The learning curve has been steep for the new government over the past year, but Rachel Notley has faced the largest storm of her premiership this past week.
Ms. Notley has been a calm and commanding presence as the wildfires damaged the community of Fort McMurray. The Premier, Agriculture and Forestry Minister Oneil Carlier and Municipal Affairs Minister Danielle Larivee, a registered nurse from Slave Lake who has served as a key communicator during this crisis, have been factual and compassionate in their communications with Albertans.
Clear communication has been key to the success of Ms. Notley’s daily press conferences with fire and safety officials. Ms. Notley is doing what she needs to be doing as premier: being a strong and compassionate leader for Albertans through this disaster.
Facing the wildfires that have devastated his community, including the loss of his own home, Wildrose opposition leader Brian Jean has abandoned his normally adversarial tone and has been reasonable in his support of the government’s response to the wildfire. Faced with these losses, I cannot begin to imagine what he must be going through on a personal level. Not many of us can fathom what it feels like to lose our home and much of our community to a natural disaster.
Whatever his plans for the future as leader of the opposition, Mr. Jean would be smart to recognize that the collaborative and less confrontational tone looks good on him.
Similar reflections on leadership can be made about the strengths of other elected leaders who have stepped up to help during these wildfires, including Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson, whose city has opened its doors as a refuge for tens of thousands of Fort McMurray evacuees. We continue to witness a refreshing dose of humanity in our country as people from all walks of life have stepped up to help those who have fled the wildfires.
The break in hyperpartisanship is, unfortunately, not universal. Nasty Internet memes and conspiracy theories have been promoted on social media spinning wild untrue accusations against the NDP, environmentalists and ISIL.
Not unlike other natural disasters, politicians from all sides of the political spectrum have put aside their partisan differences for a moment in order to rally for Fort McMurray. It has taken a tragic event to provide a humanizing break from the increasingly hyper-partisan and polarized daily politics in Alberta.
As we move past the disaster and closer toward cleaning up and rebuilding the community, it is inevitable that the cordial feelings will break and partisanship will return, but our leaders have an opportunity to define what tone post-wildfire politics will look and feel like.
The attention of most Albertans this week is rightfully focused on the wildfires that are raging through northern Alberta and the more than 80,000 residents of Fort McMurray who have fled to safer ground in the south. It is a testament to our resilience as Canadians that a mandatory evacuation order could be carried out in a community of 80,000 people without any violence or resistance.
It wasn’t always a forgone conclusion that Albertans would elect an NDP government. At points during last year’s campaign. Twopolls released days before the writ was dropped showed the governing PCs and official opposition Wildrose Party in a race for first place with the NDP in a distant third. Disillusionment with an arrogant and entitled PC regime that had squandered the last oil boom and the pitch-perfect campaign led by Rachel Notley’s NDP resulted in a majority government.
Those election results exposed a demographic shift, including a split between urban and rural Alberta. The NDP elected most of their 54 MLAs in Alberta’s fast-growing urban areas and central and northern rural Alberta. The Wildrose Party, led by former Member of Parliament Brian Jean won back most of the seats lost in the 2014 floor-crossings and made gains in rural Alberta. Jim Prentice‘s Tories earned 27 percent of the vote but fell victim to the first-past-the-post system and only elected 10 MLAs. The Alberta Party elected its first MLA, leader Greg Clark in Calgary-Elbow, and the Liberals were reduced to one MLA, interim leader David Swann in Calgary-Mountain View.
May 5, 2015 saw the election of the a record number of women, including nearly half of the MLAs in the newly minted NDP caucus. The soon to be appointed provincial cabinet would have gender parity, a first in Canada. A contingent of under-30 MLAs were elected, bringing a new sense of diversity into the stodgy Legislative Assembly. Openly gay and lesbian MLAs were elected. And soon after, expecting and new mothers would become a common sight on the floor of the Assembly. Our Legislative Assembly felt more reflective of Alberta than it had in previous years.
The tone of government had changed.
The NDP banned corporate donations to political parties, a move that would never have happened under the corporate-donation fuelled PC Party. The new government not only admitted it believed in Climate Change, it also announced plans to do something about it. The NDP introduced a progressive income tax system and raised corporate taxes. They also reinstated funding to education, health care and post-secondary education that was cut by the PCs in their pre-election budget.
‘Getting off the royalty rollercoaster’ by fixing a revenue system that was over-reliant on natural resource royalties to fund the government’s operations budget is a central theme of the new government.
A sharp decline in the international price of oil meant the new government faced higher private sector unemployment and decreased activity in the oil industry in our province.
The Alberta Advantage, a myth spun by conservative politicians and pundits over the past twenty years quickly turned into a disadvantage. The low taxes boasted by the previous government turned into a disadvantage when the price of oil dropped and left the province with a $10 billion shortfall in revenue.
Instead of slashing the budget, as the conservative opposition parties would have done, the NDP looked for outside advice from former Bank of Canada Governor David Dodge. The budget tabled by Mr. Ceci included investments in infrastructure while keeping operating funding steady to avoid major service cuts and job losses that would increase the province’s unemployment levels.
The NDP plan focuses on stability and job creation but it is yet to be seen whether those large deficits will be embraced by Albertans at the next election. The future of this government, like the PC government before it, may ultimately depend on the international price of oil.
The optimism of the new government masked a certain naivety. Transitioning into the role of government has been challenging.
The transition from a 4-MLA opposition caucus to majority government led the NDP to import senior political staff from across Canada, including those with experience working in Ottawa and for NDP governments in Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Nova Scotia.
Like something out of the 1950s, Wildrose MLAs and conservative newspaper columnists have become prone to red-baiting, accusing Alberta’s NDP government of holding communist or socialist sympathies. While some individual NDP MLAs have self-identified as socialists, the reality is the new government has been quite moderate and even small-c conservative at times. Ms. Notley has become one of Canada’s strongest advocates for oil pipelines and the NDP even decreased the small business tax from 3 percent to 2 percent in the recent budget.
Days before last year’s election I asked the question, ‘how bad would Alberta’s conservatives need to screw up for Albertans to elect an NDP government.’ We found out on May 5, 2015.
The NDP had been elected in Alberta. Hell had frozen over.
On the morning of May 6, 2015, Albertans woke up to a new government and an unwelcome spring snowstorm. Today, as most Albertans focus on wildfires instead of politics, we can only hope for a repeat of that snowstorm to put an end to the fires ravaging Fort McMurray.
The governments of Alberta and Canada will be matching individual donations made to the Canadian Red Cross Alberta Fires Emergency Appeal to help the people impacted by the Fort McMurray wildfire. Click here to donate.