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Opinion Notley’s first year: Calm in crisis, strong in delivery

The first year in office for any rookie premier can be an intimidating one, especially if you've never had previous experience around a cabinet table to learn how the levers of power are pulled.

Or worse still, you have come to office leading a party that has never been in this position before, virtually morphing overnight from a meek opposition force of four legislators to a governing institution of 54.

Just think about that for a moment. And then imagine you are replacing a dynasty that has ruled the province for decades, one that has for generations fed the political ecosystem that is the foundation of any government, one comprising officials and appointees of all manner of description, responsible for roles big and small in the overarching governance of a province.

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And you need to find people, hundreds if not thousands of them, to replenish this ecology with those of your own ideological bent.

That alone is enough to make you ponder with some admiration the enormous task Rachel Notley confronted when she took over as Alberta Premier a year plus a day ago.

Then throw in the ambitious social and economic agenda she has launched amid a crushing blow to Alberta's economy, and more recently the devastating natural disaster that has befallen one of the province's most important towns, and her situation is more impressive still.

Leaders are often defined by how they perform in a time of crisis. If that is the case, Ms. Notley should receive high marks for the way in which she has conducted herself amid one of the most troubling 12 months Alberta has ever known.

The collapse in oil prices has brought the province to its knees, and yet, amid all the anxiety and legitimate fright the situation has incited, the Premier has been a picture of calm and strength.

And now she has to deal with one of the greatest natural disasters the country has ever seen, the devastating Fort McMurray wildfire.

In recent history, I can't recall a rookie political leader, certainly one with so little previous governing experience, who has inherited a more brutal set of circumstances and yet performed with so much poise and natural authority. As much as anything, her job has been consoler-in-chief and she has performed it admirably.

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Of course, this may all not mean a lot three years from now when Ms. Notley and her New Democratic Party go before the public again in an election – but it should. There was a disdainful, almost patronizing tone emitted from the province's conservative old guard when the NDP took over. It went something like: Now you'll see what happens when you elect ideological lefty do-gooders who have little experience running anything.

And yet it is difficult to imagine any of the Progressive Conservative leaders in recent years handling things any better than Rachel Notley has. In fact, it's easy to imagine a couple of them handling things a whole lot worse.

All this is not to say that Alberta's first NDP Premier hasn't made mistakes. Sure she has. There have been bills mismanaged in their rollout. Measures not adequately explained or rationalized.

But has she got the big stuff right? Climate change initiatives. Campaign finance reform. Minimum wage. Infrastructure investment. Over all, I'd say yes. Perhaps even more notable is that a government with so little experience in the role didn't back down in the face of virulent opposition attacks. Instead, it pressed forward.

Ms. Notley has emerged as one of the most impressive political leaders in Canada. One may need to set aside ideological differences to judge that statement fairly, but I would say, on balance, her performance in her first year, under extraordinarily difficult circumstances, has been exemplary.

As Fort McMurray burned this week, a woman whose ties run deep in the province was there to assure those affected that they would be taken care of, that the province had their back. Sometimes these can seem like empty, scripted words from a politician, but in this case they didn't.

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With heat all around, Ms. Notley is displaying immeasurable cool.

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