Few disagreements on display at final ANDP leadership debate

Attendees of the Alberta NDP’s final leadership debate had to really squint to see any major policy disagreements on stage at the Edmonton Convention Centre on June 2. 

Party members who joined before April 22 can start voting today for the next ANDP leader, who will either be former Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi, Edmonton-Glenora MLA Sarah Hoffman, Calgary-Mountain View MLA Kathleen Ganley or Edmonton-Rutherford MLA Jodi Calahoo-Stonehouse. The new leader will be crowned on June 23.

The 90-minute debate’s format consisted of opening statements from each leadership contender, four pre-selected questions from party members in attendance, questions from moderators Serena Mah and Carissa Halton, after which each candidate was given an opportunity to ask a question of the other three contenders. 

Early in the debate, Hoffman asked the other candidates whether any of them support her policy to introduce a two per cent cap on rent increases for two years followed by a two-year rent freeze, along the lines of the private members bill MLA Janis Irwin introduced in late 2023. 

Nenshi was the only one who directly responded. “Rent caps are a really important part of what has to be a very broad housing strategy, including affordable housing.”

This was valuable clarity from Nenshi, whose official housing platform simply calls for “building the right homes, at the right price, in the right place.”

Naheed Nenshi speaks at the ANDP leadership debate on June 2 in Edmonton. Photo by Jeremy Appel. 

How Orange Is Too Orange?

The closest thing to a political disagreement on stage that day was when Halton addressed the elephant in the room  of this leadership race—whether the ANDP should continue its relationship with the federal NDP. 

Nenshi, who joined the party for the first time to run for its leadership, is the candidate most clearly sympathetic to a break with the federal NDP, which he depicted as an electoral burden on the ANDP.

“The Alberta NDP has to look like Alberta,” Nenshi said. “The math says that we cannot succeed unless people who vote for every party federally vote for the NDP provincially, and we have to be able to be attractive to folks who may not be able to cast their ballots for the federal NDP.” 

He framed the issue as one of “being in control of our own destiny.”

The only candidate to answer that question unambiguously affirmatively was Hoffman. 

Hoffman said she’s proud of the provincial party’s affiliation with the federal NDP, even if she doesn’t agree with every position the federal party takes. She said she has no problem raising her disagreements with the federal party, which she didn’t specify, “because we’re a family.”

Back in 2018, when Hoffman was deputy premier, she told the National Post that federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh “has not been a friend to Albertans,” citing his “proven track record of attacking our oilsands.”

Ganley called the question of the ANDP’s relationship with the federal party “fundamental” and “central.” 

She said she suspects most people in the room agree with the federal NDP on pharmacare, dental care and labour rights, but don’t share its energy policy. 

“We have people throughout the province—volunteers, members, people who are dedicated to this party—who both feel that this is a party that is a family, and people who feel that being attached to the federal party has an impact not only on our electoral success, but their safety,” she said. 

Calahoo Stonehouse emphasized that this is a significant decision that is ultimately up to the party membership and caucus to make—a sentiment shared by all four candidates.

“What is our party? How are we related? What are our values and are they the same as the federal party? We have to be able to have some difficult discussions and then make a decision collectively,” said Calahoo Stonehouse.

Clarifying Differences

There was more disagreement expressed by some candidates during post-debate scrums with each candidate, but even then, the candidates wouldn’t criticize each other by name, likely due to the leadership race being a ranked ballot, with each candidate wanting to be listed as other candidates’ supporters’ second choice. 

Ganley, who conceded that Nenshi is the frontrunner, said she trusts NDP voters’ ability to “pick up the nuances in position” between the four candidates. 

She elaborated on some of her policies that set her apart from the competition—”a very clear policy on raising the minimum wage,” creating a public option for auto insurance and an explicit commitment to ending “price gouging” by electricity companies.

“I think Sarah [Hoffman] and I have a little bit of a different approach to climate change,” Ganley added. 

“We both think we should take action. It's just about how do we take action? Do we tell people that this is the top issue that they need to care about? Or do we tell people that they don't have to make a decision between action on climate change and the economy, that both can happen at once?”

Hoffman was the only candidate willing to identify their second choice when asked by reporters, which she said will “probably” be Calahoo Stonehouse, whom Hoffman took credit for recruiting as a candidate in the 2023 election. 

“On the 23rd, I plan on being the leader and I want all these people to be part of my team and help me carry us forward into the next election,” she said, explaining the debate’s cordial tone. 

“I'm proud to tell all of the members and my colleagues who were on the stage what my values are, and where I want to take our party because we need to win but we need to win to enact positive change for the people of Alberta.”

‘I’m Not Running for the Naheed Show This Time’

When Nenshi, a former instructor in non-profit management at Mount Royal University, won three consecutive elections for Calgary mayor, he was well-known for his detailed policy proposals. 

He conceded that hasn’t been the case with his NDP leadership campaign. 

“It's been killing me, because I'm a policy wonk. I want to get deep into the details and, quite frankly, I want to get deep into the details of my competitors’ policies,” said Nenshi. 

Without naming names, he revealed some of the policy disagreements he has with his competitors. 

He called Hoffman’s plan to replace the federal carbon tax with a cap-and-trade system “an economic downfall for Alberta.” 

Nenshi characterized Ganley’s low-income tax-cut plan as a “$1 a day broad-based tax cut, which I don't think is going to lead to the affordability results she's thinking about.”

He said his reluctance to highlight these sorts of policy disagreements is because he’s “deeply aware of two things.”

“I'm not running for the Naheed show this time … I'm running as part of a team to be joining a party,” said Nenshi. 

The other reality he’s conscious of is that the next election is more than three years away. 

“I don’t want to make promises today that are simply not valid three-and-a-half years from now,” he said, referring again to the income tax cut as a policy that might not age well “after the UCP eviscerates public services for the next three years.”

Nenshi added that he’s working to build the ANDP into a movement, where a wide range of perspectives are welcome. 

“It's not about moving to the center. The party already represents the vast majority of Albertans in a way that UCP never can, and so our job is to help other Albertans feel a home in the party, understand that without preaching to them, and help build it,” he said.