EDMONTON — Rachel Notley is looking ahead to her first full year as Alberta premier following a groundbreaking 2015 that was so tumultuous and surreal that people mistook her for Rachel Notley.
The year began with four NDP legislature members tilting at Tory windmills and ended with tinted-window SUVs, security guards and national attention after her historic majority victory in May’s election.
“It was more difficult right after the election. Now I’ve sort of gotten into a routine,” Notley told The Canadian Press in a year-end interview.
The political celebrity still only stretches so far, however, and ends when Notley nips out to the corner store or is spotted in a non-political setting.
“Every now and then people (come up to me and) say, ‘Are you who I think you are?’ (or) ‘Has anybody ever told you you really look like the premier?’
“I’m like, ‘No, I just look like her,'” she laughs, but then hastens to add that if anyone asks, she always lets them know.
The rubber hits the road in 2016 as Notley moves to put into play ambitious plans she outlined during the campaign that toppled almost 44 years of Progressive Conservative government.
Those plans have been praised as grand and visionary or panned as rainbows-and-unicorns social engineering.
Notley says resistance is nothing new.
“I’m a New Democrat who grew up in Alberta. That’s the bottom line. This has never been a popularity contest for me. It’s about being an advocate and promoting a certain view of the world and certain values.
“Sometimes you win people over and that’s fabulous and it’s exciting… Sometimes you grind out the change you need.”
On May 5, Notley’s tiny caucus exploded into a 54-member majority government with a mandate to tackle climate change, overhaul taxes, give a hand-up to low-income families and deliver more cash to health, social care and hospitals.
The NDP passed legislation to trash Alberta’s flat tax and introduced a progressive one in which the rich face higher levies. Corporate taxes also went up.
Minimum-wage increases are set to reach $15 an hour by 2018.
A new climate change plan that will fundamentally reshape Alberta’s bedrock economy includes a broad multibillion-dollar carbon tax, a cap on oilsands emissions and an end to coal-fired electricity generation.
Recommendations from an oil royalty review are expected in January.
And there’s an infrastructure construction program that will double down on building while the oil-based economy is in the tank. The bottom line is more construction jobs and a boosted GDP, but close to $50 billion in debt by the end of the decade.
Opposition critics say what began as reform has become recklessness.
Notley said her tenure will be many things, but not a wasted opportunity.
“Not change for change’s sake, to be clear, but change in areas I think warrant it,” she said. “There are a lot of people who have worked very hard for us to get here, and it should mean something.
“And that’s not some kind of ego statement. That’s about giving life to people’s engagement in politics. It’s actually about renewing faith in the … democratic system.”
She said it was dispiriting to knock on doors in past campaigns and have weary voters tell her that they would mark an X, but didn’t believe anything would change.
“It shouldn’t be that way. I think people should feel that it is possible to do something differently.”
It has been a rough ride at times for Notley’s newbies, some of whom were slotted as candidates to fill out the 87-seat election roster only to suddenly find themselves public officials.
They were hailed as heroes on the sun-splashed steps of the legislature when Notley and her cabinet were sworn in.
But oil prices continued their steep descent to where they are now at below US$40 a barrel. Thousands of oilpatch jobs have turned into layoffs.
In the 2016-17 budget, the government will begin borrowing millions of dollars just to finance day-to-day operating expenses.
And, just before year’s end, Standard and Poor’s knocked down Alberta’s credit rating.
Caucus took a haymaker to the head in November when it sent conflicting messages on a farm-safety bill.
While the bill, since passed, will only affect paid farm workers, hundreds of farm families held protests and accused the NDP of cutting off children from farm life.
The opposition parties carried farmers’ concerns into question period, where they hooted and shouted to the point government house leader Brian Mason called them “goons” and “gangsters.”
Cabinet ministers were berated and sworn at in public consultation sessions. Notley was mocked in song as a clueless wine-and-spritzer nanny-stater.
It was a crucible that her team didn’t back down from and a test that made them stronger, she said.
“Their experience in politics had all been, ‘Woohoo look at us! We won! We’re new! We’re exciting! Everyone likes us!'” said Notley. “So this has been a bit of a learning experience.”
No doubt the education continues in the new year.