Gerald Caplan is an Africa scholar, former NDP national director and a regular panelist on CBC's Power and Politics.
Premier Notley: the words trip lightly, naturally, off the tongue. She has done her family, and her many new fans across the country, proud.
So like most Canadians today, I wish her very good luck as she begins to form her government. She'll need it. The task is very much more complex than is generally assumed, not least for a party that never expected to be in this position. The Ontario NDP learned this in spades back in 1990. Picking the cabinet, mobilizing the public service, turning campaign promises into legislation, satisfying the expectations of those who elected you: each one is a massive challenge. But Rachel Notley is lucky. She's surrounded by provinces that are chock-a-bloc with fellow New Democrats who are old hands at governing and who are surely at her beck and call.
She'll have a fine honeymoon, I'm sure, but I'm also afraid it will be short, very short. Because she's also surrounded by many powerful people who wish her and her government a rapid demise and who, we can be pretty certain, are already plotting to make it happen. Call it A Very British Coup syndrome. The name comes a book and film of that name showing how the many enemies of the political left conspire to destroy a Labour Prime Minister in the U.K.
Loosely based on experiences of British Labour governments, the British corporate, political, media and security establishment launch an endless bombardment of dirty tricks, smears, and actual subversion that make it impossible for the Prime Minister to govern. He calls an election, but helicopters off-screen tell us that one way or another, he's chopped liver. The elite would rather not use actual violence; the U.K. is not Chile, after all. But if he won re-election….. That's why it's a very British coup.
And a very Ontario coup as well. One of the first thing Bob Rae's advisers did after the shock of being elected back in 1990 was to show the video to all the new political staffers. It's still available online, a must-see for Alberta New Democrats. But it didn't help in Ontario. Even being aware that dark forces were conspiring against it, the Rae government's goose was cooked within a couple of years. The government was seriously destabilized and a humiliating electoral defeat was guaranteed years in advance. As collateral damage, the myth of a government that couldn't run a hot dog stand was cemented, a deadly perception the NDP has not escaped a quarter-century later.
The onslaught began within months of being elected, as the NDP faced an unrelenting, brutal five-year onslaught unprecedented in Canadian history. The attacks came from all sides. It's no exaggeration to say hysterical fear-mongering, old-fashioned red-baiting and sabotage was the order of the day. The attackers included every manner of business big and small, highly politicized bond traders, almost all private media, the police colluding with certain media against the government, and – by no means least – lobbying/government relations firms that played a key role in organizing the wrecking crew.
The plotters were determined to undermine the NDP government every step of the way, to frustrate the implementation of its policies and to assure its ultimate defeat. In all three goals they were successful. Various corporate interests, led by Conrad Black, threatened a virtual strike of capital if the government carried out its promises of higher business taxes, beefed up union rights, and strengthened environmental regulations. The Sun newspaper often set the agenda for the entire media (to their shame) by gleefully sensationalizing embarrassing facts, unfounded rumours, vicious innuendos and obvious lies. The considerable achievements of the government, largely unappreciated, were wrought in the face of a deep recession and ferocious obstruction.
Is this Alberta's turn? What Albertans have already seen in the week leading to election day gives a small taste of what's likely to come. The soon-to-be premier can be pretty confident it will escalate into a full-blown campaign and cause her considerable grief, much of it carefully co-ordinated and financed behind the scenes, as in Ontario. Alberta's establishment is at least as powerful and determined as Ontario's. Alberta's corporate elite, not least its oil and gas elements, is used to governments that serve its interests. They will have little tolerance for Rachel Notley's agenda, however sensible and moderate it's likely to be. That's what the Rae government failed to understand.
This must already sound ominously familiar to the new Premier. As the Rae government faced the 1990 recession and depleted revenues, so she contends with collapsed oil prices and shrunken revenues. The overwrought attacks on her began the moment her victory seemed possible. The Sun newspaper has already been at it. Business people have threatened to leave the province. Capital, it was said, will not flow in. Jobs will vanish. The dangers of an NDP government to the entire Alberta way of life is already a maxim among the elite.
Of course, this attack failed miserably. But we mustn't think it stopped with the arrival of Premier Notley. On the contrary. It's most likely just the beginning of a major campaign to execute a very Alberta coup.