Nova Scotia·Opinion

Graham Steele: Lessons for Rachel Notley and Alberta's NDP

Anybody who had said, even one year ago, that Alberta would elect a majority NDP government in 2015 would have been marked down as delusional. And yet here we are, writes political analyst Graham Steele.

New Democratic Party is not filled with miracle workers, writes political analyst

New Democratic Party Leader Rachel Notley speaks on stage after being named Alberta's new premier in Edmonton on Tuesday. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

Anybody who said, even one year ago, that Alberta would elect a majority NDP government in 2015 would have been called delusional.

And yet here we are.

Like many Nova Scotians, I hear echoes of our own election night in 2009, when Nova Scotia chose the first-ever New Democratic government east of Ontario. A miracle, they said.

Of course, those heady days are long behind us. Four years later, the NDP was crushed. Six years later, they are the third party with five seats in the Nova Scotia legislature.

I'm not expecting anyone from Alberta to ask what lessons can be learned from Nova Scotia. Having grown up in western Canada — and still being a frequent visitor — my experience is that Atlantic Canada is so far below the horizon of western consciousness that most westerners would have trouble naming the Atlantic capital cities, never mind who the premiers are or which party is in power.

But if someone was to ask, here's what I would say.

Different histories

First of all, the history that led the New Democrats to power in the two provinces is not the same. A closer analogy might have been if the Nova Scotia NDP had swept into government in 1998 under Robert Chisholm.

Instead, the Liberals clung to power — barely — in 1998. The NDP was knocked back in the 1999 election and Chisholm resigned. The New Democratic Party's story then became a slow, patient build under Darrell Dexter.

In Alberta, last night's victory is more like a tsunami rather than Dexter's slowly rising tide. The suddenness of the change presents Alberta's NDP with a set of challenges that Dexter didn't have.

Premier-designate Rachel Notley has a caucus mostly of political rookies. Despite what people think, there is a skill set in politics.

To be good, you have to understand how government and the legislature work. You have to juggle responsibilities in the constituency — and in the capital — not to mention looking after personal and family health. Being a good politician is way harder than it looks, and frankly beyond most people's capacity.

Cure is new blood

On the other hand, the newness of the Alberta government caucus is an opportunity. When you're elected, there is a political culture that surrounds you like an invisible, poisonous gas. Before you know it, the gas turns you into a political zombie. The only cure is new blood.

One explanation for the Dexter debacle is that the build to victory in 2009 was so slow that, by the time it happened, the core group in the caucus and around the premier had lost any distinctive vision, other than to be elected and re-elected.

That can carry you to power, but it can't tell you what to do once you get there.

Another factor in the Dexter government's swift decline was the MLA expense scandal, which blew up only eight months into the NDP mandate. Trust is hard to earn and easy to lose. If Nova Scotians voted for hope and change in 2009, the auditor general's report on MLA expenses revealed the NDP had acted no better than the others.

The premier's response was slow and defensive. The voters' trust evaporated.

I hope Notley's advisors take careful note.

Not miracle workers

Maybe the most important lesson from Nova Scotia is that the New Democratic Party is not a bunch of miracle workers. The Nova Scotia NDP could not stop the financial crisis or dig the province out of recession.

By the time the 2013 election rolled around, people were just not feeling better off. 

If Alberta had financial challenges before, they're still there. The Alberta balance sheet is a wreck because it's too reliant on revenue from resource royalties, and the price of those resources has plummeted.

Notley is smart and experienced, but she's not a magician. She can't make those facts disappear.

But if she and her caucus manage to hold on to voters' trust, they'll do better than Nova Scotia's NDP.

About the Author

Graham Steele

Political analyst

Graham Steele is a former MLA who was elected four times as a New Democrat for the constituency of Halifax Fairview. He also served as finance minister. Steele is now a political analyst for CBC News.


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