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Evan Menzies: Alberta’s NDP are moving on from Rachel Notley—and as far away from Jagmeet Singh as they can

Commentary

The kick-off of the Alberta NDP leadership race earlier this month has made one thing clear: 2017’s uniting of Alberta’s conservative parties has produced not only an electoral juggernaut, but it has dragged Alberta’s NDP into a full policy and party repositioning—a move that threatens to make it almost unrecognizable to the party Rachel Notley took over in 2014.

Ever since Jason Kenney won the leadership of the United Conservative Party in 2017, the Alberta NDP has been on its heels defending its one-term record in government. And just as consequentially, it has had to defend its ties to the federal NDP and its unpopular-in-the-Prairies leader, Jagmeet Singh. 

In her near decade as party leader, Notley resisted giving an inch on her policy record, attempting to delicately carve out differences in policy with her federal cousins. At the same time, she was keenly committed to her own set of progressive policy priorities—including a series of tax increases on businesses and individuals. 

Party operatives faithfully stayed on script and cast off accusations that they were taking their marching orders from Singh, arguing such claims were insider nonsense removed from the day-to-day concerns of Albertan voters. But with Alberta voters telling the NDP to stay put in opposition until at least 2027, it’s clear that its affiliation with Singh and the federal party isn’t its only problem. The Alberta NDP’s own record is a challenge that it must overcome if it’s ultimately going to win back government. 

The proof is baked into how the leadership contestants have all kicked off their campaigns. 

Former Deputy Premier Sarah Hoffman called the consumer carbon price—one she herself helped to advance and defend in Notley’s government—“dead.” Up-and-comer Rakhi Pancholi echoed the same sentiment in her campaign launch and subsequent interviews. 

Calgary-based MLA Kathleen Ganley, channeling her very best impression of Danielle Smith during the premier’s time at the Fraser Institute, has called for raising the personal tax exemption by another $5,000 to $26,000, a move that would mean 2.5 million Albertans would pocket tax savings of $400 a year and remove 150,000 Albertans on the lower end of the tax bracket from paying any income tax at all. 

Those who closely watched the 2023 provincial election will recall this campaign pledge from Ganley is not too far removed in spirit from the UCP commitment to create a new 8 percent tax bracket on income earned under $60,000. 

Campaigning on tax increases was once considered electoral poison in the province—that is, until the NDP victory in 2015. It was that assumption underlying the unearned confidence of Alberta’s former Progressive Conservatives in 2015 who simply couldn’t imagine voters giving Alberta’s balance sheet to a party campaigning on income tax hikes. 

But with NDP MLAs now nursing their wounds from two consecutive election defeats thanks to an invigorated united conservative movement in Alberta, raising taxes is once again a four-letter word in Wild Rose Country. 

Members of the Alberta NDP similarly haven’t been afraid to raise the temperature against their federal party. Leadership contestants have even expressed an interest in opening the debate about formally dislodging the party’s connection from the federal NDP, a former sacred cow within the party.

Alberta NDP energy critic Nagwan Al-Gunei released a statement this month alongside her NDP counterpart in Saskatchewan taking a shot at federal NDP MP Charlie Angus’s bill that threatens imprisonment for anyone who advertises the positive contributions of Canada’s oil and natural gas sector—a policy move from Angus that no doubt has significant support among the environmental activist wing of the party but is clearly a non-starter for any serious Albertan politician.

And unless former Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, whose entry into the race has been much-speculated, goes from purple to deep orange in his policy prescriptions and decides to radically shift his brand, it seems like Alberta NDP members will only have the late arrivals like old labour-hand and Alberta Federation of Labour boss Gil McGowan to proudly wave the flag of its more traditional economically left-wing activist roots.

Sure, the traditional NDP base can expect all of their leadership contestants to dip into the well of increasing spending on public health care, agitating for housing affordability, and going all in on culture wars to invigorate their base and bring excitement to the campaign. But on economic policy, tax hikes are out of fashion by the old party guard and tax cuts are seemingly in. Carbon taxes are a no-go. And needless to say, there is no appetite to roll out the red carpet for federal NDP members who come through the province.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh high-fives a supporter as they kick off the NDP caucus retreat in Edmonton Alberta, on Monday January 22, 2024. Jason Franson/The Canadian Press.

This represents perhaps the most significant development in the continued fracturing of the coalition between the federal NDP and its provincial partners. Voters in both Alberta and Saskatchewan have sent a consistent message that they want their provincial NDP representatives to be sensible on economic issues that can unite blue-collar and white-collar interests. It appears this is a concession that Alberta NDP members are willing to make if it gives them a shot at getting back into power. We’ll wait until they have their final say when they choose their next leader this June.

And while some may suggest this is nothing more than natural maturation in a party as it aims to return to power, it is undoubtedly a win for Alberta’s conservative movement. Its primary opposition has by and large conceded the field of battle on economic policy and acknowledged that national parties on the left side of the spectrum have lost the ability to communicate with the country’s largest economic engine. 

Most importantly for Premier Smith, she now has free rein to move ahead with an economic and national platform that will have little resistance in her own legislature. A gift any premier would be jealous of.

Ginny Roth: Your freedom to watch porn doesn’t trump our duty to protect children

Commentary

Pierre Poilievre declared early last week that his party supported limiting child access to online porn. The news was breathlessly reported, the X analysis began, and it only took about 48 hours for the debate to shift from differences in principles and worldviews into a “well, actually” scuffle over technocratic implementation challenges.

Why was that?

As libertarians (of all partisan stripes) took to social media to mock Poilievre on principled grounds, I suspect that in making their arguments, they found their own messaging rather unpalatable, or at least they realized most Canadians would. You can just imagine how the thought process went. “HA!”, they thought to themselves. “Mr. Freedom himself isn’t so interested in all those freedoms, is he??” (So far so good). “I guess his consistent worldview isn’t so consistent after all!” (How embarrassing for him!) “I guess he doesn’t feel strongly enough about completely unfettered access to highly exploitative and disturbing online content for kids, does he??” (OK, maybe this part needs some spin.)

Because of course children shouldn’t have easy access to porn on the handheld devices they carry with them all day, every day. The very notion is so absurd that the only way to defend it is to change the nature of the argument. Given the necessary implication of a freedom-of-expression-based argument (that the adult right to expression outweighs a duty to protect children), I would probably pivot away from that path of argumentation quickly too. And to be fair, the technical policy arguments against age-gating are far stronger. Poilievre sought to address one of those arguments quickly, his office clarifying that his party would not support a digital ID. Still, implementation would be difficult. We’re not used to regulating the internet and writing policy to address external harms caused by new technology has never been easy. Wise policymakers will no doubt recommend an approach that allows for adjustments as legislation and regulation are tested by real-world applications. 

Age verification will be tricky to implement, and any approach will come with risks. But let’s be clear about what those risks are. They’re not about a threat to freedom of expression. The libertarians put that matter to bed when they realized that arguing a porn star’s (or, perhaps more truthfully, a porn profiteer’s) right to self-expression supersedes our duty to children was a non-starter. For the implementation-is-hard argument, the risks are to the porn companies, and the troublesome red tape they’ll encounter (pour one out for Pornhub, I guess), and, more seriously, to the privacy of adults viewing porn online. Any time adults are required to provide proof of identity in a digital environment, there’s a risk of a data breach. It’s a real problem. But it’s a problem that affects many of our online interactions. Yes, it will be difficult to confirm age.

And of course, gathering personal data carries the risk of a data breach. But as our country increasingly operates online, this is already true. Whether we book plane tickets and provide our passport numbers, log on for some i-gaming and prove our age, or go online shopping and share our credit card numbers, we share data online all the time, taking the risk that our identity or payments might be compromised, and expecting the private sector and government to develop more sophisticated solutions to protect against that as time goes on.

“What about the parents?” you might say. “Why should I sacrifice my right to privacy and risk a data breach just because parents can’t keep their kids off porn sites?” I would direct your attention to the evolving policy matter of smartphones in schools. Some technologically powerful cultural trends are simply too potent for individual parents to push back against on their own. I won’t rehash the harms that early, frequent access to porn has on developing minds at great length, but they are plentiful, and it’s probably fair to say we haven’t yet measured the extent of it given that Gen Z is the first generation to carry social media on their phones, in their pockets, from childhood. Given the knowledge we do have, I think it’s unacceptable for policymakers to simply turn away, washing their hands of the issue and hoping kids come out relatively unscathed.

In high-functioning societies, we trade off rights, privileges, and duties all the time in public policy-making. “Ordered liberty” often requires that the strong in society give up some freedoms in order for us to collectively protect the weak. So, the question becomes, do you think an adult’s absolute right to guaranteed privacy online in every circumstance outweighs our duty to protect children from harmful content? I say no. Assuming we make every effort to protect adult privacy and are thoughtful about the policy design required to do so, we ought to prioritize our duty to protect children from harm. I suspect most Canadians agree with me.