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Notley made Alberta NDP a winner and planted unlikely dream: winning again

For a sense of how colossal the Alberta NDP’s debt is to Rachel Notley, consider this.

Their three best election results were in the three under her leadership, the party winning a combined 116 seats in those races. Across the 12 elections before that, the NDP won 51.

That’s fewer than the number of MLAs elected under Notley’s banner in 2015 alone, to make her premier.

She transformed a team that could fit comfortably in a sedan — or sometimes on a bicycle, with occasional handlebar-rider — into one that filled government’s cabinet room. It’s something she admits defied even her own expectations.

But in the two races since her victory, Notley failed to bring her NDP back to the mountaintop, against UCP leaders Jason Kenney and Danielle Smith.

No amount of consolation rhetoric like “largest opposition in Alberta history!” could erase the fact of those defeats, or the disappointment about them in her ranks. She cited her failure to win again as the key reason she’ll step down as leader once a replacement is chosen (likely later in 2024).

The new New Democrats

But that bitterness in a way speaks to the success of what Notley built. The party that had long contented itself with a caucus of two or four MLAs had developed new expectations in the Notley era — expectations of winning. 

In fact, she said in her announcement Tuesday that establishing the NDP as a powerful, victory-minded force in Alberta was likely her biggest accomplishment, and the reason she stayed on as leader after 2019’s fall from power to fight again in 2023.

“Too many people were declaring that the Alberta NDP was done, and more importantly, that Alberta was destined to revert back to being a one-party, conservative state,” she told reporters. “And I knew that wasn’t true.”

As the race to replace Notley emerges from the backrooms in the coming weeks and months, this much will also be true: the party’s next leader will face expectations that victory be kept within reach.

The candidates will be running as much to become premier as to be NDP leader, to win this internal race with a clear eye on also winning the next provincial election.

three headshots of woman politicians
The three MLAs considered the top suitors for the NDP leadership after Notley. From left: Rakhi Pancholi, Sarah Hoffman and Kathleen Ganley. (CBC News/Alberta NDP/Instagram)

For a few months now, the outlines of that leadership contest have become more clear, as New Democrats waited for Notley to declare her intention to resign and let candidates shift from quietly organizing to actively campaigning.

Last week, likely contender Kathleen Ganley chose to get ahead of Notley’s announcement, releasing a leadership-style video that might have hastened the former premier’s timing. Tuesday’s declaration to all of Notley’s caucus and staff came via a hastily organized virtual meeting on Zoom — ahead of next week’s scheduled gathering — followed by a news conference with her family in Edmonton.

Ganley, a Calgary MLA and former justice minister, will be a perceived front-runner alongside two Edmonton MLAs, former deputy premier Sarah Hoffman and second-term member Rakhi Pancholi.

It’s a race without any clear early favourite, and no rules or timeline until an NDP provincial council meeting on Jan. 27. Nobody will be allowed to formally declare until after that, but, for a sense of the perceived evenness of this contest, various members of Notley’s own staff and inner circle are joining the campaign teams of each of those three main leadership hopefuls.

Notley herself said she’ll stay neutral while her successor is chosen. But as a leader who strived to expand the NDP beyond its base of union members and Edmonton progressives, she wants the coming debate about the party’s future to be similarly expansive.

“To me, it’s about are we listening to all Albertans?” the outgoing leader said, shrugging off a question about how centrist the Alberta NDP should be. “Are we representing the hopes and aspirations of the greatest number of Albertans?”

There may be some questions during the leadership contest about how broadly the party reaches into new ideological territory, or how far it strays from traditional NDP values. Expect questions about what Calgary wants, and what smaller Alberta communities want, to loom large as well.

WATCH | Rachel Notley makes emotional remarks about decision:

Rachel Notley announces intention to step down as leader of the Alberta NDP

15 hours ago

Duration 1:36

Rachel Notley, the official Opposition leader, said the party will organize a leadership race and she will stay on as leader until members choose a replacement.

But none of the three preliminarily top candidates appears to stray too far from Notley’s own general politics — and none are likely to push the party back to more clearly progressive stances in a province whose political axis skews more conservative, more economy-minded and more pro-oil than elsewhere in Canada, and whose provincial NDP can often disagree with the federal wing or other provincial branches.

Hoffman, the one among the three contenders with roots in the pre-Notley NDP days, wrote online about how she was proud to work with Notley “to put our social democratic values into action.” But in that tribute to the departing leader, she declared the desire for another party victory.

“Our shared challenge as New Democrats is to build on her historic successes and return to government in the next election,” she posted online.

woman behind lectern smiles and waves, as fellow politicians gather behind her
Rachel Notley, then Alberta’s premier-designate, held a news conference with her newly elected caucus on May 9, 2015. (Jason Franson/Canadian Press)

Notley and her allies mused about various accomplishments in her single term as premier: the $15 minimum wage, a climate strategy that hastened the phase-out of coal power and promoted wind and solar expansions, and her promotion of the Calgary Cancer Centre and the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion — two projects whose ribbons the UCP’s Smith will get to cut.

But many Albertans remember her as the premier who presided over a deep recession driven by low oil prices, who brought in a widely disliked provincial carbon tax, and was too collaborative with Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a deeply unpopular figure in Alberta.

Despite all that, most polls ahead of both 2019 and 2023 elections showed Notley’s favourability higher than her UCP rivals, Kenney and Smith.

However, the party brand sank hopes of re-election, twice. Outside of Calgary and Edmonton, both the current leader’s brand and her party’s have proven to be liabilities.

WATCH | Rachel Notley discusses her future:

Outgoing Alberta NDP leader says she has no plans to enter federal politics

12 hours ago

Duration 9:50

Rachel Notley is stepping down as Alberta’s NDP leader after almost a decade in the job. It was under her leadership that the NDP formed its first ever government in Alberta. “It’s time to let other people shine,” Notley tells Power & Politics as she comments on the province’s future after she resigns.

Can renewal help the party shed past bitter memories, if a new leader can less easily be tied to Trudeau or the last decade’s recession? Some of that may depend on what kind of vision Notley’s successor can project; some of it will depend on how effectively the UCP and Smith can yoke the next leader to the frustrating past.

The UCP will be as wary of the NDP returning to its once-winning ways as those who walk in Notley’s shadow will be hopeful.

Notley planted an unlikely dream within a struggling party’s core, watched it blossom and then wilt. After Notley, and the desires she instilled in Alberta New Democrats to keep this a two-party province, the next leader’s job may be bloom or bust.

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