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Naheed Nenshi: If you're hyper-partisan, you may not want to read this column

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If you are a hyper-partisan on either side of the Alberta election, you may not want to read this column. But I thought I would share my thought process on how I’m going to vote this Monday.

It may be helpful to read two previous columns as well: one where I discuss Danielle Smith’s somewhat unique approach to politics and life, and one where I discuss what people who have always voted Conservative are facing in this election.

And a whole bunch of caveats. I’ve never done this before, and I take it very seriously. It’s not because it brings out the colour of my eyes – well not just because it brings out the colour of my eyes. Purple is a combination of red and blue and I wear it to remind myself and others that we are not defined by our political tribe but by our common humanity.

For me, this means not only being in the political centre, but also that I need to engage with politics and elections fluidly and based on the context of the moment, as well as who is running. I have voted for at least four different parties provincially and federally, and for municipal candidates all over the ideological map. And this time, I’m voting NDP.

I’m very cheap, and I hate debt. (I’m proud that Calgary had the lowest residential property taxes in Canada in my tenure as mayor and that we ran a surplus every year). But I also believe in the need to invest in the things that give people a hand up, and that help everyone live a decent, dignified, prosperous life. Chief amongst these are an excellent public education system, access to great health care, and strong and effective anti-poverty and mental health strategies.

Like almost all Albertans, I also believe that climate change is a critical problem, and that many solutions lie in the Canadian energy sector. I am very proud of our resource industry, and I believe that access to clean, safe, and affordable energy is one of the most powerful poverty-fighting tools we have. Canada can make huge contributions to reducing global emissions by displacing coal with liquified natural gas around the world and we need to be much better at building export infrastructure including pipelines.

In all of this, I don’t think the United Conservative Party and the New Democratic Party would disagree with much of what I wrote here (though it’s not clear if the UCP rank-and-file have heard Smith say climate change is real and she would just go a bit slower than Notley). Indeed, their stated policy on most of these items is similar, with a few differences: the NDP would raise taxes on big business from the lowest in Canada to … the lowest in Canada. The UCP would cut personal income taxes and increase the reliance in the budget on oil and gas revenues.

UCP Leader Danielle Smith has spoken favourably of the disastrous school curriculum her predecessor, Jason Kenney, attempted to introduce, and hasn’t said a word about it in the election. She has promised to continue her government’s use of private surgical delivery, despite ample evidence that it doesn’t actually work to lower costs or surgical wait times.

'ALBERTANS HAVE A RARE OPPORTUNITY'

Notley, for her part, has run a cautious campaign, shying away from major policy pronouncements, and saying that her top characteristic is that she is honest and will stop the endless drama of the UCP government.

Albertans also have a rare opportunity. For the first time in modern history, two people who have both already been premier are running for the job. Truth be told, from my perspective, neither was particularly great at the job.

I struggled with Notley’s government over many issues, from its amateurish stumbling on the electricity file to their massive fumble that cost Calgary the 2026 Olympics. While I must take some blame for that, and the federal government massively mishandled it, the Notley government wavered between disinterest and disdain, ultimately dooming the project.

Now Calgary must find the money to revamp our winter sports facilities, without an Olympics at the end. (Ironically, this was mainly a result of how much Notley and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau couldn’t stand each other, and their staff could not abide giving the other a victory. I was in the room for some of this, and I always smile when I hear conservatives talk about the Notley-Trudeau alliance, having seen the truth).

Mostly though. I saw the Notley years as ones of lost opportunity. For an NDP government, they were remarkably cautious. They inherited a massive global recession and were likely too scared (or just too poor) to make major changes in housing or mental health or empowering cities. They did make major strides on child poverty, cutting it in half, but this had much to do with the federal government and the Child Tax Benefit.

I must give Notley credit for one big thing, though. Conservative governments over a half century have failed to build even one mile of new oil pipeline to tidewater. The Trans Mountain Expansion would not have happened if not for Notley’s ferocious advocacy over a skeptical Trudeau and the ridiculous antics of BC NDP Premier John Horgan, who was intent on scaring away investment, even if he had no power to stop the pipeline. Do I wish TMX had been built with private capital instead of by the federal government? Absolutely. But after Horgan successfully ran off the private owner, this was the only path forward and it would not have happened without Notley.

However, despite all her faults, Notley has nothing on the UCP government that followed. Jason Kenney and Danielle Smith have never really had jobs outside of government, lobbying and media, and neither had really run anything. And it showed. From defunding the police to betting on a Trump victory by giving a giant corporation $1.4 billion with no risk protection for the taxpayer, from attempting to implement a right-wing American curriculum that appeared to have evidence of plagiarism to breaking the ambulance system. From picking a fight with Netflix over a Bigfoot cartoon to opening up way too soon during the pandemic (the Best Summer Ever was not so much), the UCP government stumbled and bumbled from one error to another. What other government would have two successive justice ministers both in trouble with the law society?

Enter Danielle Smith. She has been even more profligate in her spending, with no sign of fiscal discipline. She tabled the highest-spending budget in Alberta history, with nothing special to show for it, and reversed a decades-long policy of reducing our reliance on oil and gas revenues. At today’s oil prices, that means the budget will come in at a deficit unless there are massive cuts to services.

'A QUESTION OF VALUES'

So for many Albertans, this election comes down to two issues: competence and trust. Notley wins cleanly on both.

Perhaps even more important is a question of values.

Smith has been found guilty by the Ethics Commissioner of violating the Conflict of Interest Act after only seven months on the job, and she says and does bizarre things seemingly every day. (I detail much of this here). According to the Ethics Commissioner, she attempted to help a man well-known for his vile comments (including that the 2013 Alberta floods were caused by gay people) escape charges of incitement, even while he was leading a political party opposed to her. Either she didn’t know who she was talking to (showing a shocking ignorance) or didn’t care (a shocking indifference). In either case, she displayed a shocking lack of judgment.

She tells us not to believe things she says, even things she and her candidates said in the past weeks. Most troubling, it took her three days to condemn a candidate who compared having trans children in schools to having feces in a batch of cookies. Trans children have very high rates of suicide and self-harm compared to other kids, and this kind of behaviour puts them in danger. Smith first said the candidate wouldn’t sit in caucus, then said she would consider reinstating the candidate if she was really, really sorry, then said her decision to exclude was final.)

She has also declined to condemn candidates who echoed Putin talking points on the war in Ukraine (something she herself did before remembering she has Ukrainian ancestry and, more important, that Alberta is home to one of the largest Ukrainian diasporas in the world.)

If you need to focus group and poll your response on basic human rights and saving lives before finally doing the right thing, or doing nothing, it’s fair to question your leadership.

I truly believe Smith is an existential threat to our province. There’s never been anyone like her in power in Alberta before. We simply have no idea what she will do as premier, and that scares me more than a few years of a potentially not-great NDP government.

If you are a young person, or you have young people in your life, this is the whole deal. We must build a province where young people feel like they belong, and where they can build the best lives for themselves, not one where they are scared what government might do next to them, their family, and their friends.

'NOT MANY ALBERTANS VOTE LIKE I DO'

So on this front, it’s clearly Notley who passes the Ralph Klein test: even when you disagree with her, you get the sense she’s essentially a decent person who is trying to do the right thing. The same simply can’t be said about Smith and the people she chooses to surround herself with.

Not many Albertans vote like I do. For many of us, politics is a tribal game. And that tribe has been more often than not, a Conservative one (Conservative parties under different names have ruled Alberta for all but 4 of the last 88 years). So, it’s very hard for Conservative voters to jump to the NDP. Does this mean they are New Democrats now? Have they become socialists forever?

Notley and her supporters have a smart response to this: consider your vote a loan. It doesn’t mean you have to vote NDP forever, but it does mean that the NDP is less risky than the UCP for the next four years. In that time, you can give the NDP a chance or work to reform the UCP back to its Progressive Conservative roots.

Indeed, I would go further. Every political party needs to consider every vote only a loan. For 11 years, I tried to get up every morning, put on my pants and go to work to continue to earn people’s trust and support every single day, simply by trying to make life better for them. The UCP seems to have forgotten that basic lesson, focusing more on firing up their base and sowing division and anger, hoping that will keep them in power.

So, I’m lending my vote to Rachel Notley and the NDP this time. I’ll watch them carefully, supporting when needed and criticizing when warranted, as I will do with the UCP if they win.

But ultimately, I’m voting not for some mythical Alberta of the past, and not out of fear or anger. I’m voting because I love this place, because I stand for dignity and prosperity for all, because I want young people to be proud of where they live and because I know Alberta can be even better.

Oh, and there’s always another Olympics waiting for our bid!

Former Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi wrote this opinion column for CTV News

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