Photo: Jeremy Klaszus

Sprawlcast: An interview with Rachel Notley

The Alberta NDP leader talks politics, PST and more.

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The Sprawl first launched to cover Calgary's 2017 civic election. Now we're back for another round. We don't have paywalls, and we don't have ads. Instead, we rely on our readers and listeners to support our work. If you like what you see, become a Sprawl member today and we'll mail you our latest print zine, featuring exclusive stories you won't find online!

Sprawlcast is a collaboration between CJSW 90.9 FM and The Sprawl. It's a show for curious Albertans who want more than the daily news grind. A transcript of this episode is below.



JEREMY KLASZUS (HOST): A couple weeks ago (on February 23) I had the chance to sit down with Alberta NDP leader Rachel Notley. Now, these sit-down interviews with politicians are always a little bit strange. There’s a political assistant in the room to observe the proceedings, and there was a banner set up that showed rolling Alberta fields for the TV interviews that happened before mine. And when I show up for an interview like this, whether it’s the mayor or the leader of the Official Opposition, I always feel like I should be asking hard-pointed questions, TV style. But what I often want to ask about is something different.

Notley is interesting for many reasons. Number one, of course, she served as Alberta’s premier from 2015 to 2019. She was in opposition before that, first elected in 2008 as one of only two NDP MLAs in the province. And now she’s in opposition again. She’s that rare Official Opposition leader who has actually done the job of leading the province.

But she’s also had a lifetime of experience observing Alberta politics closer up than most. Like Rachel Notley, her father, Grant Notley, also served as leader of the Alberta NDP from 1968 until he died in a plane crash in 1984. And Grant Notley served opposite Premier Peter Lougheed, a Red Tory who led a Progressive Conservative government that was very different than today’s United Conservative Party. So I began my chat with Rachel Notley by asking her: how has she seen Alberta politics change over the decades?

RACHEL NOTLEY: Well, I think it's changed in two ways – one way that I think applies to politics everywhere, and another way that I think is unique to Alberta, if I can frame it that way.

So in terms of what applies to politics everywhere, I think that back in the day when my dad was in politics – in the '70s primarily is what I remember – it was still considered a quasi sort of noble profession. Certainly that's what my mother used to tell me often: that what my dad did was a noble profession. And there was a certain level of respect, and there was a certain set of rules around how people engage with each other. And I think that's opened up considerably both for good and for bad in terms of the way political debate unfolds and how it impacts politicians. It can be a pretty hard and pretty hostile arena to operate in now, and it was different just from my vantage point of watching my dad.

But on the flipside, what I will also say is, having grown up in Alberta and then ultimately going to school and living in different parts of the country, what I saw in Alberta growing up was that it was an incredibly impolite thing to talk politics in Alberta. You know, we talk about 44 years of PC government, but really it was more than that because the PCs were just a different version of the Socreds. So we had more like an 80-year sort of monolithic political culture in this province, going back as far as the United Farmers, pretty much from then till our government. And so people were very nervous about talking about politics.

I saw in Alberta growing up was that it was an incredibly impolite thing to talk politics.

Rachel Notley,

Alberta NDP Leader

And it was a little bit different where I grew up because, even though people had great respect for my dad, he never really won by about more than 500 votes, and I grew up in a rural part of the province, and Dad was often away in Edmonton, and it wasn't as easy to go back and forth. And so I'd be walking around, you know, like, 17 years old, people, "Hey, where's your dad? What do you think about so-and-so? Blah, blah, blah." So, of course, I guess I got a little bit more used to... standing up for what I believe in, in a relatively 50-50 kind of political environment. But that was very unique where I grew up, and it wasn't what it looked like throughout the rest of the province, by any means.

And so when I moved – you know, I lived in Ontario when I did my law degree, and I lived in BC for almost a decade, and I learned what it looked like to have a more healthy political conversation. And so Alberta has recently changed so that now it's a lot easier to have a political conversation. And I worry a little bit that people in Alberta confuse the new ability to have that political conversation with the more negative elements of what, I would argue, is the global change in politics, and they're not the same thing. And I think that we need to hold on really tight to the idea of being able to agree to disagree, but disagree with passion and thought and good conversations, because that's more healthy.

KLASZUS: And where do you pinpoint that change happening, in terms of folks having that political conversation in Alberta? Do you look at 2015 and say that is what upended it?

NOTLEY: I would say for many Albertans 2015 was what upended it. As someone who was involved in politics, I think it was actually changing before 2015, for sure. As the Conservative party itself started to break down, they themselves started to mix it up a lot more, and certainly in our role as opposition, our engagement with respect to public debate evolved even from when I first got elected, up to 2015. It was a lot easier to push certain issues and introduce certain issues than it was, certainly, when I first got elected. So I think it was sort of an evolving thing, because I think the other thing that's happened, obviously, in Alberta is there's been a generational shift.

And I tell this story to a lot of people. When I won in 2015, very quickly, soon after, I ended up being, I guess, the first non-Calgary premier to be part of the Calgary Stampede Parade. So before the parade, I was meeting with all the Stampede officials and all the folks who very much represent the sort of outward-facing sense of what Calgary is about – you know, the ranchers, the folks with a fair amount of privilege, all that stuff. And so we were all gathering together and getting on our horses and walking down through the parade. And then while I was at that parade, I was looking around at the hundreds of thousands of people who were watching the parade. They were not mostly white. They were very, very young. Most of them were not cowboys or had not been anywhere near a horse, you know? And that's when you get this real sense that there's this idea of what Alberta is, and then there's what Alberta is.

The public sector is not an impediment to economic growth.

Rachel Notley,

Alberta NDP Leader

And so it was a chicken-and-egg thing. The population has changed. We are one of the most diverse, one of the most multicultural, populations in the country. People are shocked when I tell them that, but it's true. And one of the upsides to the oil and gas industry is that we've actually managed to – because there was a lot of money floating around for a long time – we've attracted a lot of really neat people to this province, and now our task is to keep them here.

KLASZUS: And you mentioned the political conversation changing, the province changing, the demographics changing. How do you see the Alberta NDP fitting into that? Because even politically, when we look at the landscape right now, the UCP won the last election; they've been going down in the polls. Everything feels kind of wide open again, almost, in a sense. And amid that, I know a lot of folks are wondering what to make of the Alberta NDP. Is it a centrist party? Is it a left-wing progressive party? And so I'm curious how you would characterize that. Is it a centrist party trying to capture votes from the UCP?

NOTLEY: Well, it's many things. I mean, I've been born and raised in the NDP my whole life, and I don't feel like I've moved an inch away from what I've known to be the party that I've been part of my whole life. I think there's different ways of looking at it. I mean, if you look historically, the Manitoba, Saskatchewan, the prairie populism model. I mean, I would argue that our NDP government in Alberta moved much more quickly on a number of progressive fronts than did either the Manitoba or Saskatchewan NDP governments over time. But certainly there's that prairie populist history of progressive movements in Canada, where it's sort of the merger of the labor movements and farmers, and they're a little bit more pragmatic. And I think it's fair to say that most people would say that, you know, Roy Romanow's government, even Allan Blakeney's government, were sort of more pragmatic governments relative to, say, Dave Barrett, who I adore, in BC. And BC, of course, had a different political culture. And I would argue that, if you sort of looked at the agendas, that we were somewhere in the middle of the two.

And where we are now, I think, is there's a lot of things going on right now. The province itself is in the midst of a massive change, but it's also a scary change. It's not a "Yay, let's run into the sunlight future" kind of change, even though ultimately that may be exactly what we get to do. But it is a very scary change. And so what we – I don't – there are values that I care very deeply about that infuse all the work that we do, or we try to have infuse all the work that we do. And those values, I think, are capable of reaching a larger group of people, even though they're rooted very much in traditional NDP thought. So if you look at Alberta's Future, for instance, if you look at the principles that govern Alberta's Future, the five principles, they're very clearly things that you'd find in the party 20 years ago.

We will absolutely consider [UBI], with an overarching view to reducing, and ultimately eliminating, poverty.

Rachel Notley,

Alberta NDP Leader

KLASZUS: And just so I can be clear for our listeners, Alberta's Future, that's basically – not a platform, but kind of. You're articulating the –

NOTLEY: It's a means. It's not an election platform, but an Internet platform through which we're trying to engage with as many Albertans as we can, that had actually started pre-COVID because we knew pre-COVID that the economy was already in – you know, Jason Kenney's trickle-down corporate handout model was a profound failure. We lost 50,000 jobs; the deficit had doubled; the economy was slowing. And we knew that we really needed to dig in and develop a more progressive economic strategy going forward, and so we'd started it then. And then, of course, with COVID, the Internet platform of it all became more relevant because it was the only way we could actually connect with people.

But in any event, the principles that formed part of it – you know, the idea that we don't measure economic progress by way of GDP; we measure it by way of jobs. Like, real jobs that are healthy jobs for humans. That it's not an economic recovery if more people get poor. Like, everybody has to be part of it. It must be super inclusive, not only from an economic point of view in terms of all income levels need to be raised, but also with respect to women, racialized people, people with disabilities, working people, all have to be part of it. And then that the economic recovery needs to see that the public sector actually has a role to play. Right? Public sector is not an impediment to economic growth. It is a partner, both in terms of specific economic strategies, but also community resilience, which is inseparable from economic success.

KLASZUS: And that's very different from what we're hearing right now –

NOTLEY: Yes.

KLASZUS: – from the –

NOTLEY: Yeah.

KLASZUS: Sorry to interrupt, but I know we have limited time. I actually –

NOTLEY: One final principle: Reject the race to the bottom at all costs, right? That is not an economic strategy. I will stop there.

KLASZUS: Okay, perfect. So before I came to this interview, yesterday I tweeted that I was coming to do this, and I threw out the question, "What would you ask Rachel Notley?" I got a lot of answers. Actually, over 170.

NOTLEY: No. Good for you.

KLASZUS: And so we're not going to cover 170 questions –

NOTLEY: I know. I feel that might be long.

KLASZUS: But I picked out a few. There were a few themes that emerged. So if we can kind of rapid-fire through some of these, that would be great.

NOTLEY: I'll try. You may have noticed it's a bit of a trial with me, but anyway.

KLASZUS: All right. Well, we'll do our best. The biggest one that came up was universal basic income. This is something you posted about a few days ago. I think it's an example of what you're talking about when you say the NDP kind of cutting to the middle of the left and the right. But basically you said you don't think universal basic income is the way to go. There are other ways of building a more just and fair society. You've heard a lot back from folks about that since posting that. We've heard a lot back from folks about that. A lot of people were disappointed with that position.

We need to get to fair taxation before we get to more taxation.

Rachel Notley,

Alberta NDP Leader

NOTLEY: So I guess I would start with saying I didn't actually say it wasn't the way to go. I was just saying that we had not yet gotten to the point of saying it was. So I think there's a slight difference there. But let me start by saying, really, that I think for many people who are big advocates of universal basic income – and that's to be distinguished from basic income – but advocates of universal basic income share exactly the same objectives that I pursue. I mean, we're passionate about the need to aggressively eliminate and – well, eliminate – inequality, and eliminate poverty, and all the good things that come from that. And I see that as not just sort of being a nice thing to do because it's the right thing to do. It's also, again, inextricably linked to economic health and economic growth and all those things. So I think we share the same objectives.

And in fact, as part of Alberta's Future, we will be doing a poverty reduction strategy, and we will be inviting people to engage with us, including UBI advocates, to come forward and to offer up their ideas. And in fact, we've already uploaded the BC paper to Alberta's Future, and we beg anybody who is a UBI advocate to upload more pro-UBI information to it as well. So we will absolutely consider it, with an overarching view to reducing, and ultimately eliminating, poverty. And I will say, I take some pride in the fact that in the midst of what at the time was the biggest recession this province had been going through since potentially the '30s, but definitely the '80s, that we managed to cut child poverty in half. And we are still the only jurisdiction in North America with a $15 an hour minimum wage, and that does make a real difference in people's lives. So, that.

One of the things – like, because I've been studying UBI since I was in law school, and it's a very – I think the objectives are really important that a lot of people share, but not everybody who's advocating for UBI is necessarily sharing those objectives. Some models of UBI, for instance, would see us subsidizing employers. Right? So, A: taxpayers who are not corporations are subsidizing employers to pay their employers. B: some models of UBI have us then paying for it by privatizing public services and making people buy them, like sort of a voucher system.

So there are some versions of it, for example, that are quite – that I don't know that I can agree with, because it's very complicated. And so I think we have to have a conversation about what we are talking about when we're talking about UBI, and let's start from ensuring that we all have the same goal. And I think that there are a lot of people who support UBI who really do share the same goal as me, and I look forward to having those conversations through Alberta's Future on our antipoverty strategy.

KLASZUS: Okay. The next one ties into this, which is PST, another perennial issue in Alberta. And you had the rare position of being in power and having a majority and being able to implement a PST if you wanted to go that route. Why didn't you when you had the chance? Like, even Ted Morton – you know, lots of folks have come out saying: We need a PST in Alberta. We need to figure out this revenue situation. So why not a PST?

[Childcare] is probably the single biggest public policy change that we can make to change people’s lives.

Rachel Notley,

Alberta NDP Leader

NOTLEY: Well, I think for the starting point, let's remember, again, the economy was – in the first two years that we were in government, the economy was in freefall, and drawing an extra [tax] – particularly consumers, who actually drive the economy a lot more than the corporations that are currently getting the multibillion-dollar corporate handouts and then investing them in other jurisdictions. It's actually the regular humans that drive economic growth, so taking money out of their pockets actually is not the best way to kickstart an economic recovery when you're in the midst of an economic recession, which we were.

That being said, what we did do is we introduced a carbon tax. So, you know, that is a key issue. Now, we reinvested that back into the economy through a number of different measures. So I think, to some degree, when you are in crisis – which, quite frankly, we were in throughout most of our government because of the economic situation. We literally had hundreds of thousands of people lose their jobs. And that was our primary focus. And so you can't fix every problem all at once. It's literally not possible. And my view is that we need to get to fair taxation before we get to more taxation. And I don't think we –

KLASZUS: And what does that mean, though?

NOTLEY: Well, that means corporations should not be paying eight percent. That's ridiculous. We should go back to at least where we had the corporate tax before. And those who are more wealthy should be paying more. Those who can afford to pay more should be paying a little bit more, because it's not just that, oh, you're paying more for your child's participation in a good-quality education. It's that you live in a community where everybody has a good quality of education, and in the long term, not only does that make your life better, it also grows the economy within which you are succeeding so much.

KLASZUS: Another interesting question here, shifting gears a bit, somebody said, "How do we improve messaging on diversifying Alberta's economy without making oil and gas workers feel that their jobs and livelihoods are being threatened?" So how do we shift from a fossil fuel-based economy – and I know – again, I think it's fair to say you folks have tacked to the center on this. You've been fairly pro-pipeline, but also articulating that we need to go beyond an oil-and-gas-based economy.

NOTLEY: Right.

KLASZUS: So how do you do that and bring people along?

NOTLEY: Well, I think – I mean, I guess it's a bit of an experiment. What we are trying to do is just that right now, through Alberta's Future, and so again, I would urge your listeners to check it out, albertasfuture.ca, where we are talking exactly about – like, I have an introductory speech that sort of outlines what we are doing, and we're talking exactly about all the other sectors that we need to be working on and the need to diversify.

And I would say too, I think that we should give Albertans credit, because I think that a lot of those folks three or four years ago who woke up to find, A, that they had a left-leaning NDP government that they never expected to have, led by a woman, who, B, discovered that their well-paying, mortgage-paying jobs had just disappeared and it didn't look like they were going to come back again. Those folks were scared, frustrated, worried for their future, and angry. I think that a lot of those folks now are in a position to have the conversation about diversifying the economy, without seeing it as an attack on the way they were making their living.

So I actually think that people are in a slightly different space now in Alberta, and they want to hear about the next step, because they're all realizing that oil and gas is going to be a part of our economy but it's not going to do what it's done for us in the past, and we must be looking at other ways to grow economic prosperity amongst all Albertans.

[The UCP] is a pretty oppositional kind of government.

Rachel Notley,

Alberta NDP Leader

KLASZUS: Yeah, we're sitting in a downtown with almost 30 percent vacancy right now, right? So …

NOTLEY: Exactly. Exactly.

KLASZUS: This was another question somebody put, which is, "When you look back on your time in power, what do you regret not doing, and how would you go about redressing that in a future term?"

NOTLEY: Right. Well, there's a lot of things, and I don't have enough time right now, obviously, because one of the things about politics is that there's a political cycle. At best it's four years. Often it's less than that for bolder actions that are going to require a bit of time to get people on side with them, right? And so it's a short period of time.

What I wish that we had gone farther ahead on that I will redress very quickly once we get reelected, should we be so privileged as to get reelected, is childcare. And we had these great childcare pilots. Everyone who participated in them loved them. But they only served a minority of the many families – a small minority of the many families who need high-quality, accessible, affordable childcare. And I believe that it is probably the single biggest public policy change that we can make to change people's lives. There's only one jurisdiction in all of North America that has it right right now, which is Québec. Nobody else has followed them. People have talked about it, but they haven't moved on it. It's going to cost over a billion dollars a year, tell you that right now, and I am unequivocal that we are going to do it.

KLASZUS: Absolutely. Last question. This is what somebody writes. "Besides shaming the government, is there anything a minority opposition can do to have a legitimate impact in the years between elections?" And, again, you have an interesting vantage point, or a unique position, having served as premier and now you are the leader of the opposition.

NOTLEY: Yeah, well, certainly – I mean, I don't mean to – I mean, shaming the government takes different forms, but basically it's different versions of that. It's informing the public, holding the government to account, disclosing what they're doing more clearly than maybe the government would otherwise, and that's a particularly big role with this government because they have raised the bar like nobody's business – or lowered the bar. I'm not sure exactly which it is. But anyway, the degree to which they will say one thing and do another is unlike anything I've ever seen in politics in Alberta, or anywhere else, quite frankly, except maybe south of the border, up until very recently.

And so opposition has a role to play in telling Albertans what's going on, and then, to the extent that we can, marshaling folks to push back. And practically speaking, in the legislature there's not a lot that we can do. It's very rare that a government will back down or take meaningful amendments. We do have some small examples of amendments that we've been able to make to legislation to make things a little bit better. We did make some propositional engagements with respect to COVID that did ultimately come along – maybe not quite as far as we wanted, but they did come along. And so we can play a role that way. But this is a pretty oppositional kind of government. They're not big into working together. Obviously when you're in a minority government, you can do a lot more as the opposition. That's not where we're at right now.

But there's no question that at a certain point, when they start to see that the things you are saying are gaining more traction than what they are saying, that they're going to start to pivot. And we've seen that, at least outwardly, with parks and, to a lesser degree, coal. Now, I say "outwardly" because I think we have to still be very, very vigilant, because I don't entirely buy that they aren't still at it behind closed doors. But we have seen at least a public effort to convince Albertans that they pivoted away from what were positions that they previously quite proudly defended, arguing that they needed to open them up for more economic activity, yada, yada, yada. So at least their messaging has changed, and hopefully some of their actions have too.

KLASZUS: Well, thanks very much for your time, Rachel.

NOTLEY: Well, thanks for spending a whole half hour and letting me talk.

KLASZUS: All right, take care.

NOTLEY: Take care.

Become a Sprawler—and we'll mail you our new Election Almanac!

Sign up now!

The Sprawl first launched to cover Calgary's 2017 civic election. Now we're back for another round. We don't have paywalls, and we don't have ads. Instead, we rely on our readers and listeners to support our work. If you like what you see, become a Sprawl member today and we'll mail you our latest print zine, featuring exclusive stories you won't find online!