Thursday, May 07, 2015

On first steps

Dru Oja Jay, David Bush and Doug Nesbitt, Graham Steele and Karl Nerenberg have already offered their suggestions on the first steps for Rachel Notley's Alberta NDP government (and the progressives hoping for it to produce positive change). But I'll offer my own take based on one overriding principle: having earned power by showing that Alberta's citizens have more say in their own province than they've come to expect, the NDP should govern so as to enhance both the perception and the reality of public involvement in governance.

So what might a plan for government look like based on that starting point?

The largest advantage the NDP has at the moment is the popularity of Rachel Notley. And there are two radically different ways of handling her public stature.

On the right in particular, the typical strategy is to keep a leader far above any interaction with opponents or the public: see how rarely a Stephen Harper or a Brad Wall appears in any setting which could be considered real life rather than carefully-scripted threatre. And that might make sense for a party whose general principles involve having the public's betters make decisions on their behalf.

But the NDP can't expect to succeed as that type of party: remember how the "keep your head down and wait for an inevitable second term" plan worked in Nova Scotia. And Notley's mass appeal offers an opportunity to encourage public engagement even after election day.

I'd thus consider it to be worth treating the time before the Legislature returns as a continuation of the campaign, with Notley engaging in continued public outreach not to pursue votes, but instead to encourage people to stay involved in their government over the next four years (and beyond). And Alberta's existing social activists will be natural allies in that effort.

Having Notley in the public eye may result in some material for criticism. But I don't see any realistic way around the fact that Notley will ultimately come under attack by well-funded opponents. And her best chance of maintaining a strong leadership profile in the long run is to translate her immediate popularity into a movement ready and willing to push back on her behalf.

Meanwhile, on the policy front, it's fairly clear that the Alberta public voted for the NDP based on a platform intended to ensure that all groups, including the resource and business sectors, make a fair contribution to the province's finances. And by all indications, those policies are even more popular than the NDP is as a party - meaning that there's no reason to see calls to sacrifice the NDP's platform to the confidence fairy as anything but trolling.

Beyond the explicit terms of the platform which would obviously form the basis for a first throne speech and budget, I'd then be looking for input from all possible corners: reaching out at least to MLAs of all parties in the short term in developing the current legislative agenda, and setting up public deliberation processes so that future plans are developed with an expectation of public input.

Finally, the NDP also has an opportunity to take the lead on accountable government - giving Albertans what they want in examining the actions of the PCs, while also demonstrating more openness to scrutiny. On that front, I'd be tempted to promise steps to strengthen Alberta's freedom of information system, including resources to start making both past and future records available as a default position - the former ensuring a steady flow of material to remind Albertans why they're so glad the PCs are out of office, the latter to confirm that the NDP is offering something better.

Of course, there's much more to be done in terms of reaching out to all kinds of groups (including to talk down the more reasonable business types) and assembling the machinery of the Notley government. But the NDP's main decision for now is whether to go into hiding or build on its momentum - and I'd consider it well worth the party's while to make hay while the sun shines.

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