Topp spin: Alberta premier’s departing chief of staff gives his final report to media with an eye to history

Posted on December 15, 2016, 1:07 am
8 mins

PHOTOS: Brian Topp, Premier Rachel Notley’s departing chief of staff. Below: Mr. Topp’s replacement, John Heaney; Jim Rutkowski, appointed Principal Secretary in the premier’s office; he replaces Anne McGrath, who becomes executive director of the Premier’s Southern Alberta Office in Calgary; and former southern office ED Bob Hawkesworth.

It would be fair to say Brian Topp is a person quite concerned about his place in history.

So when the moment came yesterday afternoon for the unexpected departure of Rachel Notley’s chief of staff from the Alberta premier’s office to be announced, it should surprise no one a couple of well-known mainstream media political columnists were near at hand to get the story directly from Mr. Topp’s own lips.

heaneyThe controversial former federal NDP leadership candidate and political strategist inevitably wore much of the blame for the B.C. NDP’s spectacular failure to win the May 2013 general election after a campaign in which they started out with a seemingly insurmountable lead over Premier Christy Clark’s Liberals. After all, Mr. Topp was then B.C. NDP leader Adrian Dix’s campaign manager.

But as B.C. journalist Bill Tieleman wrote in The Tyee that fall, Mr. Topp thereupon began “the biggest salvage job since the Costa Concordia cruise ship was removed from the rocks off Italy’s coast.”

In a leaked confidential party report on the failed campaign, Mr. Tieleman wrote, “Topp attempts to subtly yet inexorably paint Dix as sinking the campaign almost singlehandedly, but the reality is that Topp – not Dix – was actually running it.”

Among several failures catalogued in Mr. Tieleman’s sharply worded chronicle of Mr. Topp’s political sins was the accusation he relied too much on imported political talent from out of province – a complaint that will be familiar to NDP supporters in Alberta who have observed Mr. Topp’s performance in Ms. Notley’s office.

rutkowskiSince then, it has not been unknown for Mr. Topp to point Alberta journalists and bloggers in the direction of that leaky old party report to ensure they understand just who was – and who wasn’t – responsible for the B.C. debacle.

Whether or not Alberta’s NDP wins re-election in 2019 or thereabouts, at least Mr. Topp’s departure from this chilly corner of the Prairies will likely be seen positively, painted in warm tones as it was yesterday.

He told Edmonton Journal columnist Graham Thomson that “he had fulfilled his post-election commitments to Notley and wanted to return to Ontario to spend more time with his wife and two adult sons,” the scribe wrote. “He has also accepted a fellowship with the Public Policy Forum think-tank.”

The Calgary Herald’s political columnist, Don Braid, followed a similar script. “Topp said he’s heading back to Toronto for a fellowship at the Public Policy Forum, and looking forward to ‘putting my family back together again.’”

Both reported that Mr. Topp feels he has achieved the substantial policy agenda he set out to see through – which is probably a fair assessment of his work since joining Ms. Notley’s transition after the May 2015 general election. Both emphasized Mr. Topp’s substantial power in Ms. Notley’s government.

Mr. Topp enumerated several points to the columnists:mcgrath

  • He vowed will have nothing to do with the upcoming British Columbia election campaign, scheduled to take place on May 9, 2017, in which the NDP are expected to campaign fiercely against the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline, on which Alberta NDP hopes rest heavily. If he says anything, he promised, it will be to advocate for the pipeline.
  • He promised equally definitively not to run again for the leadership of the federal NDP in the race scheduled for the fall of 2017.
  • He said he’d been planning to leave for a while – although the announcement yesterday absolutely came as a shocker to most people who thought they were close to the government.
  • He indicated he’ll be back in Alberta to help fight the 2019 election … maybe.

In the premier’s news release announcing Mr. Topp’s replacements, Ms. Notley had kind words for her departing chief of staff:

“Brian served my government and the people of Alberta with integrity and purpose,” she said. “He was instrumental in advancing such major initiatives as the Climate Leadership Plan, establishing a stable electricity market and securing approval for the Trans Mountain Pipeline.

“On behalf of our government, I offer my heartfelt appreciation for his enormous contribution to our province.”

hawkesworthThe news release – significantly, perhaps – emphasized the Alberta connections of his replacement and the other advisors involved in what amounts to a mini-shuffle of the NDP premier’s political staff.

John Heaney was named chief of staff to replace Mr. Topp. Mr. Heaney hails most recently from British Columbia, where he served as chief of staff to the NDP Legislative Caucus in Victoria. But the release emphasized his roots in Edmonton, where he grew up.

Ms. Notley named Edmonton native Jim Rutkowski, until yesterday Finance Minister Joe Ceci’s chief of staff and another sometime Victoria resident, as principal secretary in her office.

Principal Secretary Anne McGrath becomes executive director of the premier’s Southern Alberta Office in Calgary. Unmentioned by the news release, however, was the fact this change involved a demotion for former Calgary MLA and city councillor Bob Hawkesworth.

No sooner had the Alberta government announced Mr. Topp’s departure than the Public Policy Forum, headed by former Globe and Mail editor in chief Edward Greenspon, put out a press release touting his arrival.

Despite the shuffle, Notley Government strategy is thought unlikely to change significantly, although as Mr. Braid suggested a cabinet shuffle is likely to follow in the New Year.

But will its tone change now that Mr. Topp has moved on? Too soon to tell.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

6 Comments to: Topp spin: Alberta premier’s departing chief of staff gives his final report to media with an eye to history

  1. Val

    December 15th, 2016

    1. how he got here in first place?
    2. seems he already has done plenty of harm, which will still have impact on outcome in election 2019

    Reply
  2. Gail

    December 15th, 2016

    Given his track record with other NDP gov’t I can only say “thank god”. It’s an early Christmas miracle. I can only hope that this is a sign the Alberta NDP might be starting to wake up

    Reply
  3. K. Larsen

    December 15th, 2016

    “A stable electricity market” is total nonsense unless you mean a billion dollar welfare cheque for coal generators and a guaranteed income for the owners of those technologically obsolete 500 kV DC lines the Redford regime approved by dictat.

    How is attacking the publically owned ENMAX consistent with the NDP claiming to represent the public interest, especially when it is the only major utility that has actually been transitioning to low carbon generation since at least 2004?

    Notley’s out of province advisors are totally clueless about Alberta’s deep political culture. Their missteps on everything from WCB coverage for farm workers to their continued support for taking control of the cereal grain genome away from farmers and giving it to the agro-chemical-seed companies is beyond destructive.

    The people of Alberta voted for change and we got “Topped” instead.

    Reply
    • Farmer B

      December 15th, 2016

      It is a weird, I agree with everything you said. I can honestly say there isn’t one thing Brian Topp and I would agree on. Hope he stays in Ontario where he belongs. He certainly understands nothing about Alberta’s culture. Having said that I can’t see that anybody in the NDP understands or appreciates rural Alberta!

      Reply
  4. Heather

    December 15th, 2016

    Given her close ties to Mr. Topp it would be nice to see Ms. McGrath and the others brought in by Mr. Topp also move on to other positions outside of advising the NDP.

    Reply
    • Val

      December 17th, 2016

      instead relocating Ms. McGrath from Edmonton to Calgary, given her communist past, would be much better if she will be moved somewhere to North Korea or Russia.

      Reply

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