Edmonton·Analysis

Rachel Notley focus of NDP re-election campaign

I have a small collection of political pins and memorabilia by my desk. In the middle of the Jason Kenney, Ed Stelmach, Gary Mar and Alison Redford offerings is a message on a lapel pin that stands out. “Are you ready for Rachel?” it asks.

Weekend convention confirms Notley as biggest campaign asset for party

Rachel Notley gave a stump-style speech to supporters at the NDP convention, vowing to keep fighting for pipelines and jobs. (CBC)

I have a small collection of political pins and memorabilia by my desk.

In the middle of the Jason Kenney, Ed Stelmach, Gary Mar and Alison Redford offerings is a message on a lapel pin that stands out from a time before the NDP won power in Alberta.

"Are you ready for Rachel?" it asks.

I hung onto it after Rachel Notley became NDP leader in hopes that it would some day make an interesting story.

In the middle of a pin collection of past and current political leaders, is a leftover from Rachel Notley's campaign to become leader of the Alberta NDP. (CBC)

Saving the pin was a matter of sticking it on the wall.

The story of Rachel Notley's political ascent is still unfolding, and will form the main narrative of the upcoming NDP election campaign.

When the NDP suddenly moved its provincial convention back a few weeks, and changed the location from Red Deer to Edmonton, it raised questions.

Could the party that suddenly sprung to power in 2015 still pack a room? Are there so few members outside of Edmonton a convention would fail?

What would the public think?

This past weekend we saw delegates who appeared to come from mostly Calgary and Edmonton, stuff themselves inside the same cramped ballroom at the Westin Hotel where the NDP celebrated their surprise rise to power just over three years ago.

More than 1,200 delegates paid about $400 each to discuss policy and gear up for the next six months of campaigning.

Unless the NDP decides to change the rules, the next provincial election must be called between March and May of 2019.

Based on what unfolded on the weekend, the premier appears to be focused straight toward that time frame.

In a speech Sunday filled with triggered phrases that jolted the boisterous crowd at the right moments, Notley and the NDP laid out their game plan.

It will be the 'Rachel Notley' campaign

The next campaign will be all about Rachel Notley. It was Notley who voters trusted in 2015, and now she has to do it again, while defending her government's short one-term record.

A slick, well-crafted video was shown to the convention crowd to warm them up before Notley took to the stage.

The cinema-like video was filled with soft images of Notley — the frontier woman — riding a horse in the countryside somewhere around Fairview, Alta., where she grew up.

There were pictures of Notley cuddling a baby, cutting ribbons and doing the cha-cha in a pride parade.

There were sun-kissed leaves with a speckle of dew, and rare footage and family photos of a young Notley with her late father Grant Notley.

Notley Sr. was a popular politician in his day who led the Alberta NDP before his death in a plane crash in 1984

Expect the election campaign to emphasize the contrast between Notley and United Conservative Party Leader Jason Kenney.

If the campaign does, but for a moment, veer from focusing on Notley, it will likely feature emotional personal stories from those directly affected by changes brought in by the NDP government.

Some of those stories were told on the weekend, from parents with gay children who are now in gay-straight alliances in schools, and a woman who was fired from her job when she took time off to look after her young child with cancer.

Labour input prominent

What was also noticeable at the convention was the prominence of labour.

While organized labour has always played a pivotal role in the NDP, during the convention representatives of major unions frequently took to the microphone to declare that they were sticking with the NDP.

Even the Alberta Fire Fighters Association, which represents approximately 4,000 firefighters, endorsed the NDP for the first time.

Calling it an "historic" announcement for his members, Craig MacDonald, president of the firefighters' association, recounted how increases to the minimum wage have had a direct impact on his family.

"Thank you, Rachel Notley," MacDonald told the crowd. "You have given my family a brighter future, especially my son."

But MacDonald saved his biggest praise for the government for adding to the list of cancers now covered by workers' compensation benefits for firefighters, such as ovarian and cervical cancers.

As revealing as all the stories were, the NDP closed ranks when it came to the tough slogging of bringing resolutions to the floor.

Resolutions reveal what the grassroots members of the party think and want. Should government go further on policies, stay the course, or step back?

Lack of transparency cited

While a throng of delegates lined up to discuss the pros and cons of resolutions on Saturday and Sunday, most of the discussion — and dissent, if any — took place well away from public view.

On Friday afternoon, a full day before media was allowed to register, delegates took part in closed-door resolution panels.

When I tried to walk down a hotel corridor, unaware that the panels were taking place, I was politely, but firmly, told by a government staffer/volunteer for the weekend that media was not allowed.

UCP MLA Jason Nixon, a political observer at the convention, said the lack of transparency on policy was noticeable.

"This convention appears just to be a campaign rally," Nixon told reporters as the convention was winding up. "It's just feel-good resolutions with people speaking in favor of them."

It was, as Nixon correctly pointed out, a sharp contrast to the UCP convention where controversial resolutions caused open squabbling on the floor.

There wasn't any squabbling at the NDP convention — at least not in public.

During a fundraising effort when a bucket was passed up and down the aisles, it was pointed out that in the last election campaign Notley drove around the province in a minivan.  

"This time we need a bus," the person leading the drive told the audience.

Expect the 2019 election campaign to be a much different campaign for the NDP compared to 2015.

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