The NDP and a possible path to a second victory

“Whatever Albertans think of her government’s record, Notley is an honest and sympathetic character from a family with deep roots in Alberta politics." Ian Brodie, former chief of staff to former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, writes on the NDP's strengths and weaknesses.

Ian Brodie, former chief of staff to Stephen Harper, writes that Notley can avoid being 'one and done'

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley may be on the rebound after her popularity plunged, writes Ian Brodie, a political scientist at the University of Calgary. (CBC)

Three years ago, Alberta voters probably surprised themselves by giving Rachel Notley's New Democrats a crushing victory over the divided forces of province's conservatives.

Will they do it again? Just maybe. Though the current fight with B.C. is certainly going to make that more difficult. 

Victory in a dark time

Notley's victory came just in time for her to govern through the downturn in oil prices, and a brutal retrenchment in the industry.

She doubled the pain by imposing both a carbon tax and an emissions cap on the industry, and then by adding new taxes and regulations on the rest of the economy. The combined effect of lower prices and policy reform had international investors shifting their money to other opportunities, and tens of thousands of layoffs followed.

Things looked grim.

The polls showed a collapse in the NDP's political fortunes, and the early success of Jason Kenney and the United Conservative Party had many wondering if Notley's government was doomed. There was, and still is, talk of the NDP being "one and done."

But it's too early to write off Notley's government as a temporary blip in Alberta's political history.

The NDP's strong hand

The next provincial election is more than a year away — two if the NDP pushes the election timetable into 2020. That's plenty of time for the NDP to recover in the polls and affections of Albertans.

The party has some big political assets, some strong cards to play. The most important of which, is Premier Rachel Notley.

Whatever Albertans think of her government's record, Notley is an honest and sympathetic character from a family with deep roots in Alberta politics. Sunny, seen as in-touch with concerns of Albertans.

Kenney and the UCP have been careful not to attack her personally, and that's unlikely to change.

A poll last November showed that the UCP led by Jason Kenney had 47 per cent support of decided voters while Premier Rachel Notley's NDP sat at 33 per cent. (CBC)

A second important asset is the province's growing economy.

The job market isn't exactly soaring, but both the private and public sectors are hiring, and if the growth continues, the NDP campaign will be able to say thing are looking up.

As well, Notley's cabinet is talking about slowing down the growth in public spending, and provincial revenues are firm — which should reduce the deficit. And infrastructure projects are making life better, as anyone who drives between Edmonton and Calgary can see. The NDP also say the "heavy lifting" of their agenda is done. Meaning that the peril of controversial legislation should be mostly behind them politically. All this gives Notley room to move to the political middle ground in the coming year.

Thirdly, their time in power has allowed the NDP create new constituencies for itself.

Protectionism for local brewers and distillers, corporate rebates of the carbon tax, and the higher minimum wage tie thousands of livelihoods to the NDP's re-election.

And there's also additional NDP support to be found among public sector unions. Over the next year, the NDP will no doubt point to the UCP's budget plans as a promise of public sector layoffs, pay rollbacks and pension reforms. Those scare tactics will keep many of Alberta's 440,000 public sector workers in the NDP camp.

But despite all these assets, the party still has a major fight ahead if it's to win another election.

Serious obstacles to overcome

The NDP's early moves against Kenney have been weak. Their first salvo came just after Kenney won the UCP leadership.

Notley went after a separate school curriculum dealing with "consent" and sexuality. It was an attack which some took as suggesting that Roman Catholic doctrine condoned marital rape. Anger followed, as did some outraged articles. The whole thing hurt her reputation.

But by far the biggest threat Notley and the NDP face, is the fight over pipelines.

The outcome of the pipeline battles may determine the fate of Rachel Notley's government. (CBC)

First, Notley launched a national tour to tout the case for pipelines. But her tour was followed by the cancellation of the Energy East project, and Notley ended up with nothing to show for her efforts. In the past few days, a very public and ugly exchange with B.C.'s new government has raised the stakes even higher.

Alberta needs new pipelines. And Notley is in a pitched battle with people you'd think would be on side.

The B.C. New Democrats aren't just her co-partisans, Notley worked with them for years as a political staffer on the coast. And now they stand opposed to Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, and want to block bitumen shipments from Alberta's oilsands.

While these two positions play well at home in B.C., they run directly against Alberta's interests, and hurt Notley.

Standing up for Alberta

Over the next months Notley must get ahead of Kenney on standing up for Alberta.

He will reap a political dividend if the premier's friends in B.C. keep shafting Alberta. Notley and her government will need to find options for retaliation, and make them public. She'll need to show her hand. She'll also need to explain why the NDP carbon tax hasn't delivered the promised "social licence" for pipelines. It's something Kenney hammers, and will continue to hammer, at every turn.

But Notley has another card to play in this political poker match over pipelines.

Who stands for Alberta

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is said to want Notley to win re-election. His government also says it supports the Trans Mountain project, and inter-provincial pipelines are a federal responsibility.

Notley should push Trudeau to join her sales effort on behalf of Trans Mountain. I suggest it should be at a joint town hall meeting in Burnaby, the centre of B.C.'s anti-pipeline sentiment.

If the Trans Mountain pipeline dispute with B.C. doesn't show progress, Notley and her party would lose some of their own social capital in Alberta. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

If Trudeau lends his credibility as a son of British Columbia (with his ancestral and educational ties) to Notley's ties to the B.C. NDP, the co-operation with Ottawa could bring results her government's going to need. If the pipeline dispute doesn't show progress, Notley and her party would lose some of their own social capital here in Alberta.

They'd let Kenney be seen as the leader "who stands for Alberta." And come the next election, those other NDP campaign assets wouldn't matter. She and her party really will be "one and done."

Calgary: The Road Ahead is CBC Calgary's special focus on our city as it passes through the crucible of the downturn: the challenges we face, and the possible solutions as we explore what kind of Calgary we want to create. Have an idea? Email us at calgarytheroadahead@cbc.ca

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This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Ian Brodie is a political scientist at the University of Calgary and was the chief of staff to former prime minister Stephen Harper. His next book, At the Centre of Government, will be published by McGill-Queen’s University Press in May.


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