Today, Alberta NDP leader and former premier, Rachel Notley, officially announced her intention to step down as leader. Notley’s future as leader has attracted widespread speculation since her party failed to gain government in the May 2023 election, but an anticipated resignation reached a fever pitch when the legislative sitting wrapped in December.
Rapid Rise of Notley as Leader
The move marks the end of an era. Remaining at the helm until a new leader is elected – likely this fall – Notley will have completed a full decade as far-and-away the most successful leader in the provincial party’s history. Taking over as party leader in 2014 with just four MLAs – herself included – she formed government in 2015 with 54 seats in her first election as leader. (To that point, in fact, the party had not won more than four seats or placed better than third since the late 1980s.)
She grew up with a unique perspective on the role. Her father, Grant Notley, served as leader from 1968 – when Rachel was only four years old – until his untimely death in a plane crash in northern Alberta in 1984. A labour lawyer by profession, Rachel Notley was first elected to the legislature as MLA for Edmonton-Strathcona in 2008, a post she has now held for nearly 16 years.
Notley quickly demonstrated the political acumen honed from this upbringing. Expectations for party growth were high coming out of her leadership win amidst considerable churn among Alberta’s 44-year-reigning Progressive Conservative (PC) party and further-right Wildrose opposition. But the watershed May 2015 election win shortened the expected opposition growth period and ushered many surprising new MLAs into the government benches.
Notley as Premier (2015-2019)
Notley’s premiership was initially marked by a steep learning curve alongside a bureaucratic apparatus that was completely unaccustomed to government transitions. Early days of staffing, policy-making, and everyday governance were internally described as “building the airplane while flying it”. The NDP took power amidst a global collapse in oil prices – devastating the provincial economy and revenues – and by May 2016 came up against the Fort McMurray wildfires, the most expensive natural disaster in Canadian history at the time.
On the policy front, the Notley government undertook an activist set of initiatives: the first gender-balanced cabinet in Canada; the Climate Leadership Plan, including an economy-wide carbon price and a phase-out of coal power; a planned restructuring of the electricity market; and a series of economic and social initiatives.
Cementing Two-Party Politics
Through this period, the NDP’s dominance of the centre-left space in the political spectrum, combined with the impetus the Notley government gave to unifying the conservative side via a new United Conservative Party (UCP), ushered in an era of two-party politics in Alberta. The resounding 2019 UCP victory began a trend of two-party system in Alberta, with only one main party on the opposition benches.
The lead up to the May 2023 election came after a two-year period of NDP polling leads. While the official line of “largest opposition in Alberta history” has been a soothing consolation, the election loss was a disappointment for the party that – despite winning battleground Calgary – failed to meet expectations.
The Leadership Race to Come
With the NDP’s hard-earned solid footing in contending for power, Notley’s resignation kicks off a much-anticipated leadership race. While no candidates have officially announced, caucus members and party activists have begun to form around three quietly active leadership campaigns:
- Former deputy premier, Minister of Health and three-term Edmonton-Glenora MLA, Sarah Hoffman;
- Former Minister of Justice and Solicitor General and three-term Calgary MLA, Kathleen Ganley; and
- Two-term Edmonton-Whitemud MLA, Rakhi Pancholi.
Other caucus members are rumored to be considering campaigns.
The leadership campaign will certainly raise discussions of electability, the need to grow outside of the party’s Edmonton base and to build on newfound strength in Calgary, and the ability to earn support among key NDP support constituencies, particularly labour, environmentalists, and communities representing ethnic and gender diversity.
All candidates will confront the challenge of comparison against Notley’s abilities, particularly with stump speeches, media engagement, and retail politics. And the party’s executive and provincial council will be tasked with setting leadership rules, which may give advantages to certain candidates.
Notley said today she will stay on as leader until a replacement is selected by party members, which means she will remain on the front bench during the upcoming spring sitting of the Alberta legislature.
We’re Here to Help
For more information and insights about what these developments mean for Alberta’s political landscape, please contact:
Elysa Darling – Senior Strategy Advisor
Richard Feehan – Senior Strategy Advisor
Rick Fraser – Senior Strategy Advisor
Whitney Issik – Senior Strategy Advisor
Colleen Potter – Senior Strategy Advisor
Mat Steppan – Senior Strategy Advisor
Jeff Sterzuk – President
Ben Thibault – Senior Strategy Advisor
Richard Truscott – Vice-President
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