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Rachel Notley’s win in 2015 may have been a stunning defeat for conservatives, but few pundits saw it as a game-changer for progressives. I didn’t. I thought of Bob Rae’s ill-fated victory in 1990, but this time with Notley cast as the accidental tourist, about to be hit by a bus.

Four years later, I’m struck by how wrong I was and how different their stories are. Rae had the rotten luck to govern Ontario through the worst recession since the War. It’s a story of having no good options; and of how circumstances can be so overwhelming that nothing we do will change the outcome. It ended, predictably, in crushing defeat.

By contrast, Notley’s story is about creating options when none seem available. It is about how the things we do can make a difference, even when everyone and everything seems to be against us. And that, I think, says something important about the nature of progressive politics. It also sheds light on how this chapter in Alberta politics might end.

A Changing Environment

In the year before Notley was elected, the price of oil fell by half. Alberta badly needed new pipelines to get its oil to new markets, especially China.

Notley was in opposition then and had serious misgivings about the government’s top-down approach to diversification. She thought building pipelines should require social license. Basically, if the community is being asked to share the risk, it should have a greater say in planning and a greater share in the benefits.

In past, industry executives showed no interest in this, but in the year leading up to the election, things started to change. Alberta was being criticized around the globe for its “dirty oil” and by the time Notley became premier an openness to new ideas was emerging.

Enter Justin Trudeau.

Notley’s Story

Trudeau’s plan to balance the environment and economy was a good fit with Notley’s views on social license. When the two compared notes, they saw an opportunity. By trading pipelines for a carbon tax, Notley could get a made-in-Alberta version of social license that industry seemed willing to buy.

For his part, Trudeau would get Alberta’s buy-in on the carbon tax. And for a fleeting moment, they looked poised to change Canadian and Alberta politics. Alas, like Bob Rae, Notley has had more than her share of rotten luck.

First, there was a nasty spat with Christy Clark, who refused to let a pipeline cross the Rockies. Then John Horgan turned the 2017 BC campaign into a referendum on Trans Mountain – and won.

Elsewhere, conservatives like Scott Moe, Doug Ford, and Andrew Sheer were transforming talk of a carbon tax into political poison. While their main target is Trudeau, Jason Kenney has cast Notley as a co-conspirator, out to ruin Alberta’s oil industry.

Kinder Morgan, fed up with indecision and red tape, finally pulled out of Trans Mountain, leaving Notley and Trudeau empty-handed. Trudeau responded by throwing all his chips in the pot and buying the pipeline, only to have the Federal Court of Appeal halt construction over environmental concerns and First Nation consultations.

That was the last straw for Notley. She pulled out of Trudeau’s climate change plan, instructing him to find a solution quickly or she will get her own plan to solve the province’s crisis.

Clearly, she is serious. She has already cut production in the oil sands, begun the purchase of 7000 rail cars to get the oil to market, and put out a call to industry for submissions to build a refinery.

In sum, I think even the Queen would agree that Notley’s term in office has been one long annus horribilis. But as the end draws near, even her enemies must concede: Notley has emerged as a tough, determined, and resourceful leader.

I’d go even further. She may have moved the centre in Alberta politics. A quick look at Bob Rae’s government helps us see how and why.

Rae vs. Notley

By early 1991, the severity of Ontario’s recession was clear, and Rae’s base was lobbying hard to ramp up government spending. That, after all, is what many of them meant by “progressive” government. And at first, Rae played to type, spending heavily on social assistance, subsidized housing, and other public services.

In hindsight, the plan was doomed from the start. As the deficit soared, the critics tore into him. By his second year in office, Rae had no choice but to reverse his stance and cut spending. It was a political nightmare that turned many of his closest allies into foes.

But let’s be clear: it wasn’t the recession that did Rae in. It was the unrealistic expectations that his supporters piled on him. He had nowhere near the resources to meet them, and that was a formula for certain failure.

As a progressive, Notley’s goal is to move the yardsticks on sustainable development. This no easy task, especially in Alberta. But unlike Rae, who was a prisoner of people’s expectations, Notley has framed her challenge differently. For her, success is as much about changing attitudes and expectations as setting emission targets.

Thus, getting industry to buy into the deal with Trudeau counts as a big step forward. True, she still doesn’t have a pipeline, but it signals their acceptance of the idea of a carbon tax and, ultimately, of sustainable development. And that’s real progress.

At the same time, Notley has been a strong and credible voice for Alberta’s interests in the national climate change debate. She has made clear to people and governments across the country that the province’s oil industry must be integral to any workable Canadian plan. People are listening.

Of course, Notley’s views have also angered colleagues in the environmental movement, many of whom see industry as the enemy. But this is where I find her credentials as a progressive most compelling: She believes that a real breakthrough on climate change can’t happen without culture change. She has spent a huge amount of her time and political capital fighting for it and, notwithstanding her rotten luck, she has made headway.

The question now is whether Albertans will build on these gains or abandon them. Kenney is the poster boy for the latter. He fiercely opposes any entente between industry and the environmental movement. His message to Albertans is that they can go back to the future – that the oil patch can still do business like it used to. And perhaps they will believe him. As things stand, a second term for Notley looks unlikely.

Still, if I were Jason Kenney, I wouldn’t bet the farm on this. Albertans surprised us in 2015; maybe they will do it again.

Dr. Don Lenihan is an internationally recognized expert on public engagement and Open Government. He is currently advising The Ottawa Hospital on an engagement plan to develop its new Civic Campus – a $2 billion, 10-year project. He also co-chairs the Open Government Partnership’s Practice Group on Open Dialogue and Deliberation. Don can be reached at: or follow him on Twitter at: @DonLenihan 

The views, opinions and analyses expressed in the articles on National Newswatch are those of the contributor(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the publishers.
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