Rachel against the storm

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley speaks at the Global Petroleum Show in Calgary Wednesday, June 14, 2017. Photo: Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta

In less than 18 months, Rachel Notley and her Alberta New Democrats will face the Alberta electorate. Jason Kenney and his "Unified Conservatives" are betting that the ANDP victory in 2015 was a fluke. Notley’s right-wing opposition believes the fossil-fuel economy will thrive if right-wing fossils are elected government.

Right now, the UniCons have a towering lead in the polls. If the election were held now, Notley likely would be back on the opposition benches, with a handful, or maybe two, of Edmonton-area NDP MLAs who survived their close encounter of the electoral kind.

She faces an electorate that habitually votes for the right federally and, except for 2015, provincially. Her right-wing opponents have spent the past two-and-half-years convincing Alberta voters that Notley New Democrats are wild-eyed, enviro left-wingnuts out to destroy people’s livelihood. She’s depicted as spending Alberta into the ground by pursuing absurd goals like solar and wind power in the land of oil and gas.

In order for the ANDP to win re-election, the ANDP must hold its incumbent urban seats, and win ones in Calgary held by MLAs elected as PCs. In these ridings, the key swing electorate are fiscally conservative voters who don't want to see gay kids commit suicide because of UniCon legislated school policies. For these voters, whom they vote for will be determined by who repulses them less: tax-and-spend socialists, or kid-killing homophobes.

Yes, non-Albertans, suiciding gay kids is the partisan cleavage issue in Alberta these days. Both the Kenney UniCons and Notley ANDP have doubled-down on their opposing positions on whether schoolteachers will be legislated to tell parents whether their children join ''gay straight alliance'' clubs in school. These clubs reduce suicide rates among gay teens in Alberta. Given the attitudes of many Alberta parents toward homosexuality, telling them their little Johnny or Jennie have joined such a club may not bode well for the young’un's continuing to shuffle their coil upon this mortal plane. Notley’s for gay teens staying alive, and the UniCons not so much.

Coupled with this, Notley is attempting to restructure the Alberta government and economy in the face of momentous change. The global economy is gradually but consistently shifting toward renewable energy sources and away from fossil fuels. The Alberta government’s response has been to emphasize petroleum feedstock upgrading, renewable energy, and economic diversification.

Over the past two-and-a-half-years, Notley has also sought to overcome the massive infrastructure and services deficit bequeathed to her. Ralph Klein and his cronies financed their flat tax and tax giveaways by short-changing Albertans on infrastructural expenditures for the past quarter century. Against right-wing opposition, Notley’s New Democrats have pursued a massive building program while sustaining spending on public programs.

The ANDP government has been cautious in many of its economic policy measures. It has been constrained by a host of limitations. These include the low-tax fiscal capacity of the provincial government, limitations of the provincial bureaucracy, decision-making bandwidth among senior politicians and political staff, the uncertain "electoral license" of Alberta voters, and above all, time. The actual extent of these limitations only become apparent as government tries to pursue initiatives. Notley’s approach is to reach for what she can achieve, not reach and fail.

Unfortunately, these efforts are financed by provincial deficits that cannot be fiscally sustained indefinitely. Notley and her government are accumulating deficits in a province that not too long ago loudly took pride in wiping out its provincial public debt. Given Alberta political culture, and the NDP's reputation everywhere, reassuring undecided and swing voters that New Democrats in Alberta are not completely profligate tax-and-spend socialists is essential to any hope of re-election.

Notley’s ambitious agenda needs revenue. But the only revenue source large enough is Alberta’s fossil fuel sector. As a consequence, every positive aspect of Notley’s agenda rests on her success in getting more bitumen to more markets, at least in the short-term.

Alberta producers face substantial resistance to transporting and finding markets for bitumen. This means sub-market value for producers and reduced royalties for government. Notley’s efforts to find social licenses for pipelines are blocked by environmentalists, other progressives, and fellow New Democrats everywhere outside Alberta.

The Alberta right gleefully trumpet every instance of this resistance as proof of Notley’s failure to protect Albertans. They highlight the intrinsic idiocy of progressives seeking "social license" from other progressives for economic action.

For many Alberta New Democrats, progressive opposition outside Alberta reinforces right-wing efforts inside to defeat Notley’s government. To them, it also looks like progressives elsewhere are ready to sacrifice them and Alberta to the right, in pursuit of their own political interests.

No sane person would have confidently expressed a high likelihood of Notley's New Democrats winning the 2015 election before the campaign was underway. The Notley ANDP were smart in limiting their platform commitments and initial actions. But they have still suffered from the characteristic limitations many new NDP governments face upon taking office. These limitations are a major reason why so few first time NDP premiers win re-election.

Like all NDP governments, the Notley New Democrats face difficult policy and political choices. They have to pursue policies that motivate their supporters, appeal to centrist voters, and do not mobilize their opponents. These goals are frequently at odds. Policies that seem too little, too late to supporters are often jarring to those who voted NDP for the first time and whose votes are needed again.

The Notley New Democrats are steering toward re-election in the face of powerful right-wing headwinds, and against a strong opponent. For them to have any prospect of winning, they must ''tack'' into the wind.

This means they sometimes adopt positions partially at odds with the immediate preferences of their supporters so they can overcome economic constraints. They also need to mollify and appeal to likely voters if they want any hope of re-election. The magnitude of these conflicting goals make re-election of NDP governments anywhere difficult.

These political and policy strategies resemble ''tacking'', the method mariners use to progress when headwinds oppose direct forward movement. They sail at an angle into the opposing wind while steering into the current carrying one forward. This is Notley’s approach to governing Alberta.

The resulting progress is never direct or rapid, and involves frequent course changes. It often seems contradictory and indecisive. But it does make progress, on the seas of water and politics. The alternative is to be driven by political headwinds into the political rocks and remain trapped there.

From the standpoint of Albertans who are not left-wing, the Notley government's actions have been staggeringly ambitious. They've sharply broken with the policies and past Alberta governments. For a province that has seen only four changes in party government, and has been governed from the right for most of its existence, having New Democrats in government is a staggering shock.

No matter who is in government, it is extremely unlikely Alberta will ever again see boom times and royalties like what the province reaped during the 1970s, or much of the 1990s and 2000s. Notley’s long-term goal is to shift Alberta's economy away from fossil fuel and to a diversified economy while protecting Alberta families and jobs from the worst aspects of the restructuring. She’s doing this, and succeeding.

Notley was educated at the University of Alberta, not Hogwart's. She has no magical wand or incantations that will zap away Alberta’s economic and environmental challenges. The alternative to her isn’t feel-good progressive political pixie dust. It’s Jason Kenney and the hard right of the UniCons.

If they are elected, Kenney and the UniCons promise another boom fuelled by Klein-style spending cuts, tax cuts, and royalty giveaways. Notley and the New Democrats are steering Alberta through the headwinds toward a sustainable future for all Albertans.

Chanchal Bhattacharya is a participant observer of politics who combines grassroots political experience with a Ph.D. in Political Science. He grew up and lives in Edmonton, Alberta.

Photo: Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta

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