EDMONTON — Premier Rachel Notley and her NDP hit the halfway point of their term Friday, riding an orange wave of popularity into office to lead Alberta’s sluggish economy toward a green future, buoyed for now by barrels of red ink.
Notley says her team has come a long way from the days when it grew overnight from a four-member opposition to a majority of more than 50 with a mandate to govern.
Notley once characterized it as trying to build a plane while it’s in flight.
Not so much now, she told reporters Thursday.
“Sometimes I’ll sit down and just look at a list of what we’ve done over the last couple of years — and that list is really long,” said Notley.
“Yeah, we’ve made mistakes. As you build the plane while it’s in flight, you do that.
“(But) there’s a sincerity and an authenticity of the dedication of the people in my government and my caucus, and I’m very proud of how they’ve been maturing and I’m proud of how we’re making progress.”
May 5, 2015, was one for the history books, when Notley’s team toppled a Progressive Conservative dynasty that in the eyes of some had rotted from within after more than four decades in power.
In the last two years, Notley’s team has been remaking how Alberta spends, saves, and delivers energy and electricity while grappling with thousands of job losses as oil revenues — Alberta’s lifeblood — plummeted.
The NDP has resisted calls from the opposition to slim down the civil service and find other cuts. Instead, it has doubled down on lost revenues by taking advantage of low interest rates to catch up on building hospitals, schools, and roads left fallow by the Tories.
The result is a construction boom and a continued level of government service, but also eye-popping deficits that have exceeded $10 billion in each of the last two years.
Alberta’s credit rating has gotten warnings or downgrades and interest payments are now over $1 billion a year.
The opposition parties say Notley has refused to make the hard decisions, putting future taxpayers on the hook.
“They have gone and utilized their ideology to move the province in one particular direction without any kind of accountability or transparency,” said Wildrose Leader Brian Jean.
Ric McIver, the Progressive Conservative leader in the legislature, said while it’s still best to govern, his new role in opposition has its advantages.
“I get to get up on my feet and explain to Albertans just how bad this government is,” said McIver. “It’s such a target-rich environment.”
There have been mistakes, particularly the rollout of a controversial farm safety bill that was passed late in 2015. The bill puts farms under occupational health and safety rules and allows paid farm help to get Workers’ Compensation benefits.
Fears the bill would strangle family farms in red tape were worsened by contradictory information disseminated by the province. There were massive protest rallies at the legislature, threats to Notley and caucus members.
“As a former resident of rural Alberta, it’s just inexplicable how badly that (bill) was handled,” said Lori Williams, a political scientist at Mount Royal University in Calgary.
But Williams said, overall, she gives Notley high marks for a collaborative leadership style, bringing together a coalition of oil people and environmentalists for her climate plan. That plan, which includes a carbon tax on gas and home heating, was cited by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as a key reason he approved new pipeline projects last year, including a vital expansion from Alberta to the B.C. coast.
The NDP has also made front-line changes to help families, including school nutrition programs, new rules for payday loan operators, and cuts to school fees.
It ran a gender-balanced slate of candidates in 2015, then struck the second gender-balanced cabinet in Canadian history and created Canada’s first stand-alone Status of Women ministry.
The conundrum for the NDP now, said Williams, is that Notley is far more popular than her government.
“I’m struck by the number of people who say, ‘I’m not an NDP supporter, but she’s doing a pretty good job,’” said Williams.
“It’s really the Rachel Notley show. There’s no way around that.”
Calgary pollster Janet Brown said she hears the same thing.
“People tell me, ‘I think the premier knows what she’s doing, but she has a lot of really inexperienced people on her team,’” said Brown.
The second half of Notley’s term will see the run-up to the election and more jockeying among the two main right-centre opposition parties.
Jean’s Wildrose party and the PCs, who have elected ex-federal Conservative cabinet minister Jason Kenney as their new boss, are in talks to merge.
Greg Clark, the leader and only Alberta Party member in the legislature, says a merger would likely move those parties further right, away from the political centre, opening up possibilities for his team as centrists look for a new home.
“We’re seeing a shift in the political landscape,” said Clark.
Brown said how the parties fare in 2019 is a mug’s game at this point. The NDP won in 2015 because Albertans were concerned about education and health care, she said.
“Everything Albertans are thinking and feeling they’re filtering through the economy right now,” said Brown.
“And that is making it really challenging for (Notley’s) government to stay popular under those conditions.”
Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press