Rachel Notley will never have a better night.
Whether her political career is long or short, troubled or triumphant she will not see another time when the stars align so serendipitously, when the sheen is so pristine and when every word is so apt, golden and gracious
“Spring has arrived,” gushed Notley to her delirious supporters in Edmonton after sweeping to an improbable majority government, ending 44 years of Tory rule in Alberta.
Even a throwaway line drew roars of laughter.
“I haven’t done the math yet,” she said, intending to highlight the large numbers of female New Democrats elected as MLAs. It was instead a an unintentionally brilliant zinger, pointing to Jim Prentice’s ill advised “math is hard” remark from the leader’s debate.
She and her NDP friends have reason to celebrate and savour the moment. Now the hard part starts.
I covered the Alberta legislature briefly in the 1980s, when Notley’s late father Grant was a one-man caucus, struggling to be heard in the face of the Peter Lougheed PC juggernaut.
Grant Notley died in a plane crash in 1984
So the sight of his daughter leading a left wing party to government in Canada’s most conservative province was surreal. In its own way it was even more stunning than Bob Rae’s improbable victory for the New Democrats in Ontario 25 years ago.
Notley should take heed of Rae’s experience. Scarcely had the delirious election night chants of “Premier Bob” died out when reality landed with a thud. He moved in the corner office on the second floor of Queen’s Park to discover that the provincial books were actually terrible, a promised Liberal surplus in fact a deep and worsening deficit.
Premier Bob Rae with Finance Minister Floyd Laughren
The NDP budget delivered record red ink in a vain attempt to stimulate a stumbling economy. Rae, although one of the brightest, most eloquent politicians of his generation, never really recovered.
The new premier of Alberta faces her own economic hard facts. Prentice was brought down in part because of a bad news deficit budget that fell flat with the voters in its effort to mitigate the wreckage inflicted by plummeting oil prices.
Just as Rae faced a skeptical Bay Street in 1990, Notley is being eyed warily by a deeply suspicious oil patch, wondering whether she plans to bump up royalties and corporate taxes. Every stumble, however slight, will produce shouts of “ah hah, I knew it!”
Rae at least had a core group of MPPs with some experience at Queen’s Park. Notley led a caucus of only 4 MLAs in the old legislature.
People who have never served in public life will shortly be handed responsibility for multi-billion dollar ministries and will face the merciless glare of the news media and critics ready to pounce.
Notley is one of the few Alberta NDP MLAs used to the media spotlight
She will be wise to take a bit of time to prepare them for what they are about to encounter.
In the early days of Mike Harris’s PC government in 1995, his new cabinet granted few interviews. I was filling in as host of the Focus Ontario talk show on Global immediately after the election and we had an awful time finding Tory ministers who could be cleared to appear on the program and face our not-so-gentle interrogations.
Harris and his team knew they faced a news media skeptical of the hardline promises of his Common Sense Revolution and as a result only allowed a very short list of ministers to talk, people who had already some experience in public life.
Notley should adopt the same tactic while she is basking in the glow of what will likely be a brief honeymoon period. The last thing she needs in the early days of government is to be putting out daily fires because of unwise wisecracks by rookie ministers.
The Alberta NDP should be picking up phones today and reaching out to the best media trainers in Canada to come to Edmonton. Her ebullient caucus of neophytes desperately, urgently needs a crash course on the facts of political life and how to talk to a reporter.