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Notley government navigates a profound crisis with grace and empathy

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It must be deeply disturbing to many Alberta conservatives to realize just how capable and in control Premier Rachel Notley and her New Democratic Party Government have appeared these past few crisis-filled days.

Dealing with a tragic catastrophe like the Fort McMurray forest fire would not be easy for any leader or government. To do so in the midst of a profound economic crisis to which there are no obvious quick fixes, and when the disaster is taking place in the symbolic heart of the province's troubled economy, complicates the task enormously.

When, as many observers have noted, the premier, her MLAs, and her closest political advisors are new to power -- the crisis struck during the week the government expected to celebrate its first anniversary in power -- the potential for fumbles in high-risk political circumstances is huge.

And yet Notley and her ministers have steered through these first few difficult days of the fire with real grace under pressure, hitting a reassuring note that appropriately recognizes the gravity of the crisis, the seriousness of the challenge ahead and the determination and confidence of this government to keep a cool head and a steady hand on the tiller.

I was struck yesterday by how Notley and her municipal affairs minister, Danielle Larivee, exuded the sense that while things may be bad, the grownups are in charge and they know what to do to make things better.

Now, some will argue it is natural for a supporter of Notley's government, as I certainly am, to see things this way. Moreover, no plan will ever be good enough for determined opponents of the NDP -- and there are many -- especially when the only opposition alternative is to slash and pretend that will change nothing.

But it's not just me, as two remarkable stories in the past few hours in the pages of The Globe and Mail -- the journalistic bastion of conservative Canada and Canada's Conservatives -- illustrate with particular clarity.

Early yesterday morning, Gary Mason, the Globe's Western Canadian correspondent described this sense of effective leadership in strong words: "Leaders are often defined by how they perform in a time of crisis. If that is the case, Ms. Notley should receive high marks for the way in which she has conducted herself amid one of the most troubling 12 months Alberta has ever known," he wrote. "In recent history, I can't recall a rookie political leader, certainly one with so little previous governing experience, who has inherited a more brutal set of circumstances and yet performed with so much poise and natural authority."

"There was a disdainful, almost patronizing tone emitted from the province's conservative old guard when the NDP took over," Mason recalled later in his piece. "It went something like: Now you'll see what happens when you elect ideological lefty do-gooders who have little experience running anything. And yet it is difficult to imagine any of the Progressive Conservative leaders in recent years handling things any better than Rachel Notley has. In fact, it's easy to imagine a couple of them handling things a whole lot worse."

On the afternoon of the same day, in the same Globe -- the one that not so long ago reflexively endorsed Conservative austerians like Stephen Harper in Ottawa and Jim Prentice in Alberta -- published an editorial that not only contained strong praise for what Notley has done up to now, but pointed critically at previous conservative governments as the authors of many of the province's most serious problems.

This editorial too is worth quoting at length. It began: "Premier Rachel Notley's New Democratic Party was elected one year ago this week. It's mostly been a solid, serious first year, particularly given that her party had never before been anywhere near the levers of power. She took steps to tackle climate change, introducing some of Canada's toughest carbon-pricing rules. She pushed hard for the rest of the country to accept new pipelines, which are necessary for the oil industry to operate efficiently. She brought in a promised, badly needed reform of Alberta's political fundraising rules. She wisely reconsidered raising oil royalty rates, faced with evidence that it would be counterproductive. She's faced the Fort McMurray disaster with intelligence and empathy."

It went on: "Her predecessors squandered the boom times, and handed her the keys to the car just as it was running out of gas. The NDP inherited a massive hole in the province's finances, which has since grown. Its cause is what used to be the province’s advantage: Oil. Thanks to oil, previous Alberta governments delivered the impossible, year after year: low taxes and high spending. And then the bottom dropped out on oil prices. Without its annual lottery winnings, Alberta was revealed as a budgetary basket case."

Remember, this is The Globe and Mail talking. A few similar notes have even been struck in local media, notably by political columnists Don Braid and Graham Thomson, both real journalists who trace their roots to the era in which Alberta's quality newspapers were owned by Southam Inc. An openly partisan anti-NDP tone prevails in the opinion pages of the former Sun newspapers, now also owned by Postmedia.

Alberta's conservatives, of course, include many thoughtful and sensible people with whom we can respectfully disagree and, as in the past week, find common ground. But it is fair to say that the province's conservative movement skews further to the Tea Party edge of the spectrum than do conservatives in most other Canadian provinces.

This is, arguably, a big part of what led to the election of the untried NDP in the provincial general election on May 5, 2015, largely on the strength of Notley's pitch-perfect performance in the last days of the campaign. Fed up with the PCs, Albertans just couldn't see their way to electing the extremist rural-based Wildrose Party.

So to see Notley's government now getting recognition and praise from some of the country's traditionally most conservative quarters really ought to shake centrist conservatives and the infuriated extremist right alike, who have been telling themselves as if it were a mantra that they only have to wait three more years and they will be automatically restored to power.

Their social media broadsides at Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as the fires continued to burn in the north seemed to stick at times, but never to Notley or her ministers.

Of course, it's a long haul until the next election and plenty can go wrong for the NDP between now and then, just as there were fumbles in the government's rocky first months.

Moreover, dealing with close to 90,000 refugees from Fort Mac and shuttered oilsands plants will bring new opportunities for pitfalls, anger, economic worries and frustrated voters, especially as time goes on.

Still, the Notley Government seems to have found its feet at last, and in a dark, difficult moment. The challenge for the province's conservatives is not getting any easier.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Image: flickr/daveberta

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