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Alberta premier's chief of staff, John Heaney, returns to family and law practice in B.C.

John Heaney

The departure of the low-key and capable John Heaney as Premier Rachel Notley's chief of staff will not necessarily become a problem for Alberta's New Democratic Party Government. That depends on how his successor does in the job.

But it will not be a particularly good thing for the Notley Government, either, it is said here, because Heaney quietly did impressive work after the departure of Brian Topp as chief of staff nine months ago, helping to create the sense a steady hand was on the province's political tiller and the NDP government actually did understand how Albertans thought.

While Heaney was a British Columbian -- and will be returning to his family in Victoria -- he was sensitive to the way Albertans see themselves and their place in Canada and the universe. That was no surprise, as he grew up in Edmonton.

It was a significant change from the way Topp operated as the premier's chief of staff, which left a lot of Albertans -- including a lot of Alberta New Democrats -- with the feeling the government didn't "get it" about Alberta at all.

The Wildrose Opposition (now the United Conservative Party) and its media auxiliary tried to stir the same sort of feelings up with Heaney, but thanks to his undemonstrative competence soon gave it up for more promising issues -- the supposed horror of budgetary deficits, the dubious benefits of drastic tax cuts for very rich people, the efficacy of bullying for getting pipelines built, and hostility to labour unions being among their perennial favourites.

The differences in the two men's backgrounds probably explained both their differing approaches and results.

Topp was a former candidate to lead the federal NDP, a bombastic campaigner, former chief of staff to Saskatchewan premier Roy Romanow, and controversial political strategist who, unfairly or not, wore some of the blame for the NDP's spectacular flameout in the 2013 election in British Columbia. That year, the B.C. New Democrats squandered a nearly insurmountable lead in the polls and allowed Liberal Premier Christy Clark to salvage another term. Clark's long tenure as premier only ended in late July this year after a non-confidence vote that followed a virtual tie in B.C.’s May general election.

Heaney was a political strategist too, but he was a respected lawyer first with a reputation as a troubleshooter who could find ways to calm stormy political seas. The B.C. New Democrats were said to be none too happy to see him leave for Alberta in 2015, first to join Premier Notley's transition team, then to sign on as a senior civil servant, the premier's deputy minister of policy co-ordination.

So for more than two years, Heaney, 55, has only spent a few nights each month at his family home in Victoria, which he concluded was too much to ask of a husband and father. "I'm just not prepared to make that sacrifice anymore," he told reporters yesterday.

Before coming to Alberta, Heaney was chief of staff to B.C. NDP Leader John Horgan, then the leader of the Opposition, and a friend and former business partner too. So now that Horgan is the premier of B.C., some observers on the right and left in both provinces are bound to wonder if Heaney will soon return to a political job in B.C. Someone in UCP circles is certain to suggest this momentarily.

I doubt it, though. Heaney played a key role in Alberta's efforts to overcome B.C. opposition to the Kinder Morgan Pipeline expansion, so such a move would likely cause as many political problems for the anti-pipeline B.C. NDP as it would for the pro-pipeline Alberta NDP. He's been a friend of Notley for years too.

I'm pretty sure Heaney means it when he says he’ll clear off his kitchen table and restart his law practice in Victoria.

Heaney will be replaced by Nathan Rotman, former national director of the federal NDP, former campaign manager for Toronto NDP MP and mayoral candidate Olivia Chow, and national political action director of the Canadian Labour Congress.

With their instinctive animus toward unions, Rotman's former CLC role will give the UCP and its friends in media a target that they can be expected to take up with enthusiasm, but probably not that much effect given the behind-the-scenes nature of the work.

Since 2015, Rotman, who is 37, has worked as issues management director of the Premier’s Office and chief of staff to Finance Minister Joe Ceci.

The changes take effect on Oct. 6.

In other Alberta political news yesterday, the Opposition UCP is said to intend to set its entry fees for candidates running for the party’s leadership between $75,000 and $100,000. Since the Wildrose Party and the Progressive Conservative Party can’t transfer funds raised in the past to the UCP -- legally, anyway -- they presumably need the cash.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Image: David Climenhaga

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