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Alberta premier-elect Rachel Notley speaks to the media during a press conference in Edmonton on Wednesday. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)
Alberta premier-elect Rachel Notley speaks to the media during a press conference in Edmonton on Wednesday. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

ALBERTA

Rachel Notley’s victory shows the system does work Add to ...

Back in 1990, in a fit of pique, I cast my vote in Ontario for Bob Rae and the NDP. I never expected him to win. I was just mad at the other guys. Imagine my surprise when I woke up the next morning and discovered he was premier. The entire province was aghast. I thought it would be a train wreck, and it was.

Will Rachel Notley be a train wreck? I don’t think so. Unlike Mr. Rae, she doesn’t feel like the leader of a left-wing horde of crazies who got in by mistake. She feels like a gust of fresh air blowing the cobwebs out of all those stale backrooms where old boys lurked. When Albertans woke up the day after the election, a lot of them were smiling. Ms. Notley is by all accounts level-headed, smart and down-to-earth, like her dad. Even though most of them didn’t vote for her, she’s riding an upswell of goodwill.

Mr. Rae’s crew were red-diaper socialists who really did think that capitalism and big business were the root of all evil. They despised the private sector so much that the poor saps who happened to work on Bay Street couldn’t even get an audience with the government. Ms. Notley has set a different tone. She has been courteous to the oil and gas people, some of whom have practically gone into cardiac arrest. She clearly has no intention of killing the geese that lay the golden eggs (even if they’re not as golden these days). She’s even said she’ll work with the Harper government. Such sentiments are anathema to certain NDPers, who booed her when she said that. In response, she told them to grow up.

Whether the adults can keep a grip on their eager-beaver bunch of rookies remains to be seen. (Mr. Rae had a hard time of it.) Personally, I think Ms. Notley should send all her NDP greenhorns for crash-course internships in the oil patch. No doubt they’d learn a lot. The oil patch might learn something, too. They might learn how to talk with people other than themselves. I am a big fan of the oil patch, but they haven’t been all that good at endearing themselves to the general public. They have to get better at persuading the rest of the country why what’s good for them is good for us as well.

But I also think the anti-pipeline, anti-oil-sands crowd will be sorely disappointed. Ms. Notley has no intention of keeping bitumen in the ground. She’s been rather vague on other matters, but her general aim doesn’t seem all that scary. Like the Progressive Conservatives, she wants to diversify the economy away from oil, and craft a decent policy on greenhouse gas emissions.

Since the Rae era, there’s been a great convergence in economic thinking across the political spectrum. No one is a socialist, but everyone believes in the social safety net. Permanent deficits and profligacy are out. The public demands a measure of fiscal prudence, and is prepared to punish governments that don’t deliver. We’re all economic realists now.

Like everybody else outside Alberta, I was floored when Ms. Notley won. I figured Jim Prentice was good enough – certainly heaps better than the last few duds Albertans have had. I had no idea how rotten the whole PC edifice had become, and how sick of it everybody was. Sure, Mr. Prentice made mistakes, and they hurt him. But the real problem was that the old regime was finished, and had been for quite a while. It was like the fall of the Berlin Wall, or the demolition of the federal Tories in 1993. One day they looked invincible, and the next day they were gone. That’s the way our first-past-the post system works, and there’s a lot to be said for it. We love complaining about our dysfunctional democracy, but guess what? It works.

Some people say the Easter bunny could have won against Jim Prentice, but I don’t agree. Ms. Notley is exceptionally likeable. She’s also unpretentious, and Canadians like that. She rides her bike to work. She doesn’t hang around with financiers and oil men. She speaks for an up-and-coming bunch of young Albertans – many of them newcomers – who have no memory of firewalls, the NEP, or Trudeau the First. Janice MacKinnon, the former NDP finance minister of Saskatchewan, described her on the CBC as careful, cautious, intelligent, approachable, moderate, and pragmatic (in other words, a lot like Janice herself). That alone doesn’t guarantee success. But it’s a great place to start.

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