Premier Rachel Notley: A Breath of Fresh Air

Rachel Notley as premier-elect of an NDP majority government in Alberta has to be the political highlight of the year to date. The enthusiasm, optimism and grace she brought to her victory was a surprise to those, like me, who did not know her. She appears as a breath of fresh air in a political scene which has (wrongly. it appears) been considered conservative, predictable, and varying shades of blue-grey. Apart from the expression of a new political perspective, her victory brings a generational change which reflects the diversity and youth of a rapidly changing population. It is interesting how, in the fall-out after her victory, even conservative forces across the country are rallying to wish her well. Given the importance of Alberta to the national economy, it is good that they do.

Those of us from Ontario remember the euphoria, and the shock (depending upon your political persuasion), that welcomed Bob Rae and his majority NDP government to Queen’s Park in 1990. That was also an unexpected victory, partially in response to Premier David Peterson’s calling an election a year earlier than necessary, at a time when the Ontario economy was in trouble. But the 42 year reign of the Progressive Conservatives as “the natural governing party” in Ontario had already ended five years previously, when the Liberals and NDP formed their accord in June 1985 and forced Premier Frank Miller to resign.

The NDP had been an effective opposition under Stephen Lewis in the 1970s, they had worked with the Liberals during the two years of “the accord,” and there was no reason to expect that they could not rise to the challenge of governing. But many of their more experienced MPPs declined to run in the 1990 election and, “blessed” with governing during the worst recession to hit the province since the 1930s, their years in office were not happy ones. Taking a long view, they backed away from policies their base had expected, they alienated their labour support by imposing a “social contract” on public servants, their overtures to the business community were largely rebuffed, and Bob Rae was diverted by unpopular constitutional issues on the national scene. Their defeat after one term in office was not unexpected. That they were replaced by a more right-wing Conservative party, under Mike Harris, than the province had previously experienced was particularly disturbing. One hopes that Rachel Notley will avoid the problems that plagued the Bob Rae government, and that the Wild Rose Party, now the official opposition, does not assume the mantel of the Mike Harris Conservatives who took over on the demise of the NDP in Ontario.

Some suggest that Rachel Notley’s victory is more analogous to that of Dave Barrett in British Columbia when, in 1972, his NDP government ended 20 years of Social Credit rule in that province. Barrett’s agenda for government was totally different from that of Rae. The Social Credit government of Premier W.A.C. Bennett had been an expansionist, free-enterprise government, uninterested in regulation or in accommodating interests other than those of the business community. Barrett’s approach was to achieve as many of the objectives his party had set out as soon as possible, and then to run on his record. To that end, the NDP brought in public automobile insurance (ICBC), the Agriculture Land Reserve, Canada’s “most progressive” Labour Code at the time, the Human Rights Code, the Status of Women Office, more liberal drinking laws, laws banning mining and logging in provincial parks and tanker traffic up the coast, the SeaBus in Vancouver harbour, the air ambulance service, and numerous others. If anything, his government did too much, all in an effort to modernize British Columbia and to bring it up to standards elsewhere. Defeated after one term, the NDP at least left a positive legacy of institutions and practices which continues to this day, and which subsequent governments in the province (including the NDP in 1991-2001 under Premiers Mike Harcourt, Glen Clark, Dan Miller and Ujjal Dosanjh) could build on.

Steve Paikin of TVO interviewed Bob Rae earlier this week and asked what advice he would give Rachel Notley. Rae pointed out that her best models are probably not the one-term NDP governments in Ontario, British Columbia or Nova Scotia, but those jurisdictions where the NDP has been in the habit of forming provincial governments on a regular basis: Saskatchewan and Manitoba. It is useful to remind ourselves that Tommy Douglas was Premier of Saskatchewan for 17 years as head of the CCF (Canadian Commonwealth Federation) before he became head of the NDP in Ottawa. He was followed by Woodrow Lloyd (1961-1964), Allan Blakeney (1971-1982), Roy Romanow (1991-2001), and then Lorne Calvert (2001-2007). Manitoba NDP Premiers include Ed Schreyer (1969-1977), Howard Pawley (1981-1988), Gary Doer (1999-2009), and the current Premier Greg Selinger. Whatever their track record, this history of NDP governments in the west will be worth mining.

It is reassuring to know that Premier-designate Notley has appointed Brian Topp as her chief of staff and that his experience includes seven years as deputy chief of staff to former Saskatchewan premier, Roy Romanow. Richard Dicerni, the head of the Alberta civil service installed last year by Premier Prentice, has agreed to stay on in the same position. According to Bob Rae, he is a superb professional who will provide excellent service to Premier Notley. What approach Premier Notley pursues will be fascinating to watch. And what effect her election will have on the upcoming federal election is tantalizing to contemplate. But that’s another issue.

Books worth reading:

Thomas Walkom, Rae Days: The Rise and Follies of the NDP (Key Porter, 1994)

Bob Rae, From Protest to Power: Personal Reflections on a Life in Politics (Viking, Penguin, 1996)

Geoff Meggs and Rod Mickleburgh, The Art of the Impossible: Dave Barrett and the NDP in Power 1972-1975 (Harbour Publishing, 2012)

David McGrane, ed; New Directions in Saskatchewan Public Policy (CPRC Press, 2011)

Can anyone recommend a good book on the Alberta political scene?

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One comment

  1. Malcolm

    Marion… as ever, this is great post and it brings back a lot of thought. Your memory is a little different than mine. Dave Barratt and his NDP government were elected in 1972 – a year earlier than you suggested, and in that one year, they certainly did a lot. In retrospect, much of what was done was needed and has left a positive legacy, but it seemed that everythinjg was done in haste and without the needed thought and care that would have protected a lot of people and jobs. Two examples that come to mind…
    I bought a house in Delta a few months before the election – and it was a stretch for my income as a young engineer at BC Hydro at the time. The cost – $31,000. The land freeze was imposed – stopping the development of farmland, but the important factor, making other property available for development was not a factor. (Some years later, the mountaiin areas around North Vancouver, and Coquitlam were developed). Within a year, my home had more than doubled in value – and I moved to Burnaby with a good down payment on a bigger home. The NDP government at the time cried foul – blaming the land developers… but what really happened – a little Economic 101, they had almost eliminated the supply with no replacement lands…

    The Mineral Royalties Act – was another issue. Once again, this was needed, and the concept was probably correct,,, but what it caused was a rapid shutdown of many of our mines thast were declining in the value of the ore produced. Many were suddenly unprofitable – unless large capital investments were made… Many small communities failed – and the big losers were the people that lived and worked there.

    In looking back, most of the ideas were good fundamentally, and I remember my old friend, Ian Gray, who became CEO of CP Air saying – have a look at the ideas of the NDP… most are good ideas that the other parties steal… The problem really was the haste and poorly planned implementation. As I recall, the downfall of that government was somewhat driven by the unions that had become unhappy.

    Bob Rae is another example. When I lived in Toronto in 1979-80, Rae was our MP – Broadview Greenwood, and he often walked up the street when many of us used to sit on the porch with a beer. His discussions were always good fun. He was very smart and could generally convince us of many things that we just did not believe in. Some years later, after his terrible term as premier of Ontario, I spoke to him again,. He was remarkably candid. HIs one lasting comment. “We never expected to be elected – and we had NO experienced people…” He knew from election day that he was in trouble. Many years later, I met him when he was a board member of Canadian Airlines, where I was working. He was the same, thoughtful and smart man that I remembered from my time on Logan Ave. He was a great board member.

    What these people had in common were two issues. They were in a rush to implement promises, and they had a team with little or no experience.

    Ms Notley in Alberta certainly ran an impressive campagn and even some of the most staunch conservatives that I know are cautiously optimistic about her future. But on the negative side, she has already said that she intends to act very quickly to implement her agenda, and at this point, she has less than a handfull of really experienced MLAs. These were the two key factors that I believe brought down both Barratt and Rae.

    Lets hope that the Alberta experience is a lot different. Alberta has been the real engine of our economy for the past few years. This has had its good and bad side, but to suddenly lose this, with dropping oil prices and now a dramatic change in policy, may have significant impacts on all of us. We can only hope that this new government will achieve their objectives welll – without causing a major loss in out economy.


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