Did the Alberta NDP do enough with its power?

Notley chose caution over transformative change.

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In the year and a half since Jason Kenney’s UCP rose to power, it has steadily fallen in the polls, nearly 24% since the 2019 election.

Meanwhile, Rachel Notley’s NDP, which lost that election by 22%, is somewhere between roughly tied with the UCP or as far ahead as 17%, depending on the poll.

The next election is still two years away, and much can change. But at a minimum, this shift in poll numbers shows that the NDP’s 2015 victory was not a fluke, and its return to government in 2023 is no more impossible than Kenney’s reelection is preordained.

Was Alberta’s most progressive government progressive enough?

Notley has declared her intention to lead the NDP into the 2023 campaign. At this midway point between elections, it’s worth reflecting on the legacy of this province’s most progressive government and asking a question not often heard in Alberta politics: was it progressive enough?

What the NDP accomplished in four years

Roberta Lexier, an associate professor in the general education and humanities departments at Mount Royal University, acknowledged that the Notley administration did make notable progress on several files, especially on “equity portfolios” such as LGBTQ2S+ rights, gay-straight alliances in schools and safe injection sites.

But next to many of their achievements, she put an asterisk: they did some, but not enough.

They made campaign finance reforms, but left holes wide enough to drive a pickup truck of money through.

They introduced a $15 minimum wage, but failed to end employers’ power to compel overtime, or prevent construction firms from evading union agreements.

They expanded provincial parks and committed to phase out off-highway vehicles in the Castle region, but held back from banning them in planned parks for the Bighorn (since cancelled by the UCP).

They kept post-secondary tuition frozen, but didn’t “fund higher education in any extensive way and shift the responsibility back to government.”

Next to many of the NDP achievements, Lexier put an asterisk: they did some, but not enough.

And though the NDP’s climate plan fell far short of the reforms needed to fight the climate crisis, Lexier said it was still a huge step forward—a step offset by the party’s bear-hug embrace of pipelines and the fossil-fuel industry.

“I’d say they did miss an opportunity to make broader changes and move the province in a much better direction,” Lexier said.

Parkland Institute director Ricardo Acuña, writing in Alberta Views in 2019 (“What They Did”), highlighted the fiasco of Bill 6 in December 2015 as a turning point for the NDP government.

The bill extended workplace health and safety provisions, including workers’ compensation coverage, to farm workers. But whatever merits it had were overshadowed by its bungling “from conception to drafting to rollout.”

I’d say they did miss an opportunity to make broader changes and move the province in a much better direction.

Roberta Lexier,

Associate professor, Mount Royal University

Having barely consulted farmers, the NDP was startled by the fierce blowback from them, which the opposition duly took advantage of.

Acuña argued the effect of the experience on the government was to henceforth overcorrect with caution, consultation and compromise. The party’s 2015 platform was more gently progressive than boldly reformist. Yet on many subsequent issues, Acuña wrote, the NDP “moderated its previous position for the sake of achieving change without rattling too many cages.”

For example, on a key campaign promise of 2,000 new public long-term care beds over four years, the NDP faltered. The beds were indeed provided, but the vast majority came from for-profit corporations through a PC-era program.

Would bolder have been better?

Given that the UCP has used its own majority to dismantle much of the NDP’s work, it’s fair to ask whether bolder action would have made any lasting difference.

The Notley government reversed the healthcare privatization moves by the PCs, merging lab services into Alberta Public Laboratories and launched plans to build a “superlab” at the University of Alberta. But the UCP later halted construction of the superlab and renamed Alberta Public Laboratories to Alberta Precision Laboratories with the intention of privatizing it.

[The NDP often] moderated its previous position for the sake of achieving change without rattling too many cages.

Ricardo Acuña,

Parkland Institute, Alberta Views (2019)

The biggest opportunity missed by the Notley government, in Lexier’s opinion, is one that could not have been rolled back: the articulation of a different conception of Alberta’s future, backed with bold action towards realizing it.

“Where the NDP could have had much more influence is in shaping and drafting an alternative vision of the province and society” in contrast to the dominant political narrative, she said.

Lexier suggested simple ideas like taxing the wealthy and using that revenue for public services like education and health care—a radical break from the dogma of Alberta politics, but one with obvious populist appeal that could be part of a larger pitch to reimagine the province.

Former MLAs reflect on time in office

Notley wasn't available to be interviewed for this story by deadline. But former NDP MLAs Jessica Littlewood and Shaye Anderson both spoke and reflected on their time in government.

In general, both expressed pride in what the NDP got done and defended the party’s record, while acknowledging that they wished at times for bolder action.

Where the NDP could have had much more influence is in shaping and drafting an alternative vision of the province and society.

Roberta Lexier,

Associate professor, Mount Royal University

“It’s easy as an opposition politician to get riled up about the things you would do if you were in government,” said Anderson, who represented Leduc-Beaumont and served as municipal affairs minister. “But then you get there, and you have to undo 44 years of conservative policies.”

“There were some big, very progressive things that we wanted to do, and did do. But yeah, of course, I think we could have pushed harder on some of the labour stuff and some of the climate stuff.”

Littlewood, the MLA for Fort Saskatchewan-Vegreville, believes better communication and a focus on building connections with rural constituencies like hers would have been better than just pushing more progressive policies.

“Absolutely the government could have done a better job ensuring that people knew that they were going to be okay at the end of the day, whether that means job training and post-secondary support, or income support in communities” hardest hit by job losses in industries like fossil fuel, she said.

“There are means by which the government can support the creation of new jobs in new sectors, and that does need to be clearly communicated, and I certainly didn’t hear that as much as I would have liked.”

Littlewood suggested big ideas like a public broadband network to rural communities, which would support online learning and jobs, as the sort of thing the NDP should have done more of: public projects that are easily understood, have tangible effects on people’s lives, and demonstrate the positive power of government.

I think we could have pushed harder on some of the labour stuff and some of the climate stuff.

Shaye Anderson,

Former NDP minister & MLA

The more cautious approach of Notley’s government contrasts with that of Dave Barrett, the first NDP premier of British Columbia.

Elected in 1972 after decades of conservative rule, Barrett’s government threw itself into the moment, making major reforms to the social safety net, banning corporal punishment in schools, launching a pharmacare program, creating a public auto insurance provider and introducing mining royalties.

Are you here for a good time or a long time?” he asked his cabinet at their first meeting.

Like Notley, Barrett lost power after one term. But he provided citizens with a vision for the province that was substantially different from the status quo, and dramatically expanded voters’ expectations of what was possible.

“None of the things we did, not one, was radical,” he said in 1989. “And in the light of history that’s even more evident.”

Notley’s fidelity to fossil fuels

Perhaps the single biggest failure of the Notley government was declining to break the pattern of rigid devotion to the fossil fuel industry.

At the conclusion of its review of oil and gas royalties, a campaign promise, the NDP surprised everyone by leaving the rates untouched—heartening the industry and its supporters, disappointing climate scientists and progressives.

As Acuña observed, “On this, one of their key platform planks and an issue that had been at the core of NDP opposition to PC governments for years, the NDP turned away from its previous position and took the approach recommended by industry and Alberta conservatives.”

Phasing out coal-fired electricity was good, but like the carbon tax, only seemed like a huge step forward because the bar was so low.

[On oil and gas royalties] the NDP turned away from its previous position and took the approach recommended by industry and Alberta conservatives.

Ricardo Acuña,

Parkland Institute, Alberta Views (2019)

“Carbon pricing schemes certainly can help, and may be the best available free-market mechanism,” said University of Calgary climatologist and federal science advisor Shawn Marshall.

But they can’t induce the kind of systemic disruption necessary to avert the worst of the climate crisis. To do that, he said, we’d need a carbon tax “at a level that is not politically palatable” to make the fossil fuel industry less lucrative than, say, producing wind power.

The NDP’s carbon tax was not intended to rein in the industry, but as a gesture to the industry’s opponents to win their support for pipeline approval.

In the second half of her mandate, as the election neared and Kenney gathered momentum, Notley decided her government could not survive without a clear and sustained demonstration of fealty to fossil fuels.

Notley’s staunch defence of the oil industry and pipelines, while politically understandable… can never be seen as climate-friendly.

Shawn Marshall,

University of Calgary climatologist

Abandoning whatever middle ground the NDP had tried to occupy between the climate crisis and the industry, Notley tried to outdo Kenney as cheerleader-in-chief for pipelines, jointly drowning out protests from First Nations, climate scientists and concerned citizens.

“Notley’s staunch defence of the oil industry and pipelines, while politically understandable—maybe even construed as doing her job—can never be seen as climate-friendly,” said Marshall.

The gambit failed.

It also represented a missed opportunity. “We could have presented a better vision instead of trying to play the UCP’s game,” said Anderson.

We were kind of building the airplane as we were flying it at the beginning.

Shaye Anderson,

Former NDP Minister & MLA

With oil prices collapsing, companies shedding jobs by the thousands, and scientists warning that we have only a few years for drastic action, it could have been a perfect moment to pitch Albertans a new way forward, one that invested heavily in creating new jobs in green industries, addressed inequality and set out a roadmap for ending fossil fuel extraction.

Is that really a worse strategy than trying to out-Kenney Jason Kenney?

NDP was learning as it went

Defenders of the Notley government cite mitigating circumstances we ought to consider.

The Alberta NDP of 2015 was surprised by victory. Suddenly the new government needed a transition team and a legislative strategy to actually implement some of what they’d campaigned on.

As outsiders to power, they had to import experienced political hands from elsewhere.

“We were kind of building the airplane as we were flying it at the beginning,” recalled Anderson.

That the Alberta NDP are by nature incremental reformists does not invalidate criticism of that approach.

There also hadn’t been a change in government in over four decades—longer than the existence of East Germany. Modern Alberta had quite literally grown around and adapted to the structures of the PC Party, from lobbyists to bureaucrats.

But while the NDP may have paid a price for being Alberta’s first centre-left government in over a century, they were not devoid of resources, brainpower nor time, and are accountable for how they spent them.

Another defence often raised is that the Alberta NDP under Notley are “very much centrists, not socialists,” said Lexier. Brian Mason, who led the Alberta NDP from 2004 to 2014, once cast the party in the tradition of Peter Lougheed, a comparison also made about Notley herself.

That they are by nature incremental reformists does not invalidate criticism of that approach. In fact, it highlights its importance: any government can be influenced, and the NDP certainly demonstrated the ability to bend to public pressure.

The Notley government’s most enduring legacy may be not any piece of legislation but the simple fact of its victory.

As both Lexier and Anderson pointed out, tacking to the centre to avoid being branded as radical leftists proved a futile strategy. If your opponents will label you that regardless of your actions, why let that fear moderate your policies?

The NDP government’s legacy

The next provincial election is still a couple years in the future, and the world is in such flux that predictions are more foolish than usual.

The Notley government’s most enduring legacy may be not any piece of legislation but the simple fact of its victory. They proved that change was possible, that governments that looked and sounded like Kenney’s or Jim Prentice’s or Ralph Klein’s were not the only sort that would appeal to voters.

This shift in expectations is a double-edged sword: the NDP may have broken through its ceiling, but a public starved for progress may demand more than small bites.

“I think there’s a lot more progressives in Alberta than people would think,” said Anderson. “I think if we had pushed more progressive policies and been unabashedly progressive and skated to where the puck was going to be, not where it was… I think that would have been a good thing.”

Taylor Lambert is the Alberta politics reporter for The Sprawl.

CORRECTIONS 02/11/2021: The original version of this story said that the NDP froze post-secondary tuition; in fact, they extended a freeze implemented by the Redford government. We also originally said "Notley declined to be interviewed"; in fact, we were told Notley was unavailable to be interviewed by deadline. The story has also been updated to clarify the NDP's restrictions on off-highway vehicles.

As well, after reader feedback, we removed a passage that employed a metaphor not appropriate for describing a woman politician: “The honeymoon, such as it was, is long over. Albertans appear to be feeling wistful about that ex they broke up with—who perhaps wasn’t so bad after all.” The Sprawl regrets the errors.

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