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Topp spin: Alberta premier's departing chief of staff gives his final report to media with an eye to history

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Brian Topp

It would be fair to say Brian Topp is a person quite concerned about his place in history.

So when the moment came yesterday afternoon for the unexpected departure of Rachel Notley's chief of staff from the Alberta premier's office to be announced, it should surprise no one a couple of well-known mainstream media political columnists were near at hand to get the story directly from Topp's own lips.

The controversial former federal NDP leadership candidate and political strategist inevitably wore much of the blame for the B.C. NDP's spectacular failure to win the May 2013 general election after a campaign in which they started out with a seemingly insurmountable lead over Premier Christy Clark's Liberals. After all, Topp was then B.C. NDP leader Adrian Dix's campaign manager.

But as B.C. journalist Bill Tieleman wrote in The Tyee that fall, Topp thereupon began "the biggest salvage job since the Costa Concordia cruise ship was removed from the rocks off Italy’s coast."

In a leaked confidential party report on the failed campaign, Tieleman wrote, "Topp attempts to subtly yet inexorably paint Dix as sinking the campaign almost singlehandedly, but the reality is that Topp -- not Dix -- was actually running it."

Among several failures catalogued in Tieleman's sharply worded chronicle of Topp's political sins was the accusation he relied too much on imported political talent from out of province -- a complaint that will be familiar to NDP supporters in Alberta who have observed Topp's performance in Notley's office.

Since then, it has not been unknown for Topp to point Alberta journalists and bloggers in the direction of that leaky old party report to ensure they understand just who was -- and who wasn't -- responsible for the B.C. debacle.

Whether or not Alberta's NDP wins re-election in 2019 or thereabouts, at least Topp's departure from this chilly corner of the Prairies will likely be seen positively, painted in warm tones as it was yesterday.

He told Edmonton Journal columnist Graham Thomson that "he had fulfilled his post-election commitments to Notley and wanted to return to Ontario to spend more time with his wife and two adult sons," the scribe wrote. "He has also accepted a fellowship with the Public Policy Forum think-tank."

The Calgary Herald's political columnist, Don Braid, followed a similar script. "Topp said he's heading back to Toronto for a fellowship at the Public Policy Forum, and looking forward to 'putting my family back together again.'"

Both reported that Topp feels he has achieved the substantial policy agenda he set out to see through -- which is probably a fair assessment of his work since joining Notley's transition after the May 2015 general election. Both emphasized Topp's substantial power in Notley's government.

Topp enumerated several points to the columnists:

  • He vowed will have nothing to do with the upcoming British Columbia election campaign, scheduled to take place on May 9, 2017, in which the NDP are expected to campaign fiercely against the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline, on which Alberta NDP hopes rest heavily. If he says anything, he promised, it will be to advocate for the pipeline.
  • He promised equally definitively not to run again for the leadership of the federal NDP in the race scheduled for the fall of 2017.
  • He said he'd been planning to leave for a while -- although the announcement yesterday absolutely came as a shocker to most people who thought they were close to the government.
  • He indicated he'll be back in Alberta to help fight the 2019 election … maybe.

In the premier's news release announcing Topp's replacements, Notley had kind words for her departing chief of staff:

"Brian served my government and the people of Alberta with integrity and purpose," she said. "He was instrumental in advancing such major initiatives as the Climate Leadership Plan, establishing a stable electricity market and securing approval for the Trans Mountain Pipeline.

"On behalf of our government, I offer my heartfelt appreciation for his enormous contribution to our province."

The news release -- significantly, perhaps -- emphasized the Alberta connections of his replacement and the other advisors involved in what amounts to a mini-shuffle of the NDP premier's political staff.

John Heaney was named chief of staff to replace Topp. Heaney hails most recently from British Columbia, where he served as chief of staff to the NDP Legislative Caucus in Victoria. But the release emphasized his roots in Edmonton, where he grew up.

Notley named Edmonton native Jim Rutkowski, until yesterday Finance Minister Joe Ceci's chief of staff and another sometime Victoria resident, as principal secretary in her office.

Principal Secretary Anne McGrath becomes executive director of the premier's Southern Alberta Office in Calgary. Unmentioned by the news release, however, was the fact this change involved a demotion for former Calgary MLA and city councillor Bob Hawkesworth.

No sooner had the Alberta government announced Topp's departure than the Public Policy Forum, headed by former Globe and Mail editor-in-chief Edward Greenspon, put out a press release touting his arrival.

Despite the shuffle, the Notley government strategy is thought unlikely to change significantly, although as Braid suggested a cabinet shuffle is likely to follow in the New Year.

But will its tone change now that Topp has moved on? Too soon to tell.

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

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