Opinion: The Alberta NDP is still standing

Opinion: The Alberta NDP is still standing
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Leader of the NDP Rachel Notley makes her way to the stage to give her concession speech in Edmonton on May 29.JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

The race between Rachel Notley’s Alberta New Democratic Party and Danielle Smith’s United Conservative Party was the tightest in the province’s history – decided by just over 1,300 votes in six seats. The NDP earned many more votes than it did in 2015 when the party formed government. It holds every seat in Edmonton, a majority of seats in Calgary and won the popular vote in both cities. The NDP now serves as the largest opposition in Alberta’s history.

Put another way, the NDP almost won, and the UCP almost lost.

This will be top-of-mind for the UCP as it fulfills its mandate. It won the smallest majority in Alberta history, and in a government prone to controversies, gaffes and internal dissent, a five-seat majority doesn’t seem like much. That margin will shrink to three once a speaker is appointed and the Lacombe-Ponoka MLA is removed from caucus for offensive comments she made.

Given the delicate balancing act between moderate and extreme that the UCP must undertake, it is almost certain that a good deal of time and bandwidth will be spent managing internal drama and problems of the government’s own creation.

Meanwhile, once a feisty, punch-above-its-fourth weight party, the NDP is now a hyper-professionalized organization trained to sniff out and raise alarm bells over any government decision that doesn’t pass the public interest smell test.

Armed with the knowledge that only comes with experience in government, the caucus is full of MLAs and staff who can crunch numbers and analyze policies just as fast as the bureaucracy. When Ms. Smith’s government makes a bad deal, introduces an ill-thought-out policy or acts outside of the common good, the NDP will call them into account and make sure the public knows immediately.

This dynamic has been proven over the last seven months. The NDP has so effectively discredited the UCP that Ms. Smith has been forced to repeatedly change position, tack and talk points, caving to the effective pressure asserted by the Official Opposition. Businesses and organizations have quickly realized that if they wish to de-risk partnerships and proposals in Alberta, it’s wise to have the NDP on side.

Take, for example, health care. Owing to the NDP’s effectiveness in holding the Smith government’s feet to the fire, the Premier was forced to publicly moderate her long-held ambition to privatize the health system and force patients to pay out-of-pocket to see a doctor. She even signed a public health care guarantee promising to protect the system. If Ms. Smith sticks to her word and maintains the public health system, Alberta has the NDP to thank.

The same is true of Ms. Smith’s approach to Ottawa. The Premier won the UCP leadership on a promise to hold Canadian unity hostage to the demands of its most extreme supporters. Ms. Notley and the NDP called her on it.

Juvenile, attention-seeking threats jeopardized funding agreements on health care and child care, and sacrificed Alberta’s critical position at the negotiating table on proposed emissions targets. Although Ms. Smith dialed back her rhetoric in the campaign, she cranked it up on election night. The public is running out of patience for fight-for-the-sake-of-it bluster, and for the next four years, Ms. Notley and the NDP will have to continue to be the adult in the room, moderating Ms. Smith’s propensity to speak before she thinks.

In short, the NDP will serve as a powerful voice of reason in Alberta for the next four years as it readies itself for the next general election. It has proven itself an enduring force in provincial politics with a big-tent, mainstream appeal. It ran a highly sophisticated campaign that made tremendous progress with new voters, especially among young and racialized voters whose numbers are growing exponentially, particularly in Calgary. There is much for the party to be proud of, but there is more work to do.

The NDP will be listening to Albertans carefully in the months to come – about this election and what they’ll be looking for in the next. The party will have to continue to do the hard work that goes into being a legitimate government-in-waiting.

It could very well be that many lifelong conservative voters need to see a Danielle Smith government at work to convince them it’s time for a change. But the days of conservative dynasties in the province are over, and four years from now, the NDP will be primed to take on the UCP again. If the UCP has learned anything from the too-tight-to-call campaign, it’s that to ignore Alberta’s NDP is to ignore nearly half of Alberta.

Cheryl Oates serves as a senior adviser to the Alberta NDP campaign and is a principal at GT&Co Executive Advisors.