Alberta NDP disaffiliation pitches aren’t just bad—they’re lazy

If the candidates to replace Rachel Notley as Alberta NDP leader have some good policy ideas, they were certainly keeping their powder dry last week.

Kathleen Ganley and Rakhi Pancholi both burned bandwidth on pitches to disaffiliate the Alberta NDP from the federal NDP. Pancholi’s pitch is to commit to making membership in the federal NDP opt-out-able for Alberta NDP members. Kathleen Ganley’s take was part of her proposed Members’ Charter, where she commits to “provide members with the full information they need to make this decision” and ensure that “members have a choice on whether to sever ties.”

Screencap from Rakhi Pancholi's Instagram announcing her disaffiliation pitchRakhi Pancholi's pitch for disaffiliation, from her Instagram feed last week

Ditching the feds got a lot of ‘support’ in the discourse last week from people unlikely to ever be out knocking doors for the ANDP. Here’s Max Fawcett at the National Observer, for example: “it might be time for its provincial cousins to cut the formal ties that bind them together—and keep getting used by provincial conservatives to choke off their supply of political oxygen.”

Let me clarify my perspective for a moment. Before working with Progress Alberta, my experience in politics was through the federal and Alberta NDP. The first campaign I seriously worked on was Janis Irwin’s federal bid for Edmonton-Griesbach in 2015. For years I volunteered prolifically for several provincial constituency associations. And for a while I worked for the Alberta NDP caucus canvassing rural areas. (Let me tell you, trying to pitch the carbon tax in Whitecourt is rough.)

These days I do my politics mostly through my platform here at the Report. But I am still invested in the success of the social democratic movement here in Alberta. Call me a left unity guy. And it’s from that perspective, not just the role of some media commentator who treats this all like a game, that I’m coming at this.

Disaffiliating from the federal NDP would be a strategic mistake, though that’s not the biggest problem with the pitch.

Name recognition matters and changing your brand can have big costs. Look at the BC United Party, until just recently known as the BC Liberals, who absolutely cratered after rebranding to distance themselves from their federal party.

The feds contribute a lot logistically to the Alberta NDP: including a shared database—lists and contact data are extremely valuable assets to political parties—and manpower.

And there is great overlap between the sets of federal NDP activists and Alberta NDP activists. I’m not talking just voters, but the serious volunteers who actually show up, conduct meetings, and do work. Party members who will actually do work are frustratingly rare and driving any of them out is nuts.

There’s a lot at risk here for no guaranteed payoff. There is no shortage of people who will never vote for the Alberta NDP who also say they also do not like the federal NDP. Who cares? They do not have the Alberta NDP’s best interests in mind.

But the biggest problem is simply that these pitches are lazy. They’re hollow. It’s nothing.

Alberta today is being rocked by crises that will still be problems if and when the Alberta NDP can take over from Danielle Smith.

The economic downturn provoked by COVID-19 and the invasion of Ukraine—and now Israel’s genocidal campaign in Palestine, too—put a heavy boot on the necks of Albertans.

Gross inequality in Alberta empowered that boot to stomp many people down to absolute rock bottom. The ranks of unhoused people in Alberta’s cities, and that includes the smaller cities too, not just Edmonton and Calgary, have grown to staggering numbers.

Poverty and homelessness in turn have driven up all the things they always drive up. The drug poisoning and drug overdose statistics for Alberta this year already look like pure carnage. In the winters, unhoused people are suffering frostbite and even amputations. Edmonton had an actual dysentery epidemic on its streets.

While the vulnerable die on the streets, social disorder, petty crime, and even random assaults are vexing everybody else. In the absence of any serious policy pitches from the Alberta NDP, the UCP are convincing people that the way to manage those problems is to hire more cops to crack down—and crack heads.

And that’s not even getting into long COVID, which is about to hit Alberta’s workers and economy like a truck.

Researching and proposing and arguing for solutions to these problems is a big job. It’s certainly more work than riding some trial balloons about a popular but materially-inconsequential fuss over branding.

But that’s the work of leadership: you take a moral position and you argue for it.

You canvass and knock doors to find out what problems people need help with. You don’t knock doors for strategy tips from people who don’t even like you.

Screencap of the website for Alberta's Progressive Future, who were running trial balloons for this policy last year.Alberta's Progressive Future, a political action group run by former NDP MLA Brian Malkinson and lobbyist Pascal Ryffel, put out the trial balloons for disaffiliation with polling last winter

On policy, the Alberta NDP and the federal NDP are in exact harmony but for one file. On social issues, on material matters, even on foreign policy these are two caucuses that say the same things. The only point of disagreement is that the federal NDP are more critical of fossil fuel corporations.

But if you speak to a typical Alberta NDP member today, two things I’m certain they are not going to say are that “the Alberta NDP should do more to appease oil and gas lobbyists” and “the Alberta NDP should lead less and follow the polls more.”

The paucity of ideas on display last week is a real bad sign. It’s a sign that candidates think simply returning to the policies of the Notley administration is good enough.

Ousting the United Conservative Party is necessary for progress in this province, but it’s not sufficient.

Remember: the Notley administration did not substantively raise AISH. The Notley administration gave public sector employees zeroes in wage negotiations over and over and over again. The Notley administration did not implement a mass program to retrain laid-off resource workers. The Notley administration left AHS in a thin enough state that COVID and Kenney were able to bowl it right over. 

Homelessness was already rising under the Notley administration, but they undertook no massive public housing build. Police brutality—especially gruesome now that the UCP are leaning on the cops to suppress the symptoms of poverty—was completely ignored.

Today we need to be hearing about how the next Alberta NDP administration will go beyond Rachel Notley’s. Instead, candidates are going sideways. Let’s demand a little more from these people.