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Notley Is Stepping Down as NDP Leader

The former premier says her party is well-positioned to take on the UCP.

Graham Thomson 16 Jan 2024The Tyee

Graham Thomson is an award-winning Edmonton-based columnist who has covered Alberta politics for more than 30 years, first with the Edmonton Journal and now as a freelancer.

This morning Alberta NDP leader Rachel Notley ended months of speculation and told her caucus she would be stepping down.

As one of the most influential politicians in Alberta history, where she served one term as premier and then built the NDP into a formidable official Opposition, her departure will create a vacuum not only within the NDP but within the province’s body politic.

Notley, 59, will stay on as leader to shepherd the party through a leadership race before handing over the mantle to her successor. Then she’ll decide if she’ll stay on as an MLA or quit altogether and trigger a byelection in Edmonton-Strathcona.

In an interview with The Tyee before the announcement, Notley said despite failing to form government last year, she remains optimistic about the NDP’s future.

“We didn’t win the election and that’s the big reason why I’m not staying on. But we did achieve a lot in terms of making it very clear that Albertans have a choice going forward. They don’t have to assume that there is only the option of a Conservative government in this province.”

Notley said she didn’t quit after the election because she wanted time to make sure the 38-member caucus — the largest official Opposition in Alberta’s history — got off to a good start, especially since half of them were new.

“One of the things that did matter a lot to me right after the election at the end of May was ensuring that our 19 new MLAs came into a caucus that had some structure and some direction and some focus and some leadership so that they could sort of get oriented to the new job and the expectations,” she said. “So, it seemed to me that we've now gone through a session together and so it’s a good time.”

Notley’s legacy covers her 16 years in Alberta politics where she was elected in 2008 as part of a tiny two-person caucus. The daughter of former NDP leader Grant Notley, she knew Alberta politics intimately and her name was akin to royalty in progressive circles.

In 2014, she became NDP leader and in the 2015 provincial election transformed a four-member caucus into a 54-seat majority government by defeating the worn-out Progressive Conservatives.

She enacted a series of sweeping changes including a nation-leading $15/hr minimum wage, phasing out coal-fired power plants, cutting child poverty in half and introducing a carbon tax.

Her government’s progress was undermined by a recession caused by low oil prices but the United Conservative Party under Jason Kenney blamed her policies for wrecking the province’s economy.

She lost the 2019 election but, rather than quitting, organized the NDP into what became a powerfully effective opposition where, for the first time in Alberta history, a former premier was opposition leader and a dozen opposition critics were former cabinet ministers.

As a likeable and competent politician who had long championed the protection of the health-care system and caring for the vulnerable, Notley routinely beat Kenney in public opinion polls during the height of the pandemic.

In fact, Notley proved to be so popular and such a formidable presence in Alberta politics that the UCP began to panic at the thought she could win the 2024 election. Thus, it was a whole spectrum of fearful Conservative supporters — not just the COVID-denying fringe — that helped topple Kenney as UCP leader in 2022.

A year ago Notley seemed to be on the cusp of winning the 2023 election. She blames the loss on an unscrupulous campaign by Danielle Smith to lie and bribe her way through the campaign, pointing to, among other things, Smith’s yet-to-be-fulfilled promise to give a tax break to lower-income Albertans and Smith refusing to come clean about her scheme to set up an Alberta pension plan.

Notley’s biggest legacy is in transforming the structure of Alberta politics from a one-party system dominated by Conservatives to a two-party system that gives a voice to progressives.

“We're not tilting at windmills and giving the ‘good old fight.’ We are in it to lead the province in a way that a significant portion of the province wants to believe can happen. And so that’s different and that wasn’t necessarily the case in 2019. But it was the case in 2023. And now 2024.”

That will hold true if the NDP can be seen as not just an effective opposition but a government in waiting. That weight will rest on the shoulders of the next leader.

Names that have been popping up for months include: Kathleen Ganley, a former justice minister who received more votes than any other candidate in Calgary last election and who is said to already have a leadership team in place; Sarah Hoffman, a former health minister who has a formidable army of supporters in Edmonton; and Rakhi Pancholi, a lawyer and relative newcomer to provincial politics who has garnered attention as an effective voice on social justice issues.

David Shepherd, an experienced Edmonton MLA and outspoken critic on health-care issues, is said to be interested in running.

But the question remains: What is the Alberta NDP without Rachel Notley?

Notley dismisses the question, saying it is being pushed as a narrative by the UCP “not out of respect for me but as a way to undercut a caucus.”

“What I would say now is that we have probably the most experienced and capable caucus that any party has had in at least a generation, if not more so. I leave the party financially secure, growing with incredible understanding of where their support is.”

Notley is playing coy about her future. During my interview with her, she ducked questions about whether she is interested in federal politics. During a noon news conference Tuesday she said, “I have no intention to pursue a federal role in elected politics” and later added, “at this time.”

She said she might even run again as an MLA in the next provincial election.

Perhaps she likes to keep us guessing. Or maybe, after more than a decade as a pivotal player in Alberta politics, she doesn’t know how to say goodbye.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, Alberta

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