May 25, 2015

Dissecting Premier Notley’s Election Night Speech

As we sift through the results and the signals from Alberta’s historical provincial election, some observers have noted that the election was not so much about an orange onslaught, but a confluence of mis-steps and extraordinary events. Only time will tell the extent to which this NDP victory signals a meaningful shift to the left in Canada’s conservative heartland. In the meantime, perhaps the best place to begin looking for some clues about Notley’s next move is by looking at Premier Notley’s own words on election night

Her victory speech offered a few interesting insights into her thoughts and priorities. Here is a summary of the main points of her speech, along with a brief analysis about what was said and perhaps more critically, what was not.

“Stay in touch.”

After observing that Albertans may have elected the largest number of women to a government caucus in Canadian history, the new Premier noted the need to stay in touch with the values of Albertans as she perceives them – optimism, forward looking, community and a need to be “careful with the family budget.” It is the last point that is interesting. The leader of a party with a reputation for being reckless spenders and heavy taxers sought to reassure voters that they will be responsible with the public purse.

Its been said before, you can’t go wrong if you stay in touch with the values and commons sense of Albertans. In this province, we’re optimistic, we’re forward looking, we’re entrepreneurial, we’re community minded, and we are careful with the family budget.

Two of the most common criticisms of the last years of the PC government were that they were “out of touch,” and that they were profligate spenders despite their rhetoric. Ms. Notley clearly seeks to become the antidote. If she can credibly demonstrate that her government can manage the public purse better than her predecessors while remaining in touch with average voters, she will maximize her prospects of success.

Reassure “job creators,” reward public servants, and partner with First Nations.

Premier Notley went on to address three particular groups directly, the first of which were “job creators.” Note that she did not refer to “business,” and she refered to “great” rather than “large” or “big.” Several observations can be made about her choice of words –

  • Reassure business that they are important – The fact that she mentioned “job creators” first, was probably meant to reassure businesses that government will continue to promote economic growth, albeit as partners to business.
  • Focus will be on job creation, rather than wealth creation – Rather than remaining agnostic, her choice of words suggested a bias towards more jobs rather than increased wealth. Imagine two potential projects, one a heavy industry that creates few jobs relative to wealth, and another that creates many jobs relative to wealth.
  • Parternship – Notley assured that her government will be a “good partner,” without stopping to ask whether these “job creators” will have a choice in this partnership. Philosophically, the notion that government is a partner in business runs counter to free enterprise and suggests greater government intervention into the affairs of business.
  • Shared wealth across all communities – The Premier gave a strong hint about the kind of economy that she and her party are seeking to engineer. Her comment suggested that her government’s objective is to spread wealth (re-distribute) and seek security rather than build wealth and create opportunity. These concepts fit in with the views of the occupy movement and class warfare, rather than idea of building and creating opportunity.

To Alberta’s job creators, great and small, in the energy sector and in every other sector. Our government will be a good partner and we will work with you to grow our economy and to secure a more prosperous future for every Albertan in every community. Together, we need to start down the road to a diversified and resilient economy.

The second group Premier Notley addressed were workers. Not just any workers, but public servants. Notably absent from her comments are private sector workers. This is interesting, given that the makeup of her majority likely far surpassed the numbers of public servant union employees.

To our provinces skilled and professional public servants, to the teachers who inspire our children, to the nurses and the healthcare professionals who care for the sick, to everyone who gets up everyday to contribute to a better province, we are looking forward to working together with you.

Finally, the newly elected leader addressed “indigenous peoples,” with a commitment to be better neighbours and partners. This is no doubt a priority for the NDP worthy of separate mention.

And to Alberta’s indigenous peoples, the trust that we have been given tonight is a call to be better neighbours and better partners.

The dog that didn’t bark – Perhaps more revealing about her priorities than her modest reassurances were the groups and issues she omitted. Her remarks failed to mention farmers, resource workers and practically the entire private sector workforce. It will be interesting to see where and how these groups will fit into her agenda.

Cooperate with the Prime Minister?
Conciliatory or Confrontational Relations?

In a rare moment that attracted heckles from the crowd, Ms. Notley mentioned the Prime Minister and reminded her supporters that they are “kind of part of this country too”.

While some observers suggested that Notley was extending an olive branch to the Prime Minister, a closer observation suggests that this was a carefully calibrated shot across the bow.

  • She stated her desire to work with the PM on projects that “engage our province with the federal government.” Essentially, she declared her equal voice in Alberta at the table to the Prime Minister. Fair enough, she is now the Premier of the province – Premiers are elected to represent their provinces while the Prime Minister represents the country notwithstanding the province he represents.
  • In the next breath, the new Premier outlined her single national priority, the environment. An interesting priority to list, given Alberta’s historic position on the issue and the array of other things she could have chosen to champion with the federal government.

Ms. Notley concluded this section of her remarks by taking a swipe at the province’s history asserting that Alberta has a “black eye” in the energy marketplace. She juxtaposed this against her vision of “building bridges and open markets.” It will be interesting to see how she addresses the black eye. Presumably her remedy will come at the expense of provincial support for at least two pipelines (Keystone XL and Northern Gateway), as well as additional restrictions related to oil sand development

Ultimately, a more nuanced reading of Notley’s comments suggests that she plans to take a more confrontational, rather than conciliatory, approach to the federal government and the resource industry.

I am looking forward to working with the PM on the many issues and projects that engage our province with the federal government. I am looking forward to partnering with all of Canada’s premiers, on many many issues including the need for a national approach to the environment. And to work with my premier colleagues as well to build Canada’s energy sector so that we build bridges and open markets instead of having a black eye.

Clearly restating her priorities.

Premier Notley concluded her speech by restating her priorities for the province. She framed the election on her own terms. Accordingly, the issues of healthcare, schools and “family supporting jobs” are central to her success.

You voted for change: for better public healthcare, for better schools, for good family-supporting jobs.

The speech appears to be a fairly predictable left-of-centre speech. It was moderate in tone, but certainly gave some hints as to her direction – fiscally moderate, interventionist in business, focused on increasing the role of the public sector, and taking a decidedly pro-environmental direction on the national stage.

Whether these priorities will ultimately resonate with Albertans will be the defining test for the Premier and her government. While former Premier Jim Prentice ran a campaign with many miscalculations and missteps, he ultimately understood that Albertans needed a dose of hard reality – although one might correctly question the wisdom of blaming the public for the government’s lack of fiscal discipline. Notley’s lack of any mention on Alberta’s fiscal reality is the most troubling aspect of her speech. It will be more troubling if this omission was deliberate.

Nonetheless after 43 years, this seismic political shakeup has made observing Albertan politics interesting for a whole new set of reasons. It will be fascinating to see how Premier Notley’s mandate unfolds and how these stated priorities are achieved.

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