Rachel Notley is staying on as leader of the Alberta New Democratic Party after losing her second election in a row, despite competing against an opposing party and leader that dealt with multiple missteps and controversies throughout the four-week campaign.
But at the NDP’s election headquarters in Edmonton, it was a loss that felt like a victory.
Ms. Notley arrived to thunderous cheers and applause late Monday night. During an at-times emotional speech, she said that while the outcome was not what she had hoped for, she was grateful for the highest number of votes ever received by her party, which will now form the largest Official Opposition in the province’s history.
“Where we fell short, the responsibility rests entirely with me,” she said. “But I do know that we ran a strong, principled campaign and it was based on our beliefs and our desire to create a better future for all Albertans.”
Throughout the speech, people in the room chanted “NDP! NDP!” and “Rachel! Rachel!”
The NDP, always a powerhouse in Edmonton, is now well represented in both of Alberta’s largest cities while the UCP dominates in rural Alberta. While at least two ridings with narrow margins of victory will be subject to recounts, the NDP ended election night with 38 seats, up from just 24 in 2019.
“The unprecedented growth of our party through this campaign is a warm light, one that gives me so much optimism for the work to come,” Ms. Notley said. “Now is not the time to let up. Now is the time to step up, to do the work that has been asked of us. It is my honour to serve as your leader and it is my privilege to continue to serve as leader of the Official Opposition.”
Ms. Notley said the elected members will forge ahead on issues such as education, health care and the economy, while fighting for human rights and the rule of law. She also made a direct request to Premier Danielle Smith to “move past division” and listen to Albertans from every corner of the province.
The NDP did manage to unseat several high-profile United Conservative Party members, including former health minister Jason Copping in Calgary-Varsity, former mental health and addiction minister Nicholas Milliken in Calgary-Currie and deputy premier Kaycee Madu in Edmonton South West.
The NDP campaign was simultaneously criticized for focusing too heavily on attacking Ms. Smith and also not hitting harder. And the leaders’ debate, seen as an opportunity for Ms. Notley to distinguish herself, likely failed to drum up new votes for the NDP, despite her efforts to capitalize on an ethics commissioner report that concluded Ms. Smith interfered in the administration of justice.
Perhaps the biggest damage to the NDP was caused by its pledge to increase the corporate tax to 11 per cent from 8 per cent. Ms. Notley defended it as a “stable, thoughtful” economic plan and stressed that Alberta would still have the lowest corporate tax rate in the country. But the plan was criticized as harmful to the economy and a threat to jobs.
Despite the inevitable questions about Ms. Notley’s future and where the NDP went wrong, it was always going to be an uphill battle to overcome the conservative hold on Alberta.
When the party landed a historic win in 2015, upending a 43-year Progressive Conservative dynasty, the result was largely attributed to vote splitting between the PCs and the Wildrose Party. The NDP secured 604,518 votes compared with a combined total of 774,121 between both conservative parties. When they merged to form the UCP, the NDP went on to lose the 2019 election in a landslide.
It is also practically unheard of, in any Canadian province, to be re-elected as premier after serving as the Official Opposition leader. Ms. Notley, first elected in 2008, is one of the longest-serving politicians in Alberta’s history. She will serve her fifth consecutive term as MLA after Monday night’s easy win in Edmonton-Strathcona.
Lisa Young, a political scientist from the University of Calgary, said Ms. Notley has helped keep the NDP competitive in Alberta but carries seemingly unshakable baggage, being repeatedly hammered on bread-and-butter issues such as the economy and taxation.
“She has name recognition and support in a way that relatively few political leaders have and she was able to lead the party through a period of really strategic party building,” Dr. Young said.
“But I think one of the things that we saw in the debate is that she also has personal negatives that limit the party’s ability to appeal beyond a certain point. In some ways, she had to defend her record like she was the incumbent in this election.”
But Dr. Young said the NDP can point to this campaign as a success. Not only did the NDP gain ground in Calgary but it proved again that this “come from nowhere party” is a powerful piece on Alberta’s political chessboard.
“If they’re increasingly the party of diverse, urban Alberta, the fundamentals look good for them. They just need to capitalize on that,” she said.
Alberta political strategist Stephen Carter said he thought Ms. Notley might stay on as leader until it becomes clear if the UCP will “actually hold together” as progressive conservatives knock heads with the right flank of the party, largely supported by the populist group Take Back Alberta.
The TBA movement was built on anger at COVID-19 restrictions and is comprised of people united by an individualistic understanding of rights and freedoms, with close ties to Ms. Smith. The group backed a number of candidates running under the UCP banner.
“Do they push through to leadership? If Take Back Alberta controls the outcomes of that leadership, we get into a very real possibility where there are some MLAs who say, ‘I cannot sit in this space’ and they move and now we’ve got a minority government,” said Mr. Carter.
“That minority government may not be able to stand and then we’re back into an election again.”
With a report from Jana G. Pruden in Edmonton