Teachers' union has its eye on Hoffman for NDP leadership

The latest NDP leadership news comes from an Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA) convention. Pictures of literature from attendee tables have crossed my desk: Sarah Hoffman, candidate for the NDP leadership, was campaigning on the floor. In a roundabout way, this helps to explain why educational politics are so polarized.

It’s a conundrum for the ATA, because the union’s terms of reference don’t allow them to endorse a candidate or party. However, its leadership definitely wants to put a stop to private and charter schools, whose teachers don’t have to pay dues to the ATA. For them therefore, Hoffman — promises to take action for them — is a natural choice. 

So, even though the ATA can’t officially endorse her, they’re happy to see her literature on their tables.

To people unused to the internal dynamics of political parties, Hoffman’s position against parental rights seems counterintuitive. 

Premier Danielle Smith’s education and health policies, which include requiring parental consent on changing children’s pronouns, are in accordance with sophisticated polling that shows massive public support for them. They’re just good statecraft.

However, statecraft doesn’t win NDP nominations and party leadership. That requires progressive credentials and allies. That’s what Hoffman needs to win the leadership.

To win the vote of party activists, Hoffman must show she’s more progressive than the rest of the pack, which puts pressure on her to be more strident.  Even if she hadn’t started out that way, it’s in her own best interest to be a hardliner. It’s about establishing her credentials.

Hoffman also has to court allies — particularly public-sector unions such as the ATA.  Why? The NDP’s constitution lets “affiliates” (union and activist groups) send convention delegates and directly appoint a member each to their Provincial Council. 

In fact, two of their seven executive members are to be appointed by a Labour caucus. However, this gives unions the power to enforce those radical promises. There’s no chance of campaigning from the left to win the leadership vote and then running a general election campaign from the centre. 

Above all, this means that we can’t expect Hoffman to govern from the centre, should she ever become premier.  She will have to keep promises — real or implied — to the unions. For an NDP leader — especially a new one — politics takes priority over statecraft. That’s why the politics are so extreme.

In the case of the ATA, the union is too powerful not to court. 

In 2021, the ATA dropped more than a million dollars as a third-party advertiser. It can’t support a candidate or party, but it can sure oppose one — in that case, Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party. They’re big money — and they demand big concessions in return.

I shouldn’t imply that the ATA is unique. The health services union also dropped close to a million dollars in 2021. More impressively, a confederation of public sector unions spent $1.7 million to control the Calgary municipal and school board elections that year. Again, it was done as a third-party advertiser, “Calgary’s Future.”  $1.7 million buys a lot of future — they swept those seats. 

It's a recipe for making the NDP more and more extreme. 

The need to court union allies makes it increasingly hard for the party’s elites to listen to outside voices. It’s the reason why the NDP and its allies appear to ordinary Albertans to be increasingly out of touch with the real world. They’re focussed on their own advancement and have no time for meaningful statecraft.

We’ve been here before. It’s the reason Alberta had a single party at the helm for nearly 50 years. Individuals in the NDP and Liberal parties were more focussed on their own internal politics than they were on statecraft.  It didn’t matter that they had good, likeable people: internal dynamics prevented them from being effective political forces.

Today is no different. Hoffman’s campaigning at the ATA convention is a symptom, not a cause. It’s not about her: it’s a reflection of the NDP’s internal power struggles. 

For parents wondering why education politics are so polarized, this is why.  The progressives who are talking about education are talking to each other. They’re not talking to you: you’re irrelevant to their considerations.  That’s why they sound increasingly deranged to sensible parents.

On the one hand, it’s a good thing — the progressive educational establishment, through its hyper-focus on NDP politics, is likely to lose its stranglehold on education. 

On the other hand, it presents a danger. Without the threat of having someone to lose an election to, the UCP is likely to become complacent.  They won’t be so eager to listen to parents. And the same progressives now attached to the NDP will try to become part of the UCP establishment, dragging it into its own version of government overreach, just as happened with the Progressive Conservative Party.  And that would be a tragedy.

John Hilton-O’Brien is the Executive Director of Parents for Choice in Education, www.parentchoice.ca

This article originally appeared in the Western Standard on March 14th, 2024. A printable pdf is available.