Alberta’s first incoming New Democratic Premier must tackle a number of urgent economic and political woes now that the reality of governing has taken hold.
Only hours after her unprecedented victory, the premier-designate extended an olive branch to Alberta’s energy industry, long critical of the NDP platform. “Things are going to be just A-OK here in Alberta,” she said Wednesday morning from the provincial legislature.
Nonetheless, oil and gas shares dropped 3 per cent on Canada’s main stock index as investors pulled back in the wake of the election results.
Rachel Notley had a full first day, promising to work closely with energy-industry leaders over the next four years as she plans to rewrite Alberta’s system of royalties and environmental rules.
Before she can begin to tackle the challenges facing Alberta, she’ll need to create a cabinet from a team of rookies – not an easy task when no New Democrats in Alberta have any previous cabinet experience.
On Tuesday, Ms. Notley’s NDP ousted the 44-year Progressive Conservative dynasty, capturing a majority government with at least 53 of the 87 seats in the provincial legislature – one race still requires a recount. The Tories were reduced to third place and Leader Jim Prentice resigned as leader and gave up his seat.
Ms. Notley is a novice leader, elected to head the provincial NDP only last October. A labour lawyer by training, she has sat in the legislature since 2008. Living in a modest house built in the 1940s, she’s better placed to understand the average Albertan than Mr. Prentice, according to a former PC chief of staff.
“She isn’t someone who is going to rush off and buy a vintage car and then turn around and tell Albertans to tighten their belts,” said Stephen Carter, a chief of staff to former Tory premier Alison Redford.
In early January, Mr. Prentice – a former banking executive – bought a 1956 T-Bird, while telling Albertans to prepare for tough austerity. “She’ll have a much better understanding of what [average] Albertans are going through.” With Mr. Prentice’s resounding defeat, a generation of Alberta politicians has been forced from office. In their place will be a team that fits a wide cross-section of Albertans: energy workers, an electrician, a yoga teacher, university students and a grandmother, among others. The NDP caucus also has a record number of women and Alberta’s first three openly gay Legislative Assembly members.
The average age of Alberta’s MLAs has tumbled from 52 to 40 with the new NDP caucus – incidentally, that’s also the average age in the province. Ms. Notley says the diversity of skills and experience will be a good thing, calling it “an incredible demonstration of democracy.”
The New Democrats will need to start writing a budget quickly. Without a new spending plan, the province will run out of money in the middle of the summer. During her campaign, Ms. Notley also promised a new environmental policy within a month of taking office.
Speaking with The Globe and Mail in the second week of the provincial campaign, Ms. Notley said her top piece of legislation would be a resource commission to audit whether the province is getting good value for its natural endowment. “We’ve been profoundly inept at sharing the windfall of a completely unique level of resources,” she said at the time.
On Wednesday, she was cautious to not commit to a timetable on new legislation. “I will be meeting with key public servants and we are going to be mapping out immediate plans and I will get back to you on that,” she said of a possible royalty review.
The province’s civil service is grappling with the first change of parties since 1971. Some have warned that after such a long dynasty in power, many of the bureaucrats the NDP will need to govern with have been politicized. Duane Bratt, the chair of policy studies at Calgary’s Mount Royal University, said that a PC loss would lead to “chaos” in the government.
Mr. Carter warned that Ms. Notley should move slowly. “It’ll take a new chief of staff three months to find the washrooms,” he said. “Her top challenge has to be the economy. Alberta’s budget is so malformed. We had seven years of boom and we didn’t balance our budget once.”
On their first days, new ministers will be given iPads loaded with hundreds of pages of briefing notes. Ministers will soon be dealing with dozens of major files inherited from the previous government. “Go slow,” he said.
While advocating caution, Mr. Carter disagreed with Mr. Bratt. After so many years of answering to Tory ministers unwilling to break decades of dogma, he said many bureaucrats could finally be “free to give better advice.”
Tom Flanagan, a former adviser to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, said that Ms. Notley could adopt the form of Prairie politics adopted by NDP governments in Saskatchewan and Manitoba. “They avoid disruptive, radical change.
“Her big dilemma will be whether she’ll be adversarial towards the energy industry, which you might expect from positions taken elsewhere by the NDP, or will she recognize that this is Alberta and she needs to help that industry flourish,” he said.
Editor's note: This article incorrectly said the average age of Alberta’s MLAs has tumbled from 52 to 36. In fact the average age has fallen from 52 to 40.Report Typo/Error