Notley wins the province, but can she win the Alberta civil service?

Photo: flickr/ Jack Hope

The Alberta election saw a historic win with the Alberta NDP winning 53 seats and a majority government, supplanting the ruling PC party, who were first elected in 1971.

The Alberta NDP is not only taking over the office of the Premier, but also inheriting a large civil service that has not seen a government change in over four decades.

In its entire history the Alberta government has only changed hands four times. The last change coming 44 years ago when the Alberta Social Credit Party was defeated by the Progressive Conservatives. Since that time, civil servants have been working in ministries headed by PC MLAs and largely implementing PC-driven legislation.

In fact, it's hard to imagine if there are any civil servants in the Alberta government who can remember not being under PC management. Though a large majority of the seats have changed in Alberta, today's civil service is by and large the same civil service that existed before Prentice called the election.

With the election now over will the Alberta NDP be able work effectively with these civil servants?

"It's certainly true that the Alberta civil service hasn't needed to do a government transition, and that might worry some. However, the civil service is professional and non-partisan, and a transition in government, in theory, should only increase that," said Dr. Melanee Thomas, Professor of Political Science at the University of Calgary in an email to rabble.

However, many have noted the similarities between Notley's NDP and Bob Rae's Ontario NDP (ONDP).

Much like Notley's NDP, the Rae's ONDP surged to an unpredictable victory in 1990 that surprised Canada and it also inherited a public service that had served under a Conservative dynasty.

Unlike Notley, Rae's NDP had gained some governing experience in an accord between the Peterson Liberals before their victory in 1990.

Much has been made of the fact that there was tension between Rae and the civil service that had been managed by successive Conservative governments.

As Premier, Rae felt that the public service had become entrenched in its ways after 42 years of unchanged government and was unavoidably politicized, hindering his government's ability to carry out its policies. Going to great lengths to address this, Rae even went on to appoint some of his closest confidants to high civil service and advisory positions to help fend off his mistrust of the established bureaucracy.

However, Dr. Thomas points out that Notley is an experienced legislator and former political consultant, leaving her with quite a bit of experience when it comes to working with bureaucrats.

"I'd be more concerned if a new government formed with an entirely new [or] more inexperienced leader than I would be now," said Dr.Thomas.

In the case of the Rae Government, the tensions created serious concerns for the NDP majority and seemingly frustrated the Premier. Should Notley fall into a similar situation, the policies that may define her government could be hampered by a bureaucracy that has a hard time seeing issues from an NDP point of view.

On top of these concerns, Notley may face problems when appointing her cabinet. Going into the election only three of her candidates were incumbents. The newly elected MLAs will not only have to get accustomed to representing their constituents on the provincial level, but also managing the ministry staff that they will be responsible for overseeing.

If the Alberta NDP hopes to create a dynasty as the previous governments in the province have done, Notley will need to put her political skills to the test and ensure there is an easy transition and a good relationship with the province's civil servants.

Notley will have all eyes on her as she attempts to prove that Alberta can be NDP territory. Certainly the federal NDP will be looking to Notley to perform well and do so quickly if they want to capitalize on these gains in the upcoming federal election.

An uncooperative or hesitant civil service could severely restrict her efficiency. Using her political skills to make this transition easy is absolutely integral for the legacy of her party's meteoric rise to power.

Can Notley achieve this transition? Only time will tell.


Editor's note: This article originally stated Rae's NDP party had a coalition government with Peterson's Liberals when they in fact just had an accord.

Ryan Donnelly is a graduate from McMaster's Political Science department, specializing in Canadian Public Policy and International Relations. Since 2011 he has been involved with a number of election campaigns in Canada.

Photo: flickr/ Jack Hope

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