Some free advice for Rachel Notley and the Alberta NDP

Notwithstanding some excellent advice from John Diefenbaker – one of my least favourite Canadian Prime Ministers but still seen as a hero here on the western prairies – that “only dogs know what to do with polls”, a good poll is like catnip to any politician. Especially one in the wilderness that is opposition.

The Alberta NDP and their leader former Premier Rachel Notley are no exception. They’re pretty excited about a poll result this week.

While we’re a long way from the next election – about 2.5 years – this week’s poll results are uplifting for the NDP as they are disastrous for Premier Jason Kenney and his government:

Basically, according to Alberta conventional wisdom, it should be more or less impossible for the NDP to be tied with any version of a united/amalgamated conservative government.

Oh sure, Notley was able to win when the PCs and Wildrose were warring tribes more focused on screwing each other than winning an election, but this is different! This is back to the good old days of the single party system!

Ralph Klein must be rolling in his grave – and not just to grab a new bottle!

So while Jason Kenney would be well-advised to be worried, Rachel Notley should not be celebrating any time soon.

A lot of reasonable conservatives here in Alberta (yes, they exist – check the folks I follow on Twitter for examples) have been complaining that the NDP have been way too focused on opposing the government during the pandemic then the opposition parties in other provinces.

And while I don’t generally sympathize with that point of view – the name “Official Opposition” kinda gives away the job description – there is a nugget of truth in that criticism that the NDP should see reinforced by this poll.

The strategy of attacking the Kenney government’s failures has clearly been successful (not to say that some of the issues haven’t been “own goals”…). And obviously the NDP need to keep that pressure up. This is especially true of the province’s covid-19 response where Alberta ranks second to only QC in cases per capita and is climbing quickly.

But it is approaching the point in the electoral cycle where Notley has to start offering more than just criticism: she has to go back to thinking like a Premier – or at least one in waiting.

There are a host of issues where the Kenney government is wide-open to criticism in the form of simply offering better ideas – or any ideas at all. But offering those ideas can’t simply sound like more bitching and moaning. It has to sound like an alternative Premier offering an entirely alternative vision for the province.

A few, low-hanging-fruit ideas would include:

A strong focus on women in post-pandemic recovery. Like most provinces, childcare remains the choke point in Alberta for getting women back to work. A laser-like focus on this will not only position Notley well with voters (especially women) but almost certainly lead to UCP MLAs and Ministers saying ludicrous and misogynistic things out loud.

Oil & gas is no longer Alberta’s sugar daddy. Sorry, it’s not us, its oil. Now, that doesn’t mean the industry is dead or that it should be cast aside completely. But it means two things: 1) that government should be doing what it can to get the best value for every barrel pumped in the province going forward – not picking fights about pumping more barrels; and 2) the province needs a new sugar daddy. Notley needs to speak regularly speaking strongly and clearly to both of these points not as failures on the part of the government but in terms of putting forward alternatives.

Blessed be the peacemaker. Kenney has been real keen on picking fights with folks who oppose his world view. A war room to take on environmentalists (that costs $30m/year); driving doctors out of the province in the midst of a global pandemic; laying off teaching assistants while kids were struggling to learn from home; and that Trudeau guy. Notley needs to be a strong contrast to Kenney in this regard by not only actively working to bring disparate people and groups together but being seen to do so.

Some of us have been saying for months that the prospect of Notley and the NDP defeating Jason Kenney was far more real than conventional wisdom would suggest. This poll gives that dream some real substance.

To make the dream a reality, however, Notley and her caucus need to step up their game, focus on looking like a government in waiting and start offering concrete alternatives now, not in two years. Yes, there will be days where they simply need to beat the government over the head with a brickbat.

But it shouldn’t be every day and it should rarely be Notley holding the blunt instrument.

Jamie Carroll is a former National Director of the Liberal Party of Canada who now resides in Calgary.