Will his fresh approach reshape Alberta’s political future?

Doug Firby: Can Nenshi reshape the political future in Alberta?There is hope that political wunderkind Naheed Nenshi will be the leader who can guide Alberta’s progressives to success. In a historically conservative province, hope is deeply ingrained in those who lean left. Too often, hope is all they have.

Albertans have rebelled against the status quo, notably in 2015 when they elected the NDP in protest against the chaotic Progressive Conservatives. However, this was not the change progressives desired. In the next election, voters chose Jason Kenney and the United Conservatives, promising to be more ethical and decisive than their predecessors.

This did not work out well for Kenney, who was ousted after several missteps. People on both sides of the political spectrum were dissatisfied with his leadership, leading to his downfall.

Despite this, voters still didn’t turn to the NDP, instead trusting Danielle Smith, who had previously betrayed the Wildrose Party by crossing the floor in 2014. It seems that anyone can make a mistake and be forgiven by the electorate.

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KEEP AN EYE ON ALBERTA

Given the enthusiasm for Nenshi, there remains a healthy dose of skepticism that he will be able to deliver an NDP government in the next election, scheduled for October 2027. If success is defined only by forming a government (as opposed to building an even stronger Opposition), then the bar has been set very high.

And yet, for all their bravado, UCP operatives seemed to be taking the Nenshi threat very seriously. Within days of Nenshi securing the NDP leadership (and in the process, swelling party membership to an unheard-of 85,000), the UCP launched a smear campaign aimed at cutting the Nensh off at the knees.

Nenshi, however, was prepared for this predictable and cynical tactic, launching a clever rebuttal that effectively argued, is that the best you’ve got? The UCP, he smirked, “are nothing if not predictable. … What do you think they’re so scared of?” This new leader showed he would not be easy prey, surprising the UCP strategists who had relied on the same old strategies.

Nenshi’s story has always been about defying expectations. In 2010, as an unknown from Calgary’s northeast, he ran against TV personality Barb Higgins and conservative councillor Ric McIver and won. Despite being dismissed as a lightweight, Nenshi turned political orthodoxy on its head. Many dismissed him due to his ethnicity and religion, but he overcame those barriers with determination and capability.

Those who know Nenshi don’t see this as magic. Critics may call him arrogant, but he is quick-witted, articulate, and responsive. He is also compassionate, curious, and committed to social justice. An insider once said, “He can make anyone feel like the thing they care about is important to him as well.”

Danielle Smith is also quick on her feet, though not always honest. This was evident in her debate with Notley during the last election campaign, where Smith made many unsubstantiated claims. On the day of the debate, Alberta’s ethics commissioner released a report on Smith’s alleged interference with Justice Minister Tyler Shandro regarding charges against Calgary pastor Artur Pawlowski. Smith falsely claimed the report vindicated her, a claim Notley failed to challenge effectively. Interestingly, the ethics commissioner’s term was not renewed in May.

Nenshi is unlikely to give his opponents such a pass. Future debates between him and Smith promise to be entertaining. Nenshi’s appeal extends beyond his intelligence. He speaks for those who feel voiceless in politics, including new Canadians. His unconventional approach, including his appearance and avoidance of zero-sum conflicts, sets him apart. Rejecting conventional political norms, Nenshi avoids getting drawn into petty conflicts, focusing instead on substantive issues that resonate with voters.

It remains to be seen how these qualities will play out on the provincial stage. Nenshi’s formula worked at the civic level, but now he leads a party with a clear ideology. He must shape the NDP into a party voters will trust enough to elect. This is a daunting task, and it is hard to imagine him achieving everything in the next three years.

However, Nenshi has surprised us before.

Can the Nenshi Democratic Party win over Albertans? Betting against the UCP might be premature, but the conservatives will have to improve their game significantly to stop Nenshi. His ability to connect with a diverse electorate and his fresh approach to politics might just be what Alberta needs to see a significant shift in its political landscape.

Doug Firby is an award-winning editorial writer with over four decades of experience working for newspapers, magazines and online publications in Ontario and western Canada. Previously, he served as Editorial Page Editor at the Calgary Herald.

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