A Canadian Lesson in How Not to Politick in a Right-Wing Stronghold

Alberta, Canada’s most conservative province, recently went to the polls. The purportedly left-wing New Democratic Party, in its attempt to court conservative voters, provided the Left with an abject lesson in acquiescence — a road map of exactly what not to do.

Then Alberta premier Rachel Notley seen speaking to supporters at the campaign office of Jasvir Deol during the Alberta provincial election campaign in Edmonton, Canada, March 22, 2019. (Ron Palmer / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images)

If you ask the most fervent partisans of Alberta’s nominally progressive New Democratic Party (NDP), they will tell you that they did a great job in the May 29 provincial election. They got the most votes in the party’s history; they elected two indigenous legislators; they won the popular vote in the province’s two largest cities; they defeated six of the governing United Conservative Party’s (UCP) cabinet ministers.

All of this obscures the fact that they lost and that the popular vote wasn’t even close — the NDP lost by 8.6 percentage points, amounting to more than 150,000 votes. While the NDP may form the largest Official Opposition in Alberta’s history, that will be cold comfort for those who have to suffer the consequences of living under four more years of Alberta premier Danielle Smith’s hard-core libertarian political philosophy.

Priorities for a Smith government include forcing a referendum on any future tax increases (but not cuts); involuntary treatment for people who use drugs; more money flowing from public to charter schools; increased publicly funded health care delivery from for-profit corporations; and subsidizing oil and gas companies in the midst of the climate emergency.

The NDP’s campaign was tailor-made to appeal to an imaginary suburban conservative voter who is so incensed by Smith and the outlandish conspiracy theories she espouses that they would vote NDP just this one time if the party only had the right configuration of center-right policies. The problem is that these voters, in large part, don’t exist. Most of the NDP’s gains came not at the expense of the UCP, but of the centrist Alberta Party, which ran a considerably smaller slate of candidates than it did in 2019.

A Failure of Leadership

NDP leader Rachel Notley, who was premier from 2015 to 2019, hinted that she has no desire to step aside, but is evaluating her options while applauding her own leadership abilities.

“It’s good leadership to consider your role leading up to an election and to consider your role after an election. I did that in 2015, did it in 2019, did it leading into 2023, and of course I’m doing it now,” she told reporters at a June 13 press conference. That Notley considered stepping aside after she formed the first NDP government in Alberta’s history in 2015 after eighty years of right-wing rule is surprising news indeed. The difference in outcome between these elections is profound, and this claim of soul-searching ought to stretch credulity even in sympathetic members of the public.

If the NDP is going to have a future in the province, Notley and everyone else responsible for two consecutive catastrophic defeats to hard-right candidates needs to go. In both instances, the party adopted a strategy of excessively emphasizing the personal foibles of former premier Jason Kenney and later Danielle Smith, while failing to adequately defend its own track record. Despite the prevarications of deluded partisans, this approach was an utter failure.

Housing Policy for Landlords

During a housing affordability crisis across Canada, the Alberta NDP leadership made the gobsmackingly tone-deaf decision to bring in AirBnB lobbyist and executive Nathan Rotman to manage its campaign. Rotman, who served as Notley’s chief of staff when she was premier, was quietly confirmed as involved in the campaign mid-March, but the party didn’t otherwise acknowledge his involvement.

By the end of the month, Rotman was running away from reporters in Montreal after a fire at an apartment building hosting illegal AirBnB units killed seven people. “Thanks guys,” he said to reporters who cornered him in an elevator asking him in English and French if he feels responsibility or remorse for the deaths.

Rotman didn’t confirm his involvement with the campaign until less than an hour before polls closed on May 29. When journalist Jonathan Goldsbie pointed this out on Twitter, Rotman responded: “You guys sure are upset that I took holiday to work on a campaign. Have fun writing hit pieces with your pals.”

The choice to not only hire Rotman but keep him on the campaign makes sense when one considers that Notley herself and Official Opposition Critic for Seniors and Housing Lori Sigurdson are landlords. In a country contending with an ongoing housing crisis, this means that Notley and Sigurdson are profiting from a lack of affordable housing. Incidentally, the NDP’s housing policy consisted largely of subsidies for low-income people, which would go directly to their landlords. “You want to make sure we’re considering the renters themselves, but [also the] people who own the facilities,” Sigurdson explained, failing to acknowledge the self-referential nature of her statement.

While the NDP campaigned on introducing rent control in its sole victorious campaign of 2015, it refused to do so once in power. And the issue has not been mentioned by the party since.

Smith Controlled the Terms of Debate

The NDP’s 2023 campaign strategy, for the most part, centered around Smith’s untrustworthiness, digging up various wild remarks Smith has made over the past two years in her role as a podcast shock jock. The views she espoused are undeniably concerning — such as the comparison of the three-quarters of Albertans who are vaccinated to followers of Adolf Hitler, her calling for the privatization of hospitals, and her desire to see an armed blockade of Alberta’s Coutts border with Montana “win.”

The problem is that Smith wasn’t running on any of these policies. Smith ran a typical conservative campaign, emphasizing tax cuts and adopting a hard-line, tough-on-crime stance on social disorder. Despite a significant mid-campaign revelation from Alberta’s ethics commissioner — who concluded that Smith’s actions to influence the justice system regarding a Calgary-based street preacher involved in the Coutts blockade represented a conflict of interest — Smith remained steadfast in her focused messaging.

Furthermore, Smith did not make hay of her key achievement during the first six months of her term, the Alberta Sovereignty Within a United Canada Act. This grandstanding legislation grants the Alberta government the authority to disregard federal laws that it disagrees with — but has yet to be invoked.

The NDP’s policy proposals were all crafted in response to Smith’s offerings, presenting minor policy distinctions aimed at appealing to conservative voters in the suburbs. To that effect, there was no discussion of the climate crisis, despite the wildfires raging across the province as the campaign kicked off.

Whereas Smith proposed a new, lower-income tax bracket for those who make less than Can$60,000 a year, Notley proposed freezing income taxes, eliminating the small business tax entirely, and raising corporate taxes by three percentage points. Rather than provide a rationale for a corporate tax hike that would resonate with the vast majority of the population who don’t actually own corporations, the party establishment thought that boasting that Alberta still has the lowest tax rate in Canada — even lower than that in Doug Ford’s Ontario — would suffice.

While Smith proposed hiring one hundred new police officers to patrol the downtowns of Alberta’s two largest cities — Calgary and Edmonton — Notley offered 150 new police officers across the province, who would be partnered with 150 social workers, furthering the entrenchment of social work in the carceral system.

Notley, responding to the UCP’s attacks on some NDP candidates who expressed sensible criticisms of ballooning police budgets, thought she was being quite clever when she attacked the UCP for having “actually defunded the police.” This was a reference to the UCP’s reduction of the amount of traffic fine revenues that  municipalities collect to help pay for policing. However, the result of that quip was that the debate over policing ended up being framed according to Smith’s terms.

The NDP’s intense focus on winning over conservative voters in the suburbs of Edmonton and Calgary aimed to attract individuals who may not have supported some of Smith’s more extreme views. However, these voters were more than willing to overlook those positions in favor of tax cuts. Rural Alberta was written off as irredeemable — a basket of deplorables, if you will. On Substack, Edmonton-based writer Alexander Delorme aptly noted “the irony of convincing yourself to run a conservative campaign while ignoring the most traditionally conservative regions of the province.”

A Mixed Legacy

The NDP’s tenure in power was imperfect. Its strategy of watering down climate policy to secure support from the oil and gas industry — which inexplicably included support for a pipeline that would triple the province’s capacity to export planet-killing tar sands crude — was doomed to failure. The party supported the expansion of privatized long-term care, which produced deadly results during the pandemic. It made no effort to reduce public funding for private schools.

But there were undeniable accomplishments. The NDP reduced child poverty by half during its one term. It took Alberta’s minimum wage from the lowest in the country to the highest. It began phasing out coal power. It halted the privatization of lab services, which proceeded under the party’s successors with disastrous consequences.

The problem is that you didn’t hear about any of these achievements during the election campaign. It was all about Smith, all of the time.

Unless there’s a changing of the guards, expect the NDP to take all the wrong lessons from this defeat. It will further acquiesce to Smith’s agenda, actively participating in the continued narrowing of political debate in Alberta.

But it’s not enough to simply change the party leader. It’s going to take a mass movement outside the confines of electoral politics to forge a consensus in favor of an unabashedly progressive agenda in Alberta. There are already groups working to this end, such as Climate Justice Edmonton, Migrante, Public Interest Alberta, Support Our Students, and Friends of Medicare, all of whose advice was contemptuously dismissed by Notley’s clique.

A progressive challenger for the NDP leadership who seeks to return the party to its social democratic roots will need all the public support they can get. Only then will Alberta’s left have the strength to seize the party machinery and purge it of all the careerists, sycophants, and technocrats whose failures allowed Smith to achieve power.