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Alberta New Democratic Party leader Rachel Notley, left, and her staff enter the Alberta Legislature Building via a spiral staircase for the first time as premier-elect in Edmonton on May 6, 2015. (Dan Riedlhuber/Reuters)
Alberta New Democratic Party leader Rachel Notley, left, and her staff enter the Alberta Legislature Building via a spiral staircase for the first time as premier-elect in Edmonton on May 6, 2015. (Dan Riedlhuber/Reuters)

GARY MASON

Notley's Way: How the Alberta premier became determined Add to ...

Rachel Notley was in her suite at the downtown Westin hotel going over the victory speech she would deliver to the crush of supporters waiting floors below her. She had been imagining this moment for days, and she was aware of the lines near the end of her address that had the potential to make her eyes well up and her voice catch.

So she went over them until she felt confident she could stand before her jubilant tribe and the bank of cameras and calmly thank the two people whose role in her shocking political victory was so crucial.

“Tonight, I also want to say that I’m also thinking about my mother and father,” she began. “I know my mother would be completely over the moon about this. I think my dad would too.”

Alberta’s New Democratic Party Leader and premier-designate vaulted to the forefront of the Canadian political conversation this week as a result of her party’s once-unimaginable triumph. Not only did Ms. Notley’s New Democrats end the reign of one of the most storied political dynasties in the country’s history, the Progressive Conservatives, they utterly annihilated it. The NDP now takes control of a province that Canadians have long identified as the country’s conservative heartland.

The challenges Ms. Notley faces in building a new government are vast. Those who have been there before suggest she proceed with extreme caution. Better to take your time and get things right, former Saskatchewan NDP premier Roy Romanow and others have counselled, than make hasty mistakes in the name of artificial deadlines. Ms. Notley currently has a 53-person caucus in which only four MLAs, including herself, have previous provincial political experience.

The learning curve for all political newcomers is ridiculously steep: They need to figure out everything from parliamentary procedure to finding the washrooms. From this inexperienced group she must fashion a cabinet that will have to deal with the many pressing issues the province is now wrestling with – not the least of which is a slumping oil economy. There is much riding on Ms. Notley’s ability to get things right; many inside the province and across the country are suspicious of her plans.

Those closest to the new premier acknowledge that she is in a unique situation: the head of a centre-left government with custodial duties over an energy economy. How will she reconcile environmental promises with economic assets that can’t be frittered away?

To those outside the province, Ms. Notley, 51, is an unknown commodity. But in the coming years she is almost certainly going to become a national figure; it goes with being premier of the economic engine of the country. Even now, many Canadians are intrigued by this little-known prairie politician who has seemingly arrived on the national scene out of nowhere.

Grant Notley: A political trailblazer

The Notley name is deeply ingrained in Alberta’s political past. “She’s a child of the party in a way that few of our leaders are,” says federal NDP strategist Brian Topp; he was in charge of messaging and communications during the campaign.

Ms. Notley’s father, Grant, helped found the NDP in Alberta in the early 1960s. For 11 years, beginning in 1971, he sat as the only NDP member of the Alberta Legislature. Mr. Notley would become widely respected for his relentless advocacy on behalf of the less fortunate, and his dogged determination to make the NDP relevant in a province that seemed to have an appetite only for a conservative-minded agenda. That didn’t stop Mr. Notley from demanding more dollars for health care, education and the poor. In 1982, he was finally joined in the legislature by another NDP MLA, Ray Martin. It was enough to make the party the official opposition – something to build on.

It all ended abruptly in October of 1984. Mr. Notley was aboard a small plane that crashed in poor weather conditions; he and four others were killed.

Rachel was a 20-year-old undergrad at the University of Alberta in Edmonton when she received a call at 4 a.m. It was her father’s executive assistant, informing her that there had been a crash and that she should go back to her family’s house. Her two younger brothers, Paul and Stephen, were there. Mr. Martin later phoned and told Rachel that her father had died. She would have to tell her mother.

Grant Notley was revered by friends and foes alike. Those who knew him were struck by how dedicated he was to the NDP, despite the absence of support for the party in Alberta. It never deterred him from attending gatherings that sometimes would only draw a handful of people.

Thousands attended his funeral, including politicians from across the country. In a general election two years later, the NDP soared to 16 seats – a surge everyone credited to Mr. Notley’s years of tireless work. Still, his goal of seeing an NDP government one day take over in the province seemed an impossible dream.

‘She was bright, but not impulsive’

Rachel Notley has often said it was her mother, Sandy – who died in 1998 – who helped her develop a deep social conscience. Sandy was a no-nonsense Christian, originally from Massachusetts, who imbued in her daughter the biblical principle that you do unto others as you would have them do unto you. When Rachel was a young child, her mother read her the tale of Robin Hood, and told her that the story reflected Grant’s political philosophy. In that same spirit, she was taking Rachel to protest marches before she was 10.

After finishing high school, Rachel went to Paris and worked as an au pair while learning French. She later studied political science at her father’s alma mater, and quarrelled with her dad often during her early university years.

“He was very cheap,” Stephen says. “When she was going to university, he had her on an allowance of sorts, but it was very strict and so they would argue all the time.”

After finishing her BA, Rachel moved to Toronto to continue her studies, attending Osgoode Hall Law School. She also co-founded, and served as president of an NDP student club, according to a 2007 interview in The Edmonton Journal.

“She was always very connected to the NDP, wherever she was,” Stephen recalls.

Kim Nayyer, a law librarian at the University of Victoria, met Ms. Notley at that NDP student club. (Stephen Lewis’s daughter Ilana was also a member.)

Ms. Nayyer, who grew up in the northern Alberta community of Peace River, knew of Rachel’s father and his political legacy. “Grant Notley was a very prominent, very well-liked MLA,” she says. “He worked hard. He was out there a lot. He was respectful. I see Rachel exhibiting the same … characteristics that he displayed – the hard work, the honesty, the graciousness and the humour.”

After law school, Rachel became a legal advocate for workers in Alberta and British Columbia, representing them on health and safety issues and on worker compensation claims.

In B.C., she also worked as a ministerial assistant to former NDP premier Ujjal Dosanjh, then the attorney-general. He remembers an aide who was sure of herself, but not closed-minded. “She was very politically savvy,” Mr. Dosanjh says. “She was bright but not impulsive. Everyone knew she was Grant’s daughter. She had great political smarts. She was a wonderful sounding board. And just really, really likeable.”

Along the way, she would also marry Lou Arab, a communications officer with the Canadian Union of Public Employees, and have two children.

In the 2008 Alberta election, Ms. Notley decided to take what seemed like an inevitable plunge into politics, winning the NDP’s nomination in Edmonton-Strathcona by acclamation. She and then-party leader Brian Mason would be the only two New Democrats elected to the provincial legislature that year. It was a lonely time for the pair but Mr. Mason knew the rookie sitting beside him had special qualities.

“In the time we worked together she picked up every skill you can think of,” Mr. Mason said in an interview. “She is very quick on her feet and that’s really important in this business. She also has an outgoing and warm personality which will also help her when dealing with the public. And she’s really fun to be around.

“The one thing I struggled to teach her was how to heckle in the legislature. I’m really good at it but she struggles. But I guess now that’s kind of a moot point.”

From now on, she’s the one who will be getting heckled.

The building blocks of change

Since her historic victory, Ms. Notley has mostly been behind closed doors with her transition team, which is being chaired by Mr. Topp. Also assisting is Anne McGrath, the party’s national director and former chief of staff to NDP icon Jack Layton. Others in the group include members of Ms. Notley’s team in opposition, chief of staff Adrienne King and principal secretary Robin Steudel. Rounding out the group are John Heaney, chief adviser to B.C. NDP leader John Horgan, and Brian Stokes, Alberta NDP’s provincial secretary.

A transition team has two primary functions. It serves as a hiring committee for the many senior political positions that will need to be filled in government, and it provides strategic advice to the incoming premier on how to build a cohesive caucus. In Ms. Notley’s case, this includes, especially, advice on how to develop party infrastructure in parts of the province where there has been little NDP presence up to now.

This is not your run-of-the-mill transition. The NDP is taking over from a party that has been in power for nearly 44 years. And to compound matters, the NDP is an extremely inexperienced group, with almost no institutional knowledge to fall back on. The transition team, and in particular Mr. Topp, have been reaching out to others across the country looking for advice on how to ensure the New Democrats get off on the right foot. The group has obtained “transition binders” from former NDP administrations across Canada, including regimes in B.C., Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia.

One key figure the transition team has turned to is Mr. Romanow. In an interview with The Globe and Mail, he was vague about the conversations he has had with the premier-designate, but it’s understood that he has provided Ms. Notley’s aides with the meticulous files he has kept on how to build a legislative framework, the intricacies of executive power, how the committee structure works in a parliamentary democracy.

Mr. Romanow says it’s vital that Ms. Notley give herself enough time to become informed on all the major issues confronting the government before assuming office, even if that alone takes a couple of weeks.

“This is essential, especially when talking about a province that has a constituency that in many ways extends beyond the four corners of the province,” Mr. Romanow says. “It’s a national constituency, it’s an international constituency.”

He says Ms. Notley will have to immediately begin to build the political staff in her office. Among other things, they are critical for co-ordinating effectively with the bureaucracy. “You want people who are empathetic to your political objectives, certainly,” Mr. Romanow says. “But in my experience, intelligence trumps everything. They need to canvass the national pool of talent that exists. My model was very simple: surround yourself with people who are as smart or smarter than you.”

Ms. Notley’s team has also sought the counsel of former B.C. premier Glen Clark. He headed a New Democrat government from 1996 to 1999, but perhaps more important, he was a key figure in the party when it took power from Social Credit in 1991, after 16 years in office.

Mr. Clark told The Globe that one of the first things Ms. Notley and her troops are going to discover is that decisions are much more complicated that they look on the outside. Her government will not want to succumb to the status quo that the bureaucracy will be advocating. But neither should they proceed blindly into pursuing new policies without the benefit of loads of research.

“They will inherit a bureaucracy that almost certainly will have gone stale,” Mr. Clark says. “With one party in power for 40 years you have learned to have one perspective on your world view. [Bureaucrats are] not bad people it’s just that they haven’t thought about an alternative world view. They’ll be trying to be good bureaucrats, imagining what their new masters want to hear. It’s going to be difficult for a while.”

‘We’re going to have to find a meeting of the minds’

The Alberta NDP is likely to discover that everything from finances to cronyism is worse than they imagined, Mr. Clark also warns. When the NDP took over in B.C. in 1991, Mr. Clark, who was named finance minister, ordered an audit of the government’s books. What Social Credit had been saying was a $400,000 deficit during the election campaign was actually $2.4-billion.

“Because there has been one party rule there will be problems. … I predict they’ll be dozens of them. The challenge of the government will be to bring them to light as quickly as possible. They’re so fresh and have so little experience in government they won’t know where to look to start. The bureaucracy won’t want to help because it has been complicit, and I don’t mean to make them sound nefarious, but they have been part of working with government to paper over issues that have arisen over the years.”

Mr. Clark is recommending the NDP order a full-scale, non-partisan audit of government operations. In his view, the new government will need to find savings within the system to finance some of their new spending priorities. “The magic in government will be to reallocate resources and not simply add cost. They need to find programs and policies they can kill to free up money for the priorities they campaigned on.”

Ms. Notley and her caucus will need to root out these problems quickly because, Mr. Clark suggests, after six months all problems are the new government’s, not the old regime’s. Mr. Topp confirmed that the transition team is already working on cabinet recommendations. These will be turned over to the new premier, who makes the final call. “Cabinet-making is a lonely job,” he said.

One of the most important files for the new government will be energy, Mr. Topp says. The premier-designate has moved quickly to try to allay concerns that the NDP will make moves to undermine the oil and gas industries.

The day after the election, Ms. Notley phoned several of the industry’s top leaders to assure them there would not be any hasty decisions on her part. At the same time, she has made commitments to address long-ignored environmental concerns.

“We need to find an interesting balance here with energy,” Mr. Topp says.

“We’re not going to be able to impose change on the industry. We’re going to have to find a meeting of the minds. That is what she is saying in her phone calls to industry leaders.”

Back at the Westin ballroom on election night, Rachel Notley and those around her knew what her father would have made of the moment she was now enjoying. She was aware, too, of the symbolism inherent in her victory; she had completed the journey her father had started more than 50 years earlier. The NDP had reached the mountaintop he could only imagine in his dreams – and his daughter led the ascent.

“I’m sorry he couldn’t see this,” Ms. Notley told the crowd, some of whom had tears streaming down their face.

“This really was his life’s work but I can say this: I know how proud he’d be of the province we all love.”

With a report from Renata D’Aliesio

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