Can the party survive without its greatest asset? The next leader will need to resist pressure to move too far left

Doug FirbyAlberta’s unlikely alternative government – the NDP – is about to find out what its future looks like without its greatest asset, Rachel Notley.

The former premier announced last week that she is stepping aside as the party’s leader. The decisions party members make in the coming weeks will determine whether it remains a political force in the western province that has made “conservatism” its brand or whether it will slowly slide into obscurity.

Reframing Alberta’s right-wing-on-steroids image is no small trick. The fact that Notley was able to kick-start that once-inconceivable shift is a credit to her likeability and pragmatic prairie socialism. It’s distinctly different from New Democrats in other parts of Canada.

Rachel Notley Alberta NDP
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Under her leadership, the NDP emerged from the fringe and rocketed into the political spotlight. In 2015, it shocked conservatives (and many of the NDP’s own members) by winning the Alberta election and forming the first non-Progressive Conservative government since 1972.

Some of that was luck: The conservative vote was split between the traditional Progressive Conservatives and the upstart Wildrose parties. But conservatives’ condescending dismissal of the NDP’s upset victory as an “accidental government” gives short shrift to Notley’s calm, level-headed campaigning that convinced enough voters that a party on the centre-left wouldn’t kill the province’s Golden Goose.

Even though most of the party’s new MLAs were rookies – and some, let’s face it, not up to the task – Notley and her team were determined to avoid a replay of the NDP’s disastrous 1990-1995 term of power under Ontario Premier Bob Rae. Notley managed that by proactively dealing with emerging problems, such as the controversy over first-term Calgary MLA Deborah Drever – the epitome of a cardboard candidate who was not ready for prime time. When a compromising photo of Drever came to light, Notley jumped on the case, suspended the rookie from caucus, but gave her a chance to earn her way back into the party.

Despite the surprise win, the party quickly got organized and advanced its social agenda, bumping the minimum wage up to $15 an hour and corporate income taxes from 10 to 12 percent. The Notley government smartly placed a consumer carbon tax on fuel, triggered the phaseout of coal-fired electrical generating plants, cut greenhouse gas emissions and boosted the use of renewables.

The environmental strategies helped Alberta win support across the country for the province’s efforts to increase pipeline capacity. And that paid off when the federal government bought – and therefore saved – the Trans Mountain oil pipeline expansion. It remains the only new pipeline shipping Alberta oil to tidewater and stands in sharp contrast to the fiasco of her successor, UCP leader Jason Kenney. His government set $1 billion taxpayer dollars on fire trying to save the Keystone XL pipeline, which anyone with a lick of sense knew was doomed.

The NDP’s agenda was achieved while the province faced an oil price crash that gutted provincial revenues. Conservatives attacked the NDP for its deficit spending, yet its spending record compares favourably to the UCP that replaced it.

Let’s be clear about this point. Despite its “fiscal prudence” blarney during the election campaign, the UCP has not managed provincial coffers better. In 2023, it budgeted to spend $68.3 billion. The NDP, on the other hand, planned to spend $56.2 billion in its last year in office – $12 billion less than the UCP spent last year. It turns out the UCP just had the good fortune of rebounding oil prices to draw from.

Few people seemed to understand, or perhaps care, just how big a role low oil prices played. Critics savaged the NDP for accumulating big deficits, and it lost two elections in a row to the UCP, the second to the flaky but telegenic UCP leader Danielle Smith. Still, the NDP is the largest official opposition in the history of the province, with 38 MLAs sitting in the legislature. Today, it claims to have more members, more volunteers and more money than ever before.

It is hard to overstate “the Notley factor” in the party’s fortunes. A strong, principled woman, Notley is the second generation of a distinguished political family. During the 1970s and early 1980s, her father, Grant Notley, established the NDP brand as a force to be reckoned with in one of Canada’s most conservative provinces. His career was cut short when he died in a plane crash in 1984.

Rachel Notley learned from her father and developed an uncanny ability to counter the conservative orthodoxy in the province. She also defiantly refused to parrot the social democrats in Ottawa, knowing Eastern Canada’s brand of democratic socialism will never play in Alberta.

She understood the oil and gas industry is still the engine that drives this province, and any politician who got too pushy about killing it would be seen as an enemy rather than an ally. Instead, she brought a message of responsible resource management while carefully transitioning the economy. It was a moderate message that many Albertans found acceptable.

For all these achievements, however, this soon will no longer be Rachel’s party. And the choice members make for her successor is a hazardous one. If the party tilts to the left, it may find itself back on the fringe.

History tells us the stakes of getting it wrong couldn’t be higher for the party.

Long-time Alberta political watchers will remember what happened to the provincial Liberal party. It seems hard to believe that just 30 years ago, the Alberta Liberals were favoured to win the 1993 election under leader Laurence Decore, only to be upset by the maverick new leader of the Progressive Conservatives – Ralph Klein. In defeat, the Liberals still held 32 seats and collected 39 percent of the popular vote.

Today, that same party has no seats in the legislature and gained just 0.24 percent of the popular vote in the 2023 election.

This is not necessarily the fate that awaits the New Democrats, but it is a cautionary tale. The Liberals, after all, saw their brand destroyed by decades of indifference and, at times, even hostility from the federal government.

If it hopes to grow and perhaps one day regain power, the NDP must continue to assert its independence from Ottawa. It must stay the course that Notley set and resist pressures from outside forces to conform to a more leftist agenda. Albertans will only consider the NDP a viable alternative if it can continue to demonstrate it understands what it means to lead this province.

Only then will Notley’s legacy be assured.

Doug Firby is an award-winning editorial writer with over four decades of experience working for newspapers, magazines and online publications in Ontario and western Canada. Previously, he served as Editorial Page Editor at the Calgary Herald. 

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