In what was probably the first speech of the 2019 Alberta provincial election campaign, if not quite officially, Premier Rachel Notley was comfortable, confident, funny, hopeful, energized, charismatic, fiery and, yes, inspiring.
She sounded, in other words, like a winner. By any measure, it was a terrific speech. And the racket from the packed ballroom at Edmonton’s Westin Hotel – which yesterday morning must’ve held a thousand upbeat supporters chanting “Rachel! Rachel!” and “Four More Years!” – shows Ms. Notley’s party certainly believes her.
You probably won’t get much sense of that from most media coverage, as befits journalism’s unhelpful tradition of apprehended neutrality. And you won’t hear much of what she actually had to say in this era of five-second clips and minimalist online news stories.
Social media will feature a relentless stream of nattering negativity from Conservative opponents of Ms. Notley’s NDP Government, which is expected to go to the polls in the spring of 2019.
The prevailing media narrative leading up to the election will likely remain that Ms. Notley and the NDP are down in the polls, down in the trajectory of history and, as soon as the election bell rings, down for the count. So why weren’t they looking down in the mouth?
Maybe something unexpected is happening again, as in May 2015. Impossible, you say? Perhaps. Still, the NDP and its leader gave a pretty good impression of a party full of fight and with a plan.
Creating a narrative of her own – “Fighting for You” – Ms. Notley certainly set out the choice Alberta voters will face next spring. And yes, she told her supporters, she will lead the NDP into that election.
Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party, sniping from the sidelines, was strangely angry for folks supposedly sure history is on their side. Maybe they’re just mad the premier’s made it clear she’s going to make a fight of it when they’ve already decided they’re entitled to victory. Maybe they were upset the disciplined NDP caucus has so far avoided the bozo eruptions that have bedeviled their ranks.
Whatever. Ms. Notley explained energetically and unapologetically why she’s sure her government is on the right track, right across the policy board.
In 2015, she told the throng, Alberta’s politics “had been diminished by Sky Palaces, lakes of fire, drama, scandal, and big money. Public health care and education were wracked by instability. And our economy, Canada’s engine, was hit by an oil-price collapse that was costing tens of thousands of jobs, tearing at the fabric of our communities, and bleeding billions from the treasury.”
But on the evening of May 5, as the NDP’s victory sank in, “I knew the job ahead of us would test us all. And I felt the weight of the enormous responsibility, and, you know, to be perfectly honest, deep down, I wondered if we would be able to shoulder that weight.”
Fortunately, the premier said, “the caucus that Albertans set to the Legislature is a glorious mix of people from all walks of life. Students, community activists, social workers, small business people, civic leaders, shop stewards, academics, farmers, nurses, teachers, and, yes, some lawyers too. We also look different in another way as well. In Alberta’s history there have never been so many women elected to lead a government!”
“With our first bill, we took big money out of politics,” she summarized. “Never again should our democracy be in the hands of a few wealthy insiders.”
Since then, Ms. Notley recounted, her government has stabilized health care funding, killed the Conservative health care tax, reversed cuts to schools, and “brought in a long overdue climate leadership plan that phases out coal pollution, puts a price on carbon and invests in energy efficiency and renewables like never before,” making Alberta “a continental renewable energy leader with massive new investments and thousands of new jobs.”
“We got to work correcting major historical wrongs, such as the lack of clean, safe, reliable drinking water on First Nations in Alberta. … Just this past week we made good on a promise that generations of us have fought for, an historic land settlement agreement with the Lubicon Lake Cree.”
“We also put people to work during the downturn. Building badly needed new infrastructure projects – 240 schools built or modernized, a new cancer centre in Calgary, a new hospital is coming in South Edmonton … roads, bridges, and transit across the province.”
“We took unprecedented steps to fight poverty by expanding the Alberta child benefit, helping hundreds of thousands of our most vulnerable families and kids. We froze tuition, expanded student aid, and established a school nutrition program and – you know what? – today, 35,000 children are guaranteed a healthy meal every day at school across this province.”
“We took our labour laws out if the dark ages, giving workers the basic protections that they need” – never again, she vowed, will a mother be fired because she needs time to care for a child with cancer.
“We finally, and without apology in any way, shape or form, did something that had the Opposition screaming: We raised the minimum wage to $15 an hour!”
“To do these things, we got our spending priorities right as well. We asked the wealthy to pay a little bit more. At the same time, we cut salaries for some of the highly overpaid heads of government boards, and we got rid of perks that the conservatives had in place that they liked to hand out to their friends – do you remember these? Like golf club memberships! … Think about that!”
She continued: “Not long ago, a UCP MLA in a fit of transparency said, ‘It’s gonna hurt’ if the UCP get elected. Now, I guess some of us got into politics to help people, and others got into politics to hurt people.”
“If the UCP platform was a product, the advertisement would come with one of those drug warnings,” Ms. Notley observed, adding at American-drug-advertising-speed: “‘People beware. This product will privatize your health care, cut your kids’ education, roll back your rights, and hand a big fat tax cut to the top 1 per cent. It will hurt you. For more information, call Jason Kenney!’”
“In fact,” Ms. Notley observed slyly, “one of the key consumer protections we brought in for people is truth in advertising when you’re buying a new or used car. Pretty common-sense stuff, right? Well, apparently not for everybody! You may have seen this week that Mr. Kenney is promising to undo it all. He got caught promising to gut protections for the family buying a minivan in order to help fill the pockets of a few car lot owners!”
“I say a few owners,” the premier added, “because the fact is we have heard from many others in that industry who think that his plan is disgusting, and it is. Now, Mr. Kenney insists over and over and over again that he’s not for sale. But it sure does sound like he’s willing to work out one heck of a lease!”
“Albertans do in fact expect and in fact deserve a plan to pay down the deficit and bring the budget to balance,” Ms. Notley said toward the end of her speech. “But they also expect and deserve one that does so while staying focused on the needs of people.
“So that’s exactly what we’re doing. As of today, with our economy coming back up, our deficit is in fact coming down much faster than forecast. Last quarter it was a billion dollars ahead of schedule and our budget is on track to be balanced just as we said it would be.”
“To those who say we need to sacrifice our kids’ education, sacrifice the health of patients in hospitals and blow up more hospitals while we’re at it, I say this: The record is clear, you can choose to help people, choose to protect jobs, choose to build hospitals and cancer centres, and still grow the economy. … In fact, let’s go further. This is how you grow the economy.”
Ms. Notley summarized the government’s fight for the Trans Mountain Pipeline, its determination to see it completed, and promised to take measures in her government’s next term to ensure more Alberta resources are processed in Alberta. Spurred by its energy diversification program, the government expects a decision soon on a new petrochemical plant that will create thousands of construction jobs, she said.
By contrast, Ms. Notley said, “the old government sat around dithered while Louisiana and Texas ate our lunch. We’re fixing that.”
“Today, in Alberta our services are stronger because we resisted the calls to cut, to privatize and to move the wealthiest to the front of the line,” said Premier Notley. “Today in Alberta, the classrooms our kids learn in aren’t being sacrificed to pay for another CEO tax cut.“
“Today in Alberta patients in our hospitals know when they hit that call button, a nurse is just down the hall, not in the unemployment line.”
“Today in Alberta, a young person who is lesbian, gay, bi, transgender, queer, two-spirited, or however they identify, they can form a GSA without fear.”
The premier went on in this vein, and I’m sure readers will get the idea. She was interrupted by 15 standing ovations.
Later, Ms. Notley took part in the traditional short scrum with journalists – not much new there – after which UCP House Leader Jason Nixon took advantage of the premier’s crowd to try to counter her points. Those car dealers must’ve misunderstood, I heard him say.
Nothing wrong with this, people, I’ve done it myself at someone else’s news conference. I’m just wondering how the UCP would react if Joe Ceci, say, turned up at one of their nomination meetings to hold an impromptu newser.
NOTE TO READERS: The transcription of Ms. Notley’s speech is my own, so any errors are likely mine as well. I’m sorry to have gone on at such length, but I really despise media’s habit of not letting politicians speak for themselves. The speech should be available on the premier’s Facebook page, and is well worth a listen.