The 5 biggest challenges for Rachel Notley

Now in power, there are a number of issues that face the Notley Crew.  From slumping oil prices to the structural and organizational concerns with Alberta Health Services, none seem small.  Before those issues can be addressed, however, the Premier-elect will have to take into consideration five key challenges.  In no particular order:

The NDP Stigma

There have been few NDP governments, and even fewer of them have been remembered fondly.  Notley will have to distance herself and her government from the spectre of NDP governments past through a shift in decision-making and governing style – this will go a long way to calm the fears that some have about her priority social policies.  Understanding where she wants the party and the province after four years of a majority government is important, and governing slow and steady will ensure success.  The NDP must show that it is governing for all Albertans, and that will require bringing the party towards the centre and finding win-win solutions where possible.

The NDP Base

Pleasing the NDP base in the near term needs to take a back seat to governing.  It has been the tendency for NDP governments to push for the quick implementation of policies based on ideology.  This is a natural desire for a party that so rarely gets the chance to govern, but it must be tempered.  Securing political capital in the first years of Notley’s term that she can later expend on the priorities of the NDP core will be a more prudent approach than moving to implement them in these early days.  If the NDP leadership desires to stay in power for more than four years, Notley will need to articulate to a passionate base that slow incremental change is the best and only way to ensure both their longevity as well as that of the province.  This may be difficult considering the inexperience of her caucus and the reality that some of them may come from the core NDP social activist base.  Keeping them on side and in check will be a key priority for the NDP communications team.  Message discipline will be at a premium.  Those looking to make cabinet will learn to bite their tongue early.

Appointing a Cabinet

In the early days, this task will be the single biggest challenge for Notley.  Finding capable members of caucus amongst the post-secondary students, a former school principal, a nurse and a yoga teacher will be difficult.  The Premier-elect herself has only just started the process of being briefed on the many issues before government as well as the mechanics of governing.  To believe that the entire caucus has any more insight into governing or the mechanics of governance would be foolish.  It is likely that the four returning NDP MLAs will be invited into cabinet.  Careful vetting and capabilities analysis will have to be done on the rest to fill out cabinet roles.  In these early days of transition, the NDP leadership will place a premium on the caucus members who can adhere to message discipline and keep to a tight script, which is not likely the normal comfort zone for a social activist base.  The NDP benefited from this discipline during the campaign, and their continued success will depend largely on the leadership’s ability to maintain this focus over the next four years.

The Alberta Public Service

The relationship with Alberta’s public service will be another key challenge facing the Premier-elect.  The PCs and Wildrose demonized the civil service as too bloated and lacking innovation, but in fact it is the culture of fear and learned helplessness that is at the crux of the problem.  Alberta’s public service suffers from too many senior bureaucrats who were promoted above their competencies and those who are long past their best before date.  This has hindered the development of a capable, innovative and passionate generation of public servants looking to serve Albertans. Coupled with a succession of premiers who have been unwilling to take advice unless it is what they want to hear, Alberta has produced a risk-averse, stale and unengaged public workforce.

This will not be an easy fix for a new government that has no history of governing.  With an inexperienced cabinet, the NDP will rely heavily upon the public service for advice on the development and implementation of government policies and programs.  The NDP must learn quickly who it can trust and undertake a renewal or shuffle at the Deputy Minister level to ensure that their qualities and capabilities align with the new government’s priorities.

Working with Industry

Alberta industry had a forty-four year relationship with the PC government.  Industry has an ingrained way of doing business that will likely not see similar levels of success when dealing with the new government.  These types of changes are difficult and require time for adjustment.  Notley has already taken steps to ease industry’s concerns, signaling a ‘go-slow approach’ to some of the NDP’s more controversial policy planks.  She has stated that working with industry to ensure Alberta’s advantage is important.  Specifically, she has expressed a desire to work closely with the resource development sector around such things as a royalty review.  Moreover, she has signaled that the timing may change from what was promised in the NDP platform.

Some factions in Notley’s party will want her to move quickly to implement the NDP agenda as is. However, she has insisted that her government will go slowly, meet stakeholders and consider all of the implications of some of the more controversial public policy initiatives that have been put forward.  Industry is spooked.  Anything she can do to calm fears will go a long way in solidifying a productive working relationship.

If Premier-elect Notley can navigate these issues over the course of the next six months and onward through her mandate, she may prove to be more skillful than her opposition gives her credit for.  If she cannot, it may only be four years, and not 44, before the next political shift.

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