Alberta’s NDP made it official today with the close of nominations: there are three candidates in the race to succeed Brian Mason as the leader of the province’s New Democrats, in alphabetical order, David Eggen, Rod Loyola and Rachel Notley. Mr. Eggen and Ms. Notley are MLAs with solid records in the Legislature. Mr. Loyola is a union leader, president of the Non-Academic Staff Association at the University of Alberta.
To mark the occasion, I will run only the second guest post ever to be published on Alberta Diary, by John Ashton, who very recently left the post of Director of Caucus Services for the NDP in the Alberta Legislature. Mr. Ashton has some sound advice for the three candidates. In addition to his most recent role, he has been a staffer on 21 election campaigns over the past 17 years, including the 2008 and 2012 Alberta elections. He also served as a Constituency Assistant to Windsor West NDP MP Brian Masse.
By John Ashton
After serving as an Alberta NDP Caucus staffer for the past seven and a half years, my self-imposed muzzle of leadership race neutrality can now come off. I can now tell it like it is about the three candidates and the future of our crucial institution.
I’ll save you the suspense. I haven’t made a choice yet. When leadership and nomination races pop up, I generally rush in to pick a side. Not this time.
It’s not that I don’t think it’s an important choice. At worst, an Alberta NDP leader has a huge impact on the political discourse in our province, regardless of caucus size. Look at the track records of Grant Notley, Ray Martin and Brian Mason and tell me I’m wrong.
At best, the next leader will be the head of Alberta’s first NDP government by 2020. This may strike you as fanciful, but there is a precedent.
Peter Lougheed won just six seats in 1967 as he built the Progressive Conservative brand. The PCs were a party that had never governed the province at that point. Most pundits and pollsters would concede that the NDP could surpass that 1967 mark and win between eight and 10 seats in 2016.
In 1971, Mr. Lougheed’s PCs surprised most Albertans when they vaulted from six to 49 seats and formed a comfortable majority government. It was a result no one had seriously anticipated six years previously, just as some may be derisively snorting at the NDP’s governing prospects now.
Given that this leadership race will have an impact on the province to one degree or another, I am going to offer the leadership candidates some completely unsolicited advice. Have a seat, all three of you. Get out your notebooks.
First, let’s talk about your office. You may be under the misunderstanding it’s going to be in Room 230 at the Legislature Annex. Or maybe you think it’s a party office, or perhaps even your comfy chair and desk on the right hand side of the Legislative chamber. You’re wrong on all counts.
Your office is on the road. You need to spend as much of your time in front of people – real people, not pundits, staffers, leaders of stakeholders groups and the like.
Alberta is a huge, sprawling, place. No one in Coutts or Fort Chipewyan gives a crap about your clever Question Period zingers about resource revenue or overpaid health care bureaucrats. But if you visit them on their doorsteps and listen to their beefs, you may just get their attention.
The Legislative session is a great place to make PC and Wildrose MLAs deservedly uncomfortable. You may even get the Edmonton Journal to write something nice about you. But you can walk for 20 minutes to Edmonton’s McCauley neighbourhood and be hard pressed to find a single person who’s heard about it.
Now, let’s talk about what you should talk about. New Democratic Party members are passionate, educated, people. They are well aware of what’s going on in the world. You can go to an NDP fundraiser and hear very smart views on the environment, the Middle East, reforming our electoral system and the like. These members deserve to be listened to and to see their views reflected in an election platform.
But to the average Albertan, who gives a crap about all that? Does a single mother, scraping together her cash for school supplies this month care about our electoral system? Does a truck driver white-knuckling it through the snow toward Fort McMurray care about the Middle East?
No. Unless you’re a member of a First Nation, who was already here, you came to Alberta to make some damn money. If you wanted to live somewhere beautiful, you went to B.C. If you wanted to live with nice people in a nice community, you went to Saskatchewan. You came to the this freezing, mostly flat place because there’s money here and there’s not so much where you were before, be it one year ago or 100 years ago.
So, when you speak to Middle Alberta, everything you say has to start with that money! If this strikes you as right-wing, it most certainly isn’t. It’s perfectly social democratic, socialist or whatever to talk about that mom’s rent being too damn high. It’s certainly social democratic to talk about how that trucker deserves to have a safer highway to drive on, and the ability to make a decent wage as well.
Because talking about their money is what may get one of them to take 20 expensive minutes to go to a church basement and mark an X next to name that they only vaguely recognize.
Finally, you need help with talking to the media. All three of you. A lot of it.
You also need to swallow your pride and let someone who knows what they’re doing root through your clothes closet.
You will hear harsh criticism about the things you do with your hands when a camera is in your face. You will have to wear makeup on TV – all of you.
A lot of people will donate a lot of money to pay for this cruel advice. You owe to them to follow it.
Your fellow NDP leaders whose name starts with “Premier” have all submitted themselves to these indignities.
Rachel, Dave, and Rod: All three of you have it within yourself to follow this advice and change the lives of Albertans immeasurably for the better.
Yes, you might manage to win a couple more seats without putting yourself through all this, but you’ll be robbing yourself of the opportunity to repeat Peter Lougheed’s feat.
But achieving that goal will take commitment. You will have to do a lot of things on a daily basis that are uncomfortable and unpleasant. You need to get started right now and keep it up through 2016.
I know that Alberta is worth it, and I think you might too.