The Leftist Leading Canada's Right-Wing Oil Patch
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Socially and environmentally friendly policies just might not be at odds with a strong private economy.
By Steven Butler
It’s Canada’s season for new brooms — leftist-dynastic new brooms. We’re not just talking about the election landslide that brought Justin Trudeau to Ottawa, where he recently booted the conservatives out of power 31 years after his megastar dad, Pierre, left office as prime minister. No, the younger Trudeau is merely taking a cue from his left-of-center compatriot Rachel Notley, premier of Canada’s conservative, Wild West, petro-province Alberta. “I’m going to stick around for four years!” she says, laughing and clapping rhythmically while sitting on the couch of her office in Edmonton. That would be quite the feat, given that the Progressive Conservative Party that preceded her had four premiers in office since 2011.
In some ways, Notley, 51, has scaled to an even higher height than Trudeau when in May she defeated the conservative machine that ruled the province — nonstop — for 44 years. Notley’s father, Grant, never made it to the spacious corner suite of the marbled and domed legislature building that sits near the North Saskatchewan River that divides Edmonton, but he did create the New Democratic Party that Notley finally brought to power — to the shock of Alberta’s conservative stalwarts and observers across the country. “She’s portrayed as a red-flag-waving Bolshevik who is going to nationalize the oil and gas industry,” says Keith Brownsey, political scientist at Mount Royal University in Calgary, describing the conservative reaction as “hysterical.”
While critics and supporters have watched as Notley plays out her hand, Canadian Business magazine recently named her the country’s most powerful businessperson — topping Trudeau and many industry leaders. Alberta has an outsize role in the nation’s economy because of its immense oil wealth, making it Canada’s richest province on a per capita basis. But oil has also taken Alberta on a roller-coaster ride, and Notley has come to office — carving out a big-ticket policy agenda that includes climate change and indigenous rights — just as plunging oil prices have ravaged government revenue.
“I do see getting us a pipeline as something I want to be successful on.”
The labor lawyer turned politician hardly looks the part of a powerful revolutionary. Actually, she smiles and laughs a lot, and when I meet her, she is dressed conservatively, in a gray jacket and skirt over a mauve blouse and sports a simple neckband with an enameled image of the Rocky Mountains for which Alberta is famous. She answers my questions rapidly and precisely. Her blond hair is neatly coiffed, and she occasionally reaches up to brush it back from her face. “She’s smart, capable, at ease with herself,” says Ted Morton, a former Progressive Conservative legislative member and cabinet official. “I like everything about her except her policies.”
Her victory was startling. “She won by accident,” Morton argues. That’s because, the reasoning goes, the conservative vote split amid the tactical disarray of two right-wing parties, while the left consolidated around Notley’s NDP, bringing to power a commanding majority of 54 (out of 87), including 50 newbies to the legislature. Morton says his conservative colleagues are still debating whether she intends to impose the solidly leftist agenda that she campaigned on or whether she’s going to try to build staying power for her party with a moderate approach.
To my ears, it sounds like the latter. An environmentalist at heart, Notley intends to grow Alberta’s oil industry but reasons that her predecessors gave the province a black eye by ignoring high carbon emissions caused by oil sands production, provoking widespread opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline that President Obama recently vetoed. She’s since announced a plan to tax and cap carbon emissions and phase out coal-generating plants — all while standing next to leading oil execs, environmentalists and Alberta’s First Nation chief. “I do see getting us a pipeline as something I want to be successful on,” Notley says. And after publicly embracing the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, she ordered a governmentwide review of all policies that may affect Alberta’s 220,700 First Nation residents. “It won’t be solved overnight,” she warns.
But Notley admits she has more work ahead to win over the business community. Her recent budget — think borrowing and spending and ditching a flat tax in favor of a progressive income tax — raised eyebrows. Yet she reasons that with the province’s boom-and-bust oil economy, “we shouldn’t be making it worse by creating a boom-and-bust government.” Her aim of balancing the budget by 2020, while loading up on debt, assumes that oil prices will rebound. Brownsey says that Notley, whom he describes as “centrist,” has followed standard economic practice, “except for Alberta,” which he says has been run like an extension of the oil industry. Even so, she aims to diversify the province’s economy — something the market has stubbornly refused to do on its own in this geographically isolated area — and, when times are better, extend childcare services.
When I ask about her personal life, I get that big laugh again. “Oh? What personal life?” She’s sleeping less (no surprise), and while lots of people are there to help, they also add to her calendar. “It’s quite awe inspiring,” she jokes. Still, she makes time to run in the early mornings and for her family, including two children. She talks wistfully about being a four-hour drive from some of the best skiing in the world. “Last year, didn’t get in much.”