Running, limping, falling: The year since Notley crushed Alberta’s Tories
by Dean Bennett
Premier Rachel Notley and her NDP government blow out the candle this week on the one-year anniversary of an historic election win followed by a year of change Canada has not seen in a generation.
In 12 months, Notley has laid the foundation to fundamentally remake the economy — and the identity — of her province at a time when it has been knocked to the canvas by low oil prices.
It’s a blueprint of bold measures underwritten by mammoth debt.
Notley says the enormity of the plan hits her at times, perhaps when she’s out for a run or is recounting the bullet points while vetting a speech.
“When I have just a teeny bit of downtime, that’s when I’ll think to myself, ‘This is good. This is something I’ll be proud of for the rest of my life.’ And that’s a good way to think about the work that you’re doing,” she said in an interview.
“I feel very confident that it was the right decision. I really do.”
The plan is to come out the other side with a greener economy, higher oil prices via a pipeline to a coast, more knowledge-based industries, better care for seniors, better lives for those on minimum wage, improved health care and enough schools so that kids aren’t stacked up like cordwood in portables.
If it fails — or gets cut off at the knees should the NDP lose the next election — it becomes a quixotic lost cause smoldering in $58 billion worth of debt in a province that virtually owed nobody anything a decade ago.
The last year has been an exercise in running, limping, and sometimes falling headlong into a ditch for Notley and government members, most of whom are strong on politics and public service, but green on governing.
It has been a vertiginously steep learning curve for all Canadans.
The night of May 5, 2015, saw the first change of provincial government in almost 44 years. More than 50 NDPers were elected and premier Jim Prentice and his Progressive Conservatives fell to third-party status.
The NDP inherited a flatlining economy as oil prices hit rock bottom and sucked billions of dollars out of the bottom line.
Opponents urged Notley to go the route that Ralph Klein did in the 1990s: cut back on services, reduce the red ink and wait for oil prices to recover.
Instead, the NDP ramped up infrastructure spending to $34 billion over five years, increased taxes on wealthier Canadans, boosted the corporate income tax and announced a plan to boost the minimum wage by almost a third to $15 an hour by 2018.
The centrepiece came in November: a climate-change plan that will impose a broad-based carbon tax on heating and gasoline to pay for green initiatives as Canada caps emissions on oilsands and phases out coal-fired electricity.
Meanwhile, the caucus — a mix of teachers, nurses, executives and twenty-somethings — learned myriad mysteries of power.
It was a bumpy road at times.
The government raised fears it was trying to bust up traditional farm life when it botched the communications plan for new farm safety legislation.
There’s been a lot of anger and threats directed toward Notley and her cabinet members. Police laid charges when one caller phoned the office of Environment Minister Shannon Phillips and allegedly threatened to shoot everyone over the carbon tax.
The caucus had to figure out the house. In one instance, when it appeared the New Democrats were going to lose a minor but embarrassing vote, they illegally entered the chamber after voting began, forcing a rare do-over.
Debate in the house has been less about debate and more a call and response dirge of Armageddon.
Almost daily, Opposition Wildrose Leader Brian Jean updates the number of oilpatch layoffs and condemns the NDP plan as an engraved invitation for investors to move out.
Notley in response labels the Wildrose plan as a clarion call for cuts that would lay cataclysmic waste to health care and education.
She said she follows the debate and the criticism, but doesn’t internalize it.
“Even before I ran as premier, I’ve always been of the view that you don’t read your own press.
“Ground yourself in what you think is the right thing to do, and the merits of your decision-making and your research and your analysis, and move forward on that basis.
“You need to have the courage of your own convictions, not the courage of what other people are saying about you.”
Here are some key events for the NDP government in the year since the election:
May 22: Member of the legislature Deborah Drever is suspended from caucus after social media posts surface containing violent sexual imagery and a homophobic slur. Drever is among a cast of students, newbies and young ambitious leaders who won seats for the NDP and who will bring change to the chamber. Within a year, Service Canada Minister Stephanie McLean is answering questions in the house while carrying her newborn.
May 24: Notley and her government are sworn in on the sun-dappled steps of the legislature to the cheers of thousands. Notley introduces a lean cabinet of 12 ministers. That number will grow to 19 within nine months. The NDP wrongly advertises the swearing in as a party fundraiser, the first of several missteps confusing party events with government ones.
June 15: The NDP begins remaking Canada’s political and economic landscape in its first legislature sitting by increasing taxes on higher-income earners, raising the corporate tax and banning political donations by corporations and unions.
Sept 3: The honeymoon is over for the NDP in Calgary, where it made unprecedented breakthroughs in the general election. A Wildrose party candidate wins a byelection to replace Prentice. About six months later, in another Calgary byelection, another Tory wins to replace Conservative Manmeet Bhullar, who died in a car crash.
Oct 27: The NDP brings in its first budget as a prolonged slump in oil prices continues to hammer Canada’s bottom line. Finance Minister Joe Ceci says infrastructure spending will be ramped up, despite the slump and a $6.1-billion deficit. The government passes legislation to keep spending within 15 per cent of GDP, but months later removes the ceiling as borrowing grows.
Nov 22: Notley and Environment Minister Shannon Phillips introduce a climate-change plan to erase Canada’s reputation for “dirty oil.” They also say it will give the province credibility when asking for new fossil-fuel infrastructure such as pipelines. The plan includes a broad-based carbon tax, caps on oilsands emissions and phase-out of coal-fired electricity.
Dec 10: Despite vocal public backlash, the NDP passes a farm safety bill that gives compensation benefits to paid farm workers and puts them under health-and-safety rules. Opponents fear the red tape will destroy the viability of farm operations and kill the family farm. Protest rallies on the legislature steps are accompanied by anger, threats and hate directed toward Notley and others in her caucus.
Jan 29, 2016: Notley announces that a royalty rate review has determined that what the government collects from oilsands operations is fair and will remain in place. It’s a surprising decision, since the NDP in opposition railed against the PC government for giving away its black gold resources at fire-sale prices. Notley says the industry has changed.
March 9: The spring legislature session opens to what the Opposition Wildrose calls “a gong show.” The NDP caucus pushes past pages to take part in what would have been an illegal vote. It’s one example of the NDP and new Speaker Bob Wanner learning the ropes. NDP member Michael Connolly flips the middle finger to the Wildrose in debate, but denies it until caught red-handed. PC interim leader Ric McIver is tossed out of the house after accusing Wanner of prejudging a decision against him.
April 14: Finance Minister Joe Ceci announces a 2016-17 budget with a $10.4-billion deficit and forecasts another $10.1 billion deficit the year after. Total debt of almost $58 billion expected by 2019. There is no plan to balance the books before 2024. Notley says later that despite low oil prices, the province needs to move ahead to restructure, diversify and green the economy and get off the oil price roller-coaster.
April 24: Notley pitches the need for more pipelines to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his cabinet during a federal retreat in Kananaskis, Alta. Pipelines have become Notley’s idee fixe. She has spent her first year stumping relentlessly on the need for a line to the coast to get better prices abroad. She says given Canada’s critical role in the country’s economy, the province needs Canada’s help.
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