Jim Prentice’s comment that “Alberta is not an NDP province” was arrogance in a nutshell, and pride, as we know, always precedes the fall. Since Premier-elect Rachel Notley has already vowed not to make my mistakes, I could just choose silence in assessing her situation – but that has never been my strong point.
The obvious parallels to 1990 are these: an apparently popular premier calls an early (and “unnecessary”) election. The economy is in tougher shape than before, and the election campaign gives an already uncertain electorate a chance to send a message. The messenger is the leader of the New Democratic Party, who has been around a while and with whom voters are comfortable. A simple, well crafted NDP campaign leads to a result that was not anticipated at the beginning of the campaign – an NDP majority.
But 1990 in Ontario is not 2015 in Alberta. The economy truly cratered in Ontario: 300,000 jobs lost in just a few months; collapsing real estate prices; high interest rates and a strong dollar high; and a new free-trade agreement creating a “structural adjustment” that saw an avalanche of plant closings. It became clear that the reason for the early election was to get back in before the recession really started to bite. The downturn was the worst since 1930, and worse than anything faced in 2008-2009.
The day after the election, a group of worried finance department officials gave me a private briefing on the real state of the books. Revenues were down and the books were not balanced, as had been portrayed just five weeks before. A structural deficit loomed ahead.
Ms. Notley’s fiscal challenge is real, but does not compare to Ontario’s in those days. She and her team will be shown the books and they will be even less rosy than those contained in Mr. Prentice’s last budget. But there are always choices to be made, and after debates and discussions that’s what will happen.
Her risks are pressures from within to push ahead with an ambitious agenda, and dealing with a business community and broader electorate that have their own preoccupations. But by being completely transparent about choices, and tempering unrealistic expectations and fears (as she is already doing), she can weather the storm.
Finding allies in the business community is key. There will be the diehards – and the blowhards – but beyond that, there are leaders who care about the province, who have deep roots in their communities, and who recognize that in Ms. Notley they have someone whose popularity and competence do not seem ephemeral. That process of reaching out is both public and private, and will require all her skills. But it can be done.
The harder task is dealing with expectations from the many groups and supporters whose connections to the NDP run deep. Keeping spending on operations (health care and education in particular) in check has been the greatest challenge for social democratic governments around the world. From the Labour government in the U.K. in the seventies, to the travails of François Hollande in France, the examples are legion. It ain’t easy.
Some in the NDP like to argue that since, after a 10-year absence from politics, I ran for the leadership of the federal Liberal Party, any mistakes in Ontario should be traced to me personally. Once a traitor, always a traitor. But that just isn’t so. And what happens now in Alberta is not about paying back old political scores.
Government can’t defy gravity. There’s a limit to what any government, of any stripe, can borrow, tax, and spend. These limits are set by both public opinion and markets. The laws of economics are not exactly like the laws of physics, but reality has a way of rushing in.
But with that discipline, much can be done. Green taxes and better environmental regulation makes sense. So does a new partnership with First Nations and aboriginal communities. More open government, greater candour in decision making, and an understanding that when you don’t have a barrel of money, burdens and benefits have to be shared – these can all happen and will set the style for an effective and efficient administration. So will a determination to keep the climate for public and private investment strong. Mass transit and housing do not stop being important in a recession. I’m happy to admit mistakes, but am also determined to list accomplishments. We built houses and subways, saved businesses, helped the most vulnerable, and advanced equality. No rhetoric or partisanship can take that away.
The Notley victory breaks the stereotype and assumption that a province’s (or a country’s) politics are set in stone. It provides an opening for the public, the business community, and the new government. The path is not strewn with roses, but neither does it have to be covered in thistles. Most Canadians wish Ms. Notley well, and will want her government to succeed. I am one of them.
Photo by Simon Hayter