Rachel Notley is out to prove that her four years as premier of Alberta weren’t a strange political “blip," or an “accidental NDP government,” as Jason Kenney has often described it.
The Alberta NDP Leader still regularly heads into hostile political territory – on this Thursday, it’s downtown Calgary for meetings. Her party raised more money last year than it ever has. And she believes public anger over United Conservative Party cuts to health care and education services in the province is about to take hold.
In short, with an election likely three years away, the former premier sees a path to getting her old job back.
“Yeah, I miss it,” she says during an interview at a coffee house.
“There is a tendency or a risk of people to think that NDP thing was a four-year blip. It’s going to go back to the way it always is," she says, speaking of Alberta’s decades-long history of electing conservative governments.
Instead, she says the political climate in Alberta has become “very volatile – much more so than ever before. So it’s anybody’s game.”
Even if Ms. Notley, 55, believes there is still an opening for her party to form government again, there’s a long and difficult road ahead. Her party has 24 seats in Alberta’s legislature – all but four in the Edmonton area – to the United Conservative Party’s 63.
The economy continues to be top of mind for Albertans – job numbers released Friday show that the unemployment rate is up slightly to 7.3 per cent. In January, Alberta lost another 19,000 jobs – roughly as much as Quebec gained. In that climate of long-term unemployment, the NDP doesn’t have the same credibility outside of Edmonton as does the UCP.
Many Albertans feel that the NDP government took far too long to understand how important issues such as pipeline access or regulatory certainty are to the province’s oil and gas-focused economy. They didn’t like what appeared to be the NDP’s cozy relationship with the federal Liberals, who are deeply unpopular in the province.
Her government, elected in 2015, also introduced and stuck with a significant carbon tax, even as Alberta was suffering some of the worst effects of the global oil price drop. The UCP campaigned vociferously against the tax, and challenged it in the courts. But at the same time, the UCP introduced its own system of greenhouse gas pricing on industrial emitters.
Now, however, the prospect of new pipeline capacity getting built, and whether Ottawa allows a new oil sands development to go ahead, are much more significant issues for Albertans than the carbon tax.
While she was in government, Ottawa introduced legislation that the energy industry says could kill future pipeline projects. But Ms. Notley maintains that it’s better to keep the conversation going with Ottawa, the other provinces, environmentalists and Indigenous groups who oppose pipeline projects and oil sands mines.
Mr. Kenney, she argues, has spent his time in government “firing volleys of rhetorical hostility at the rest of the country.” Recent polls, she says, show support for the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion is slipping in other parts of Canada.
A “progressive” who supports oil and gas development, Ms. Notley is a rare political leader in Canada. She argues that the economic bump that Alberta will get from a $12.6-billion pipeline expansion could fund a “transition” for the province.
"And by transitioning, I don’t mean transitioning away from oil and gas, but I mean diversifying the makeup of our economy, and then obviously investing in emissions reduction.” She adds that she believes the Frontier oil sands mine, proposed by Teck Resources, should and will be approved by the federal Liberals.
The Alberta NDP raised $5.5-million in 2019, and Ms. Notley said a significant amount of the dollars came in after the election. It’s not an entirely shabby showing for an opposition party, compared with the governing UCP’s $7.37-million. And this is the only time that there’s a mention of the federal or other provincial New Democratic parties. “We’re raising more than most other sections of the party in the country.”
In the interview, Ms. Notley also addressed talk late last year that she was considering leaving her job as leader. Such a move would have been devastating to the party – there is no one in her caucus with her recognition or popularity.
Ms. Notley only says it would have been unwise not to have considered her “career arc” after her party’s thumping in the election. But after a period of reflection and encouraged by supporters, she decided to stay on.
“I want us to be leading the country 25 years from now,” she says of Alberta. “We’re not going to be able to do that if we govern from 25 years ago.”