Column: Notley and the Jack Layton playbook

Rachel Notley has parachuted behind enemy lines for a BLT with avocado and a side salad.

The Alberta NDP leader, a woman chasing history in next Tuesday’s provincial election, sits in a cafe next door to the Chevron Tower. She’s essentially down the hall from the Canadian Association of Petroleum Landmen and Petroleum Technology Alliance Canada.

This is not a typical NDP stomping ground in Alberta. In fact, there have been years when the NDP had no ground to stomp anywhere in this province.

Now the 51-year-old Notley has set up shop in the shadow of the oil patch for four days for what Progressive Conservative Leader Jim Prentice has called a battle of “two competing visions” for this province.

There is no doubt Notley has the PC gentry spooked. She won last week’s leadership debate and she appears to be having fun on the campaign trail, as if she is playing with house money and has nothing to lose.

None of that, however, necessarily translates into victory. But it could translate into the strongest NDP opposition in provincial history.

Albertans are far more progressive than the rest of the country believes, says Notley, who rightly points to the diversity, education level and youth of this province.

“There is a national urban myth about Alberta and it is incorrect,” she says. “If you poll Albertans on issues rather than politics, they poll progressively.

“We’ve disconnected our beliefs and our values from our politics, because there is this narrative that the Tories have always been, and always will be, in power.”

Reconnect values and politics and she’s away to the races, she believes.

But not so fast.

By any yardstick, an NDP government in Alberta is a long shot. The party is strong in Edmonton, but it is hard to see where it could win the seats in Calgary and rural Alberta to overcome the historically fierce resistance to the socialist hordes in a free-enterprise province.

Notley’s rise, however, has been aided and abetted by Prentice himself, particularly a budget the PC leader tabled that included an array of taxes and levies on consumers, but left corporate tax rates here untouched.

And then there was the infamous Prentice line that Albertans should “look in the mirror” if they want to understand the financial straits the province now finds itself. “If he does lose a majority and someone writes a book on this campaign, that should be the title,” Notley says.

Everyone is searching for a parallel here to try to understand dynamics that are, frankly, leaving a lot of longtime Alberta watchers scratching their heads.

Are we watching something comparable to Bob Rae’s stunning Ontario victory a generation ago or is Alberta 2015 comparable to Jack Layton’s Orange Wave in Quebec in 2011?

This campaign is all Notley, just as it was all Layton in Quebec.

In parts of the province, there does seem to be a wave, just like the one Layton rode to opposition in 2011.

Layton used to tell stories of talking to five or six people at a time at barbecues in Quebec before his breakthrough.

Notley tells the same story, about talking to six people at barbecues in Lethbridge in 2008, but then four years later being feted on her birthday by 200 supporters in a local bar.

In between there were repeated visits, one-on-one talks, and a lot of hard work and she now believes she can win both seats there next Tuesday.

Prentice routinely ignores Wildrose and leader Brian Jean, as if that party is merely a free-floating repository for anger that will dissipate by election day.

Instead, he goes after Notley, who he accuses of killing jobs by refusing to push for the Northern Gateway or Keystone XL pipelines (Notley does back the Kinder Morgan route to the West Coast and the proposed Energy East pipeline).

He says she will chase more jobs out of the province with higher corporate taxes and an energy royalty review.

From a central Canadian perspective there is nothing scary about Notley, but Prentice can still exploit fear here in Calgary.

Lunch finished, I hop in Joe Moston’s cab and mention my dining companion. “Oh yeah, the commie,” he says. “This is a free enterprise capitalist society. There’s no room for her type here.”

Notley has been hearing this here for years. History will happen one day because the province is simply changing too much for the PC dynasty to rule forever. But next Tuesday just might be rushing history.

Tim Harper is a national affairs writer. His column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Twitter:@nutgraf1

Copyright 2015- Torstar Syndication Services

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