Premier Rachel Notley tackles farm safety, climate change and public sector wages

Premier Rachel Notley talks about the events of her first seven months of leading Alberta's first NDP government.

'And I take complete responsibility for that,' Notley says about lack of communication on Bill 6

Rachel Notley pulled off a political first on May 5 by leading the NDP to a majority government in Alberta. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

Every opposition politician dreams of the opportunity to win an election and finally take power.

On May 5, the Alberta NDP led by Rachel Notley did what was once unthinkable and ended the Progressive Conservative's 44-year lock on power.

The new government wasted no time ending Alberta's long-standing flat tax and ending all corporate and union political donations, among other measures.

But there were some missteps along the way.

Calgary MLA Deborah Drever was booted from the NDP caucus after controversial social media posts surfaced in June.

And thousands of farmers and ranchers protested Bill 6, the farm safety law that includes Workers' Compensation Board coverage for paid workers, which Notley and her government admitted was poorly communicated.

As the legislature sitting was winding down, Kim Trynacity and Michelle Bellefontaine of CBC News sat down with Notley for a year-end reflection of her first seven months of power.  Some portions of the interview were edited for brevity.

CBC: It's been just over half a year since you won government in Alberta, and I think a lot of people are still adjusting to the new government in power. What have you learned about the appetite for change in Alberta over that time?

RN: Well, you know, I think overall that people have been very supportive of the initiatives that we've brought forward, in part because we're moving forward on a plan that is in essence what we ran on. I think that there's no question that, in Alberta as the price of oil continues to drop, that there are families ... that are worried about the instability that that brings to the economy. And so that has to be more and more front and centre in terms of the work that we do as a government. And so that is what we're doing, that's what was reflected in our budget, and that's what we will be working on as we go forward. I think that the issue of change has to be seen within that context, that right now people — I think Albertans are progressive and forward-looking and are very optimistic, and I think they've always embraced change. Now with the economy being the way it is, I think we need to acknowledge people are a bit nervous too.

Rachel Notley sat down with CBC reporters Kim Trynacity and Michelle Bellefontaine for a year-end interview,. (CBC )

CBC: Can you apply that to Bill 6 and the experience in terms of embracing change and being nervous?

RN: Well, I think really, I wouldn't suggest that there's a broad application of what happened there. The bottom line with Bill 6, as I've said before, is that the original intentions of the government with Bill 6 were not well communicated. And I take complete responsibility for that. As I said, that is why we moved forward and in fact today, are introducing an amendment, as people asked us to do. They said 'put it in writing. If you don't expect this to happen, to apply to farmers and their kids and their neighbours, then put it in writing.' Which is what we're now doing in the amendment.

Protection for paid farm workers long overdue

But at the same time, this bill is about moving forward on a long overdue provision to protect vulnerable paid farm workers in Alberta to the same degree that they are protected in every other province in the country, and we feel confident that once people see how the bill actually applies to the regular family farm, they will see that a lot of the concerns were perhaps misplaced. And it's unfortunate that we created a situation that made people worry; that was not ever our intention. It's our plan to move forward very collaboratively in terms of all the regulatory stuff that comes later. And we'll take as much time as we need to ensure everyone understands what it means and that we reflect the reality of family farms and protect their viability.

CBC: Premier, you are taking responsibility for the miscommunication that you say happened on Bill 6. But I wanted to ask you a little bit more on the rollout. Given the sensitivity of the topic in rural Alberta, why was the rollout so hasty and why was it fronted by two relatively inexperienced ministers?

RN: Well, I think all of our ministers are relatively inexperienced. I'm relatively inexperienced. We're a six-month-old government.

CBC: But inexperienced as politicians, even.

RN:  Well, it was the minister of labour and the minister of agriculture, and so that makes perfect sense for them to talk about it. But I think, for instance, part of the confusion came from some of the meetings that frankly the ministers themselves were not part of. And so that comes down ultimately to our ability to communicate to the public servants that we're working with, and ultimately that comes down to me as the premier. I'm responsible for that. So it was something that I, as a politician, have talked about since I was first elected, and it's always been a fairly clear process that I wanted to follow and that I wanted to move forward on. And this was an issue that has gotten significant attention, had significant debate in Alberta. We thought, obviously, that it was more expected than it was, that we had been clearer than obviously we were.

But at the end of the day, what's really important to remember is that this type of legislation exists in one form or another in every other province in the country. The right to refuse unsafe work is a right that is enjoyed by every other farm worker, paid farm worker, in the country and every other paid worker in Alberta. The right to refuse unsafe work is a fundamental human right, recognized by the International Labour Organization subset of the United Nations, and it is not acceptable that that right did not extend to paid farm workers in Alberta. So I'm very proud of the fact we're moving forward on this. And I know that the outcome, as a result of the more extensive conversations that we have with stakeholders, will be that people see it was the right way forward.

Rachel Notley was sworn as Alberta's 17th premier in front of thousands at the Alberta legislature. (Jason Franson/Canadian Press)

CBC: Do you regret handing the opposition an issue that has seemed to have galvanized people in rural Alberta against your government?

RN: Sometimes we're just going to have to agree to disagree. And there are some people that probably will not even agree with this legislation, even with the amendment. But you know, political debate is political debate and that's fine. That's healthy.

CBC: I'd like to turn attention now to climate change, which has been a very major part of your government so far.  How much was already put in place when you took office? You came up with this very big climate change policy, stakeholders on stage. How much of that was already started when you came into office?

RN: Well, I would say very little. Very, very little of it was. I think that the climate change policy and strategy that we have developed and that we have rolled out thus far is an example of incredibly high-quality work, incredible collaboration by an exceptionally large number of well-informed people.

Intensity of climate change talks changed

Some of the discussions between environmental groups and business people had begun before we came into office. But I would suggest that the intensity and the intentional nature of those discussions changed in a qualitative way once we came into office. Also, I really want to give a shout-out to Andrew Leach and his panel. They worked rigorously over a five-month period, they consulted extensively, they had technical tables, they consulted with the public. They reviewed literature and best practices from across the world and so they created what in my view is truly a world-class plan. And there's nothing like it. We are an energy-producing jurisdiction and I think we have a very progressive climate change plan now.

CBC: What was the trade-off to get them on the stage at the same time? We've heard that there was an agreement set up whereby energy companies would support this if the environmental groups didn't oppose any pipelines. What do you know about that?

RN: I don't know that there were any particular trade-offs. I think that what it was, they understood that our government was going to move forward on this and I think that progressive leaders within the oil and gas industry understood that, quite frankly, we had to move forward on it.

We have endorsements of our plan from key leaders within the environmental movement. That doesn't mean that it includes the whole environmental movement. What happens going forward is anybody's guess with respect to that. But we know that our plan enjoys the endorsement and the support of very credible environmental leaders and we know that progressive industry leaders also understand this is something that they have to move forward on. Something they can wrestle with but they can make work. And they were looking for the leadership to make that happen all along. Those two pieces combined are unprecedented and it's real, which is the other thing. It's not some amorphous target, it's a real plan that's going to have real outcomes. And I think that ultimately that will help the industry as well as, of course, improving our record and the actual outcomes on environmental protection.

Royalty plan early in new year

CBC: Royalty review. We're  expecting something to come in the new year. How much wiggle room is there with regard to royalties these days given the low price of oil and the shutdowns of projects, etc.

RN: Well, there's no question that we hope to be able to roll that out very early in the new year. And I'm not going to get into all the details of the pieces that are being worked on at this point. However, one thing that I think people should be able to take some confidence in is that the plan will very much reflect the current situation, reflect sensitivity to the current situation, reflect a good understanding of the vulnerability of the industry. And so the review and the recommendations that come from the review,  and our plan with respect to the review, is not going to present any additional challenges to the industry, which is already challenged in the current price situation.

Notley faced intense backlash from farmers and ranchers over Bill 6. (CBC )

CBC: It's early stages with your government. Have you moved too fast so far? It's like you took the mandate and ran with it.

RN: Well, you know, I don't think so. We ran on some key principles. Albertans were looking for change. And so I think that we're staying true to our principles by working to deliver on that change. And I think that is what people were looking for. So I'm pretty confident that we've moved forward on issues that we talked about at the very outset, and now our job is to make sure that we implement them effectively. So we're going to be doing a lot of work on that.

Our budget also reflects key components of our campaign. It's very much focused on stabilizing public services, restoring stability to public services and investing in job creation and economic diversification and, generally speaking, acting as a cushion during this economy, something fundamentally different than what the other parties proposed in the last election. There was a lot of discussion in the last election about how we deal with the economic challenges we face, and there were two paths for it. And we laid out our path and we're sticking to that path and that's what Albertans chose.

CBC: Your message to public sector employees. There are big negotiations coming up with teachers and also with 40,000 health care workers with AUPE. How do you address their expectations given that they are probably expecting really healthy wage settlements because there's an NDP government?

RN: Well, I'm not going to bargain in the media because I don't think that's appropriate. But I would suggest frankly that most public sector folks understand that under the previous government they were looking at some very major rollbacks or cuts or job losses, and that our government is operating within an unprecedented revenue shortfall and that we have an obligation to all citizens of the province to manage our finances responsibly. And that's what we're going to do.

CBC: Premier Notley, thank you very much and Happy New Year.