The question of “Will Rachel Notley stay on as Alberta NDP leader?” is gradually transforming into “When will Rachel Notley step down as NDP leader?”
Notley has studiously refused to say what she will do other than she’s looking at all options.
However, during conversations with politicians-turned-faux cowboys of all political stripes during the Calgary Stampede this week, the issue of Notley’s future invariably popped up — and the consensus is she will likely bow out late this year or early next.
She’ll first want to lead her 38 MLAs through the fall legislative session that starts in October. As the longest-serving MLA who also happens to be a former premier, Notley will act as both moral compass and training wheels for the largest Opposition Alberta has ever seen.
It’s important to point out that no one is sharpening knives or staging a coup. As the beating heart of the modern NDP, Notley still enjoys the respect of her party.
Besides, Alberta New Democrats are not Alberta Conservatives who have jettisoned so many leaders over the years they should swap their commander’s chair for an ejection seat.
But the clock is ticking on Notley’s leadership — not loudly and not quickly. But it’s there like an unhurried metronome that started marking time the moment she lost the provincial election May 29.
The NDP is still dissecting the election results but the inescapable fact is they lost to a troubled party led by someone as inexperienced, divisive, and, at times as conspiratorially loopy, as Danielle Smith.
Yes, on the one hand, the NDP won more votes and more seats than at any time in Alberta history. On the other, Danielle Smith.
Interestingly enough, the prospect of what the reliably controversial Smith will do next is playing into Notley’s political calculations on whether to stay or go. Smith is musing about invoking the province’s sovereignty act to ramp up her war with the federal Liberal government. Smith is also still interested in scrapping the RCMP for an Alberta police force and she likes the idea of withdrawing from the Canada Pension Plan and Canada Revenue Agency to set up provincial agencies.
In an interview for The Tyee Wednesday, Notley said Smith’s potentially menacing plans for Alberta’s future factor into Notley’s personal plans for her own future.
“There are so many things that play into my mind and of course the defence of the province that I love is always something that is featured in my deliberations on all these things,” said Notley.
“Right from the first time I decided to run for office all the way through to now. So there’s a lot of things that are on my mind as I think about it. That’s certainly one of them. It always has been.”
Notley, though, won’t even drop a hint as to her plans for now: “I said I was going to take some time to do that. So once I’ve considered all of that, including the issue of timing, then I’ll let folks know.”
But politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. And the speculation about a successor has already begun.
From Edmonton there’s Sarah Hoffman, one of the most experienced and outspoken MLAs in the province who was deputy premier in the NDP government from 2015-19 and who was reportedly ready to launch a leadership bid if Notley had decided to quit in 2019. Another is David Shepherd, a charismatic MLA from downtown Edmonton who happens to be one of the few Black Albertans elected to the legislature.
But the NDP already has all 20 seats in Edmonton. Calgary remains the prize. Even though the NDP won 14 of Calgary’s 26 seats in May, the party needs to bolster that support.
One possible contender from the city is Kathleen Ganley who, as justice minister in the NDP government, would bring her newborn to work and told reporter, “It would be great to see more women and more babies” in the legislature.
Outside of the big cities is Shannon Phillips of Lethbridge, a former environment minister who is possibly the best-known NDP MLA after Notley.
But all have what could be seen as a political weakness: being part of the NDP government that lost the 2019 election and were major players in the NDP campaign that failed to win this year.
One rising star untainted by governments-past is Rakhi Pancholi, an Edmonton lawyer who was first elected in 2019 and has made a name for herself as a tenacious critic of the government on social issues.
Nobody, though, is gunning for Notley’s job. Not yet.
The timing is up to her. But the question seems to be when will she step down, not if.