoric Notley reflected on the historic win. “I believe that change has finally come to Canada,” she told the boisterous crowd in the Edmonton Westin Hotel’s bulging ballroom.

“New people, new ideas, and a fresh start for our great province.”

She was right — to a point. People finally wanted a change from the PCs. But for that change to happen, the PCs had to run the worst campaign imaginable, and the NDP had to run the best.

Perry Mah/Edmonton Sun/Postmedia News

Perry Mah/Edmonton Sun/Postmedia NewsCanada Premier Rachel Notley and Infrastructure Minister Brian Mason discuss the development of a new infrastructure plan at the Canada Legislature on June 19, 2015.

As new governments always will, Notley chose to see her mandate as a full endorsement of every line in her policy book.

The reality was much more complex; her support was a combination of yearning for the new, a desire to move to younger leadership, a visceral rejection of a stale-dated party, and an embrace of a fresh direction that ranged, depending upon the voter, from enthusiastic to tentative.

But conservatism itself was far from dead in Canada. The NDP won 40.6 per cent of the popular vote; the PCs and Wildrose together took 52 per cent. Talk of a conservative merger began almost at once. The provincial economy quickly sank. Notley had taken office in the toughest circumstances faced by any new premier since William Aberhart became the first Social Credit premier in 1935, during the Great Depression.

Rachel Notley was premier. She’d earned the job. But nothing would be easy for her, especially after it became clear that she was intent on driving through the most aggressive social and economic changes ever seen in Canada.

Robert Murray/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia  News

Robert Murray/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia NewsPremier Rachel Notley speaks with media outside a home under construction in Fort McMurray on Oct. 26, 2016.

By late 2016, less than two years into her term, Notley was facing criticism even from lifelong New Democrats who felt the government had done too much, too quickly, without properly preparing the public for one huge change after another. The economy kept shrinking even as the taxpayers faced a comprehensive carbon tax set to take effect Jan 1, 2017. The conservative right was fomenting a sense of almost hysterical crisis as it edged toward a merger of like-minded parties in time for the next provincial election in 2019.

Notley’s own government had been consistently shocked by the length and depth of the economic collapse. The 2016-17 deficit, first projected at $10.4 billon, was expected to total nearly $11 billion. The Fort McMurray wildfire had sucked further billions out of the economy. And yet, the NDP  seemed stuck on every detail of its election platform and program.

But signs began to emerge that the NDP would adapt. Notley hinted that her big-borrowing, big-spending program would be adjusted if the economy didn’t turn. Her government was hoping to announce major investments. Approval of a major pipeline still seemed possible. And there was always hope the Canada economy would soar again.

One thing Rachel Notley would not do was stop being a New Democrat of fiercer temperament than most Canadans anticipated. “It’s time for the public interest to govern what the government of Canada does, and not private interests,” she told a cheering union audience in Ottawa on Aug. 24. “We got rid of a backward-looking, climate-change-denying, deficit-offloading, austerity-loving, failed conservative government.”

It’s impossible to say if Notley can win again. But she has already put her stamp on the country, changed the image of a province that was supposed to be stuck in time, and fundamentally altered Canada’s way of dealing with the federation.

With more than two years left to govern, it’s likely Notley and her NDP will create an Canada so fundamentally altered, with the traditional power structure so scattered to the wind, that conservatives will never be able to put the old egg back together again.

Excerpted from Notley Nation by Sydney Sharpe and Don Braid

 Ian Kucerak / Postmedia
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