EDMONTON—For the last three years, Rachel Notley has watched as the party that ushered her out of the Alberta premier’s office has descended into fractured infighting aboard a rudderless ship.
But the Alberta NDP leader says she isn’t much focused on all the drama enveloping the United Conservative Party in the wake of Premier Jason Kenney’s announced resignation.
Instead, she’s looking nine months down the road, well after a new UCP leader is chosen on Oct. 6, because Alberta is on the cusp of a second chance at a left-wing government in this historically right-leaning province.
“They’re talking about beating the NDP — or put another way, power — and they’re talking about unity, i.e., trying to avoid gnawing off their own appendages,” Notley said during a recent interview with the Star.
When asked about her strategy, Notley doesn’t get too far into the weeds. She says the party will stick to “bread and butter” issues: affordability, funding health-care, education and jobs.
Albertans “are not interested in an Alberta-run pension plan. They’re not interested in an Alberta-run police force. They’re not interested in, you know, the nine different versions of a Sovereignty Act,” says Notley. “Yet those are things that the UCP are talking about.”
Ask Notley about the UCP leadership race? “All outcomes are equally negative,” she replies.
Political observers are a little more preoccupied with the potential outcome, though. Whoever comes out on top of the UCP will almost certainly affect the NDP’s direction in the province’s 2023 general election.
The governing UCP has eaten itself alive over the past two years under Kenney. The leadership race could further deepen those divisions, and some issues facing Alberta, such as health-care problems and cost of living, are in the NDP’s wheelhouse. The party is also flush with cash from donations and able to attract high-quality candidates now that it has proven, in 2015, that it can win a majority.
Meanwhile, Danielle Smith, the former Wildrose party leader, has been an early leader in public opinion polling on the UCP race. Brian Jean, another former Wildrose leader, and Travis Toews, who served as finance minister under Kenney, are seen as second and third, respectively. The UCP was created in 2017 by Kenney and Jean after uniting the Wildrose and Progressive Conservative parties in a successful bid to oust the NDP in 2019.
Some in the province are now mulling the potential for Smith to face off against Notley. It’s early days and polling is just a snapshot in time, but even a recent Mainstreet poll found Smith was the only candidate capable of beating the NDP during a general election.
Smith, who is seen as a socially progressive libertarian politician, has come out of the gate swinging with some controversial policies such as the Alberta Sovereignty Act, which would, theoretically, somehow allow the province to ignore federal laws it doesn’t like. (Experts say the act would be shot down in court.)
She has promised never to lock down in the face of a pandemic wave of infections. She’s also faced heat over her criticisms of public health measures and past comments on medical advice, like promoting the use of ivermectin to treat COVID or making suggestions that early stages of cancer are under the patient’s control (comments that she suggests were taken out of context).
But Notley insists it won’t matter who is in the ring with her come election time.
“Doesn’t matter if you’re Danielle Smith or Leela Aheer, the party is focused on power,” she says. “The party is focused on its internal drama … and it is being dragged around by a small group of extremists that have very little in common with the majority of Albertans.”
Notley keeps her powder dry when asked about what sort of specific plans she wants to roll out for the province and talks in generalities about reducing pharmaceutical costs, more funding for health care, and addressing areas the government can help with affordability, like school fees or insurance.
She doesn’t take aim at any particular UCP leadership candidate or even suggest that her party’s strategy may change based on who wins.
Notley and the NDP do have weaknesses. She has a four-year record to defend. (Her government brought in a carbon tax, an unpopular move in the province.) Her party has also had slip-ups, a weak communication strategy at times and faces a tough path to victory on the electoral map of 87 urban and rural ridings.
The party has also had its fair share of drama. Most recently, it had to boot MLA Thomas Dang from caucus after it was revealed he’d tried to access private information in the Alberta Health vaccine portal online. He was charged and hit with a fine.
The party also recently faced allegations of bullying and abuse by paid political staffers targeting volunteers. A letter from 15 constituency associations, made public by The Canadian Press in June, called for an independent investigation into the alleged conduct toward volunteers and a problematic vetting process for election candidates that appeared to be more about favouritism.
Notley says she takes responsibility for addressing the issues raised and launched an investigation. She chalks it up to “unprecedented growth” and the party “running to keep up with it.”
“The lesson learned is that with growth comes a greater obligation to make sure that you continuously earn it every day,” says Notley.
Thomas Lukaszuk, the former deputy premier who was a victim of the orange crush in 2015 that pushed his PC party out, knows what the NDP is capable of.
While the NDP of today is a different beast from 2015, the party has weaknesses that it must address, strategy it must implement, high-quality candidates it needs to attract and messaging it needs to shore up, says Lukaszuk.
For one, it has a perception problem: “They’re still coined as a socialist party and they’re not,” he says.
“They’re (a) Social Democratic Party. You know, Europe, and particularly Scandinavia, is run by Social Democrats, but they’re not socialists.”
One way to combat this perception, though, is in attracting candidates in key ridings who are centrist with a business or economics background, he says. Lukaszuk points out that there are some “progressive” Progressive Conservatives in the province who feel like “hell is going to freeze over” before they work with the UCP — people like him.
The NDP owns a few files in Alberta, like issues facing the LGBTQ community, but “they need to start acting like a government in waiting on other files,” he says.
They should look at making sound economic policies and looking at how they’ll help position Alberta in confederation, says Lukaszuk. How will they reconcile some of the green energy policies coming from Ottawa: “How are we going to make this work in an Alberta context?”
“I don’t think NDP needs to be an attack dog on UCP,” he says.
“Let UCP destroy itself. This leadership race is the best thing that Rachel Notley has going for her.”
It’s been more than two years since the beginning of the pandemic and, in that time, the UCP has undergone dramatic division resulting in a cleaved caucus and Kenney stepping aside. Seven candidates are now vying to lead the party and become premier come Oct. 6.
“It takes a long time to pull a caucus together after a leadership race,” Lukaszuk says. “Rachel Notley can actually be the source of stability right now.
“In 2015, people were so angry with us, with the PC party, and they did not want Wildrose,” says Lukaszuk. “They went with NDP. Notice that they did not want Wildrose.”
If Smith wins, Alberta basically has the Wildrose party again, he says.
The NDP win in 2015 was a jolt. It shocked not only conservatives, who had held a 44-year political dynasty, but New Democrats themselves, many of whom were inexperienced in politics, let alone governing.
That’s changed now. The party has four years of governing under its belt and nearly four years of being in opposition. It’s attracting high-quality candidates in key areas, like former Calgary city councillor Druh Farrell, who was named the NDP candidate for Calgary-Bow. Donations have been steady and the NDP has been beating the UCP in fundraising, rewarding the party with a stocked war chest.
But it has to also consider its strategy on the 87-riding battle map made up of major urban centres in Edmonton and Calgary, mid-sized urban centres in places like Lethbridge and Medicine Hat, and some more rural areas where the NDP will need to shore up support to win majority.
Edmonton has 20 ridings — many considered a lock for the NDP — and the party will need all of them in 2023. They hold 18. It will also have to grip the city’s surrounding ridings like Sherwood Park, St. Albert and Leduc-Beaumont. Even then, the party will need to win a lot of seats back in Calgary where it currently only holds three out of 26.
Even if the NDP wins back half of Calgary and all of Edmonton, it is still short of a majority. Edmonton has long been a left-leaning island in the province, but Calgary is more conservative than its more northern counterpart and could go either way.
So that’s one sticking point for the party. It needs to secure seats in other areas like Medicine Hat, Lethbridge and Red Deer. It could even aim at some more rural seats in central or northern Alberta, or in touristy areas like Banff-Kananaskis.
Brian Mason, the former leader of the NDP and cabinet minister under Notley, says the party’s communication on messages that stick in the minds of voters has been improving but is still a weakness. The political game of messaging is crucial in elections. The UCP did it effectively by labelling things like “the Notley-Trudeau alliance” or in promising things by repeating “Jobs. The economy. Pipelines,” or “Axe the carbon tax.”
It’s essentially propaganda, but it can be effective, experts note. The party should be testing its messaging out now, says Mason. He says that, even while he was in government, the party’s messaging could be “a little scattered” and not communicating a “really clear messaging very consistently and repetitively.”
“The NDP, you know, has to position itself not just as somebody who can generate criticism and anger toward the UCP government, but a party that can portray itself as … desirable to have running the government,” he says.
Mason says the party should be letting the UCP duke it out and wait to see who emerges before skewing its policy platform to address its opponent’s weaknesses.
The NDP needs to hammer away at “kitchen table issues,” says Mason. The party also has to assure Albertans that it can be fiscally responsible, he says, after years of basement-dwelling oil and gas prices plagued the NDP government, meaning its running deficits freaked out some voters.
It’s one of the biggest criticisms facing the NDP (sometimes called the “SpenDP”). But now, with oil prices skyrocketing and the province enjoying flush coffers, it could be an opportune time for the party to come up with some financial policies that push back on that narrative.
“The constant increase in the deficit bothered a lot of people,” says Mason of the doldrum days when oil prices tanked around 2014.
“Albertans … expect a certain amount of fiscal discipline.”
All the experience the NDP has now should help it in 2023 when it comes to strategy, but it may also hinder the party when it comes to political memories.
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