Alberta premier’s quietly capable chief of staff, John Heaney, returns to his family and law practice in B.C.

Posted on September 01, 2017, 2:10 am
8 mins

PHOTOS: John Heaney last spring at the Alberta Legislature. Below: Mr. Heaney’s predecessor as Premier Rachel Notley’s chief of staff, Brian Topp, and his successor, Nathan Rotman (Photo: Twitter).

The departure of the low-key and highly capable John Heaney as Premier Rachel Notley’s chief of staff will not necessarily become a problem for Alberta’s New Democratic Party Government – that depends on how his successor does in the job.

But it will not be a particularly good thing for the Notley Government, either, it is said here, because Mr. Heaney quietly did impressive work after the departure of Brian Topp as chief of staff nine months ago, helping to create the sense a steady hand was on the province’s political tiller and the NDP government actually did understand how Albertans thought.

While Mr. Heaney was a British Columbian – and will be returning to his family in Victoria – he was sensitive to the way Albertans see themselves and their place in Canada and the universe. That was no surprise, as he grew up in Edmonton.

It was a significant change from the way Mr. Topp operated as the premier’s chief of staff, which left a lot of Albertans – including a lot of Alberta New Democrats – with the feeling the government didn’t “get it” about Alberta at all.

The Wildrose Opposition (now the United Conservative Party) and its media auxiliary tried to stir the same sort of feelings up with Mr. Heaney, but thanks to his undemonstrative competence soon gave it up for more promising issues – the horror of budgetary deficits, the dubious benefits of drastic tax cuts for very rich people, the efficacy of bullying for getting pipelines built, and hostility to labour unions being among their perennial favourites.

The differences in the two men’s backgrounds probably explained both their differing approaches and results.

Mr. Topp was a bombastic former candidate to lead the federal NDP, former chief of staff to Saskatchewan premier Roy Romanow, and controversial political strategist who, unfairly or not, wore some of the blame for the NDP’s spectacular flameout in the 2013 election in British Columbia. That year, the B.C. New Democrats squandered a seemingly insurmountable lead in the polls and allowed Liberal Premier Christy Clark to salvage another term. Ms. Clark’s long tenure as premier only ended in late July this year after a non-confidence vote that followed a virtual tie in B.C.’s May general election.

Mr. Heaney was a political strategist too, but he was a respected lawyer first with a reputation as a troubleshooter who could find ways to calm stormy political seas. The B.C. New Democrats were said to be none too happy to see him leave for Alberta in 2015, first to join Premier Notley’s transition team, then to sign on as a senior civil servant, the premier’s deputy minister of policy co-ordination.

So for more than two years, Mr. Heaney, 55, has only spent a few nights each month at his family home in Victoria, which he concluded was too much to ask of a husband and father. “I’m just not prepared to make that sacrifice anymore,” he told reporters yesterday.

Before coming to Alberta, Mr. Heaney was chief of staff to B.C. NDP Leader John Horgan, then the leader of the Opposition, and a friend and former business partner too. So now that Mr. Horgan is the premier of B.C., some observers on the right and left in both provinces are bound to wonder if Mr. Heaney will soon return to a political job in B.C. Someone in UCP circles is certain to suggest this momentarily.

I doubt it, though. Mr. Heaney played a key role in Alberta’s efforts to overcome B.C. Opposition to the Kinder Morgan Pipeline expansion, so such a move would likely cause as many political problems for the anti-pipeline B.C. NDP as it would for the pro-pipeline Alberta NDP. He’s been a friend of Ms. Notley for years too.

So I’m pretty sure Mr. Heaney means it when he says he’ll clear off his kitchen table and restart his law practice in Victoria.

Mr. Heaney will be replaced by Nathan Rotman, former national operations director of the federal NDP, former campaign manager for Toronto NDP MP and mayoral candidate Olivia Chow, and national political action director of the Canadian Labour Congress.

With their instinctive animus toward unions, Mr. Rotman’s former CLC role will give the UCP and its friends in media a target that they can be expected to take up with enthusiasm, but probably not that much effect given the behind-the-scenes nature of the work.

Since 2015, Mr. Rotman, who is 37, has worked as issues management director of the Premier’s Office and chief of staff to Finance Minister Joe Ceci. As a director of the federal NDP, he played a key role in the election of 2011, the high tide of the party to date.

Other ministerial chiefs of staff departing or recently departed include:

  • Steve Stringfellow at Service Alberta to senior manager, negotiations and assurances, in the Alberta Public Service
  • Andrew Tarver at Justice and Solicitor General to the practice of law at employment lawyers Taylor Janis LLP
  • Graham Mitchell at Treasury Board and Finance to accommodate his spouse’s academic opportunity
  • Marcella Munro at Energy to a senior strategy position at KTG Public Affairs in Calgary

The changes take effect on Oct. 6.

In other Alberta political news yesterday, the Opposition UCP is said to intend to set its entry fees for candidates running for the party’s leadership between $75,000 and $100,000. Since the Wildrose Party and the Progressive Conservative Party can’t transfer funds raised in the past to the UCP – legally, anyway – they presumably need the cash.

10 Comments to: Alberta premier’s quietly capable chief of staff, John Heaney, returns to his family and law practice in B.C.

  1. September 1st, 2017

    The Canadian Press: “ATB Financial has declared Alberta’s worst recession in three decades over with expected economic growth of 3.2 per cent this year.”

    Fortunately the reckless NDP socialists were able to draw on Alberta’s massive sovereign wealth fund that the previous 40 years of prudent conservative governments had squirreled away for these rainy days.

    • Albertan

      September 2nd, 2017

      Reckless NDP socialists? If any Canadian NDP government most emulates the former Peter Lougheed fiscal conservatives with some good social democrat characeristics thrown in, it is the Alberta Notley NDP.
      Here is a good 2014 explanation of what happened with our Heritage Trust Fund before the NDP were elected in 2015. The reckless Conservative neo-liberals were in power then and it took them 40+ years to orchestrate their finanacial mismanagement, let alone them not collecting enough revenue from the oil and gas industry during the boom years.
      “Kelly McParland: How Alberta turned its Heritage Fund into a cash machine for big- spending politicians”

  2. Mike

    September 1st, 2017

    Had Mr. Heaney been Chief-of-Staff out of the gate in 2015, I believe the AB NDP would have much more respect from Albertans at this point in their term because he would not have come out swinging as his predecessor did. Topp was the mastermind and lever-puller behind the Bill 6 disaster and Carbon Tax transfer of wealth. And… after he s*^& all over Alberta, he left; never even paid one-cent to his Carbon Tax! Didn’t any NDP brass notice that he has never accomplished anything positive in his political career (ex. lost the Federal NDP leadership, lost the BC election mentioned above, etc.)??? Topp is the reason the NDP will most likely not have a majority gov’t come 2019.

    • Jim

      September 1st, 2017

      There may still be time as long as they continue on the path of late. Hopefully no more mistakes like Topp, but it is a sign that they can learn from mistakes. Which is a refreshing change in this province. Look at how they handled Rebel Media then and now as an example. Further distancing from the federal party would be nice as some pretty fringe elements have come out in the leadership race.

      • Farmer B

        September 2nd, 2017

        Nathan Rotman who is John Heaney’s replacement is a former director in the federal NDP. Another chief of staff from out of province. This certainly doesn’t indicate to me that the Alberta NDP wants to distance itself from the federal NDP. As for your concern about fringe elements hasn’t the NDP’s socialist caucus wing always existed?

        As far as John Heaney, in a recent Calgary Sun article they talk about Mr. Heaney being having been in the forefront of the electricity file in Alberta and the court action to settle the return to the balancing pool of the power purchase agreements. As far as I am concerned the NDP is pushing us down the same path Ontario went that has seen their power bills double in the last ten years. So I totally disagree that the NDP has learned from others mistakes. Enjoy your day:-)

        • Kang the barbarian

          September 2nd, 2017

          Without coal, our electricity production will be mainly natural gas based (it’s about 50% NG now). Good for the oil and gas service, and fracking businesses. NG does not need the big power transmission lines either because it is so easy to set up smaller generators closer to consumption.

          ENMAX already has the City of Calgary effectively “off grid” – ditto for the City of Medicine Hat. Both are good advertisements for public ownership of electricity.

          Ontario is still digging itself out from under the nuclear mess left by the Cons, including multi-billions of unfunded liabilities for spent fuel, so comparisons with Alberta are not useful.

      • jerrymacgp

        September 2nd, 2017

        Distancing from the federal party is difficult, considering that the NDP’s membership model is provincially based. You do not join the federal NDP; you join the provincial or territorial party, and your federal membership is automatic. So even though they have not come out with endorsements of federal leadership candidates, Premier Notley, each and every one of her cabinet ministers, and all of the NDP caucus will have votes in that contest, and so will be expected to choose from amongst the four still standing.

        In terms of Alberta’s narrow interests, and the level of hostility to the province’s main economic driver, Nikki Ashton is IMHO the one least likely to get Alberta members’ votes. I think Charlie Angus is likely to do the best of the four here, even if, as the pundits seem to be saying, Jasmeet Singh has the lead nationally. His policies seem to have the best fit with the Notley government’s approach to energy and the environment.

  3. David

    September 1st, 2017

    It is a bit concerning to have turn over again in such a position after a short period of time. I don’t doubt Mr. Topp was quite competent and perhaps Mr. Heaney was too I did not hear anything negative about him. One would think he would have realized when he took the position that working in Edmonton while his family stayed in Victoria would present challenges. Perhaps the unspoken intention was for him to only fill in for a short period of time or perhaps he just didn’t realize how significant these challenges would be for him and his family.

    In any event, I suppose his departure is not at a critical time and does not leave the government in too much of a lurch. I really do hope he keeps his word and does not take a position with the BC government any time soon. If he does, it will cause some political damage for the Alberta NDP that the opposition will try take full advantage of.

    While it is not a huge issue for me personally, I would prefer that a position like this be filled by an Albertan. I can understand when Mr. Topp arrived the government was so new and there may not have been anyone here with the necessary experience and skills. However, the government now has some experience and knowledge so it is time to look seriously at local talent.

    My main concern is not that the opposition will use this as a political issue against the government to portray it as not being in touch with Albertans – I suspect they will, but I do not think it will have a huge impact with voters. My bigger concern is that the next election may be very competitive and the government will need very senior people who have a very strong understanding of exactly how people in Calgary and Red Deer think. It will be all hands on deck and they really can’t afford someone, perhaps unintentionally, doing something to unnecessarily annoy say farmers or people in the energy industry or to put forward an agenda that does not mesh well with them.

  4. brett

    September 1st, 2017

    It is not nearly as concerning as when we actually had three different Alberta Conservative Premiers in a 12 month period!

  5. Val

    September 1st, 2017

    we don’t know what goes behind the curtains but seems like alberta’s NDP ship got significant flow, that so many started to salvage their future political career. closer to election will be even more deserters 🙂
    i have mentioned sometime ago – it was a huge mistake of ms. Notley to fill up almost all key positions and overly rely on imported staffers and here we are.
    sad that such opportunity to build competitive political scene in province got wasted.

    as for UPC leadership entry fee i guess Jason Kenny wouldn’t have problem. after all with his net worth $19 million US he’s just $2,5 million short of communist Tom Mulcair but $17,8 millions above our present PM Justin Trudeau.


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