Ask many Albertans to describe the night in 2015 when Rachel Notley became the first New Democratic Party premier in Alberta history, and the details come sharp and vivid. “Everybody was shocked,” recalled Joel French, executive director of the non-partisan progressive advocacy group Public Interest Alberta. “It snowed that night, which of course sparked all kinds of jokes about hell freezing over.”
Calgary pollster Janet Brown had been away on vacation in India, a trip she’d booked well before the election was called. She arrived back home the day after the NDP won a majority and demolished a 44-year Progressive Conservative dynasty. “I actually kind of, you know, stepped tentatively off the plane, because I just expected the ground to feel different,” Brown said. “It’s like, ‘Wow, I’m in NDP Alberta.’”
Even on day one, though, some progressives were urging caution. Kai Nagata, energy and democracy director for the Dogwood Initiative, a Victoria-based group that campaigns against new oil sands pipelines, sent out a mass email warning people “the government she’s inheriting still depends heavily on oil sands revenues. Notley wants more ‘market access’ for more Alberta bitumen. That’s why she supports Kinder Morgan.”
His email proved prescient. Over the coming years, Notley’s support for the Trans Mountain pipeline would generate a bitter feud between Alberta and B.C. And by 2018, the Georgia Straight news weekly was questioning if Notley even belonged in the NDP, while The Tyee’s Mitchell Anderson referred to her government as a “sad, timid failure.”
But the nearly four years of NDP rule look much different to people in Alberta, especially those who lean politically left. To David Climenhaga, a well-known political blogger who also works in communications for the United Nurses of Alberta, the pipeline drama is an unfortunate distraction from a long record of legislative victories: the first $15 minimum wage in Canada, stabilized funding for healthcare, restrictions on money in elections, tax increases on corporations and the wealthy.
Climenhaga said all this points to the NDP being a “genuinely progressive party, even if you disagree with their environmental policies.”
He and others note that even on the environment it can be difficult to make generalizations. At the same time, Notley was referring last year to Kinder Morgan opponents as “extremely foolish” and threatening to cut off oil shipments to B.C. unless the project was built, her NDP was phasing out coal-fired electricity and implementing an economy-wide tax on carbon.
Supporters see it as the reality of trying to get progressive policies passed in Alberta. Yet this complex legacy may also be one of Notley’s biggest liabilities heading into the 2019 provincial election, which observers expect to be called any day now. The United Conservative Party of Jason Kenney has shot ahead in the polls by portraying itself as an uncompromising defender of Alberta’s oil sands economy.
“What I hear in my research all the time is people like the stance that Rachel Notley’s taken over the last couple years when it has to do with pipelines,” Brown explained. “But we do wonder in our heart of hearts what she really feels about these issues.”
Notley versus the wealthy
There are two narratives about why Notley was swept to power in 2015. One is that Albertans have grown steadily more progressive over the past decade or so. They gave centre-left parties about 40 per cent of the popular vote during the 2008 provincial election and elected Naheed Nenshi to Calgary mayor in 2010, the first Muslim leader of any major North American city.
The other is that Albertans were simply tired of the Progressive Conservatives, a feeling intensified by then-premier Jim Prentice, who in a 2015 election debate infamously patronized Notley by stating to her that “math is difficult.”
Brown said that there’s merit to both narratives, but her data seems to support the latter. After Notley won her shock victory, Brown polled people across Alberta for their reactions. “What we found was that like half of the people who voted NDP were actually not expecting an NDP government,” she said.
The party was elected with 41 per cent support, but poll numbers suggested about eight per cent of that vote vanished immediately, because in reality it was an anti-PC vote. “My polling would indicate that the NDP never had any sort of a honeymoon,” she said.
Notley nonetheless spent her first year in a legislative blitz. Starting with a ban on corporate and union donations in elections, her government passed 33 bills along with thousands of pages worth of new regulations. “There’s lots of change going on, we’re bringing Alberta from the back of the pack in terms of the environment, social and labour issues, to the head,” House Leader Brian Mason told the Globe and Mail at the time.
The NDP raised corporate taxes two per cent, adopted plans to get rid of the province’s flat tax on income (which had favoured the wealthy) and cracked down on a system of corporate patronage set up by previous Tory governments.
Yet in this regard the NDP acted more like reformers than revolutionaries. Its corporate tax increases mostly just brought Alberta up to Canadian standards. “I don’t think that they’re a government that’s putting the one per cent under deep pressure,” Climenhaga said.
These and other NDP reforms did however signal a willingness to challenge right-wing fiscal orthodoxy. Notley’s NDP reversed about $1 billion in spending cuts to healthcare planned under Prentice, even though it caused the provincial deficit to grow. For the first time Climenhaga can remember in Alberta, “there’s a sense that there’s no crisis in healthcare, it’s properly funded, it’s running smoothly.”
The NDP is willing at times to be unapologetically progressive. Only weeks after winning the election, Notley vowed to make good on her campaign promise to bring in a $15 minimum wage. “Without question, that was in our platform and we intend to move forward on it,” she said. Alberta at the time had a minimum wage of $10.20, which tied it with Saskatchewan for the lowest of Canadian provinces.
Despite the objections of business groups, who warned of “unintended and harmful consequences,” she pushed through legislation giving Alberta one of the highest minimum wages in North America. “They really led public opinion. They were very successful at getting Albertans to agree that the $15 minimum wage was a good thing,” French said.
But the NDP faced intense and unexpected blowback in late 2015 after it announced plans to update safety rules for farms. “It was basically protections bringing farmworkers in Alberta up to the standards that exist already in every other province,” French said.
Some rural Albertans were furious that they hadn’t been consulted properly about rules they saw as an attack on their way of life. Farmers blockaded highways with tractors and 1,000 people protested outside the Alberta legislature. Though the safety rules were less controversial once the NDP actually implemented them, “the way that debate played out I think scared the government from doing things that might have been bolder for the rest of their term really,” French explained.
The pipeline takes over
But all these reforms would soon be eclipsed by the issue that’s come to define Notley’s administration: the Kinder Morgan pipeline. Just weeks before the 2015 climate talks in Paris, the NDP mapped out a series of policies meant to diversify Alberta’s economy away from fossil fuels. The province would phase out all coal-fired power plants by 2030, cap oil sands emissions at 100 megatonnes per year, and bring in an economy-wide price on carbon of $30 per tonne.
Key oil sands leaders were eager to endorse it. “This plan will position Alberta, one of the world's largest oil and gas producing jurisdictions, as a climate leader and will allow for ongoing innovation and technology in the oil and gas sector,” Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. chairman Murray Edwards said at the time.
With momentum building for an international climate deal in Paris, oil sands firms wanted steady and reassuring rules. “Firms don’t like risk, and so having a clear system with a carbon price that’s going to be gradually increasing, that gives them something to plan for,” Jennifer Winter, a University of Calgary economist and climate policy expert, told The Tyee.
More importantly, the plan would ostensibly allow the oil sands industry to keep expanding. Notley sold her climate policies, which were announced as global oil prices were in freefall and tens of thousands of oil patch workers were losing their jobs, as part of a grand bargain that would let Alberta gain “social license” to build new pipelines.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made the connection explicit in late 2016 as he announced federal approval of the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion to B.C. “Let me say this definitively,” he told reporters, “We could not have approved this project without the leadership of Premier Notley and Alberta’s climate leadership plan.”
But cracks were even then appearing in the plan’s foundation. In Alberta, right-wing groups mobilized against the carbon tax. The Canadian Taxpayers Federation put up a billboard claiming it “will cost your family over $600/year.” Notley was criticized widely for saying that Albertans could help avoid paying the tax by “taking the bus.” She confused the matter further by insisting that in reality the carbon tax wouldn’t cost people much at all.
Brown said people she polled weren’t sure what the point of it all was. “Is it meant to impact my behaviour, or is it a token thing that we pay and then we get it back and you know, nudge nudge, wink wink, we’re not really doing anything for the environment, we’re just collecting this tax so the federal government will get off our back,” she said.
Meanwhile the larger political bargain Notley had promised — carbon pricing in exchange for pipelines — began breaking down. TransCanada withdrew its application for the Energy East pipeline due to weak economics and political opposition. That left Kinder Morgan as the only company proposing a major oil sands pipeline expansion.
If Notley couldn’t get the Trans Mountain project built, it would undermine her entire climate change plan. In retrospect, Winter argued, linking these things “was potentially not the smartest political move.” Notley and Trudeau created a situation where neither climate activists nor oil boosters saw the plan as all that credible. “You’re alienating two different groups simultaneously,” she said.
In May 2017, British Columbians voted in an NDP government led by John Horgan that is opposed to Trans Mountain. Grassroots opposition to the pipeline in Burnaby and across the province continued to intensify. Then that fall, Jason Kenney was elected leader of the United Conservative Party, a new political force bringing together Alberta’s right-wing parties.
Facing attacks from both the left and right, Notley’s government in 2018 introduced legislation proposing to cut off oil exports to B.C.
“I would say to those who oppose our fight to build this pipeline, that they are being extremely foolish,” Notley said a few months later. “Maybe on Salt Spring Island you can build an economy on condos and coffee shops, but not in Edmonton and not anywhere in Alberta. Here in Alberta, we ride horses — not unicorns — and I invite pipeline opponents to saddle up on something that is real.”
Her confrontational tone has angered progressives in B.C. It also appears to have done little to help her in Alberta. The NDP is badly trailing the UCP in polls and many observers predict Kenney will win the upcoming election, although that outcome is still not necessarily guaranteed. “The problem for Rachel Notley is she’s not running against an anti-pipeline candidate, so it really is ‘whose flavour of pro-pipeline do you want?’” Brown said.
Polling suggests that Albertans genuinely appreciate Notley’s actions on Kinder Morgan. “But what they tell me in my focus groups is, ‘I’m really glad she’s come around.’ Nobody needed to get Jason Kenney to come around on pipelines,” she said.
When unemployed oil workers and other industry supporters began holding rallies across Alberta in favour of new pipelines last year, Kenney had no qualms supporting them, even as the rallies attracted anti-immigrant hate groups. In December, he spoke at an event in Grand Prairie attended by several members of Soldiers of Odin, and then posted a photo on his official Twitter account where they are clearly visible.
Kenney has tried to distance himself from extremists at the rallies, saying they have “kooky ideas,” while Notley argues “we need to be reasonable and stick to the issues and not let these kinds of protests to be taken over by people with more extreme views.”
Still, what’s helping drive support for Kenney is a sense that cooperating with the federal government, rather than Alberta’s traditional antagonism towards Ottawa, hasn’t worked out. “So we’re all feeling like we’d like to go back to fighting,” Brown explained. “Whether that’s more effective or not, it’s where we feel comfortable.”
Climenhaga said the only path he can see for Notley to win the election is if her government can shift public focus away from pipelines and the economy, which are currently the top issues for Albertans. The NDP is strongest and most credible, he thinks, when it’s pushing progressive policies for working people and the public sector. But as the example of healthcare shows, the NDP may actually be a victim of its own success. “[Healthcare] has been running so smoothly it’s moved off everyone’s agenda as the number one concern,” he said.
As we approach an election that will be closely watched around the country, some thinks it’s a shame that the first NDP government in Alberta history is now being defined by policies where it is weakest.
“They’ve done so well on some issues like the minimum wage,” French said. “There’s a huge, huge list of positive things they’ve done, and then a small but important list of things that they haven’t done or areas where they’ve made some major mistakes.” He added, “I think the positive has outweighed the negative.”
At this point, however, it’s unclear how many Albertans agree.
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