Saturday, January 5, 2008

If A Political Party Falls In The Forest...

... and no one has ever cast a ballot for that party in an election, does anyone notice?

Nation, as you know, I've been working on an overview of the province's political parties, to give us all something to think about as we head on the slow march towards a spring election.

No sooner do I finish writing my look at the Wildrose Party than I find, to my surprise, that a merger between this new party and the Alberta Alliance is not just rumoured, but essentially is all but done.

By now, many of you are familiar with the details: The new party, provisionally named "Wildrose Alliance", would essentially adopt the party constitution of Wildrose, and its first leader would be Paul Hinman, the lone sitting MLA for what has been to this point the Alberta Alliance.

The adoption of the Wildrose constitution is a step in the right direction - as time goes on, and people learn from the examples of others about what works and what doesn't in a constitution, it's only right that it change (unless, of course, it's the constitution handed down by God Herself to Saint Trudeau, which is not a living document but must remain unchanged in perpetuity, no matter how flawed and despite the fact that 23.4% of the population hasn't ratified it - right, Liberals?), and the Wildrose constitution is all of what, 7 months old? Hinman is also an obvious choice to lead the Party through its birth pains, and into the pending election. As a sitting MLA, and someone who has led a provincial party before, he lends credibility to the effort. A particularly fun discussion, though, results from asking the question "who will be the NEXT leader of the Wildrose Alliance?".

We'll ask that question some other time.

Nation, the question that must be asked at this point, is "so what does this mean?".

The Alberta Alliance, which stood to win MAYBE 5 or 6 seats in the next election, if everything went its way, has absorbed a party that has never run a candidate, anywhere. Wildrose has never had a single vote cast for it, in any election, ever. And yet, despite this, those inside the new party are convinced that they are now the government-in-waiting.

This isn't to say that it CAN'T happen... it's just extremely unlikely.

Unless the stories of mass migrations of disgruntled Tories flocking to Wildrose are true, we're talking about a party with an extremely small, overwhelmingly rural membership base, and little ability to fundraise. The "Wildrose Effect" is hard to predict, but in the last provincial election, the Alliance captured 8.7% of the popular vote. The NDP captured 4 seats with just 10.2% of the popular vote. The Alliance's strength, to date, has been in rural communities. The election of Ed Stelmach as leader of the PC's may hurt the new party's rural fortunes, as a vote for the Stelmach Tories this spring will be a vote to keep a farmer from Andrew, Alberta as the province's premier.

To be honest, it's very easy to be dismissive of this new party.

Despite this, I'd encourage the members and supporters of the PC Party to avoid doing so at all costs - the federal PC's, sitting pretty after consecutive Mulroney majorities, harboured the same attitude towards Preston Manning and his rag-tag bunch of "red-necked, hillbilly populists". Their party fell off the electoral radar screen in 1993, and a decade later it ceased to exist altogether, when it was absorbed by - you guessed it - that same bunch of "red-necked, hillbilly populists", now having their mail delivered to 24 Sussex Drive.

The concern for the Tories here needs to be that the new party could be greater than the sum of its parts. With a well-run campaign, a few seats in the legislature and a successful AGM and policy convention, the Wildrose Alliance can establish itself on some political ground that has proven very stable and successful in Alberta, and currently remains vacant - the traditional PC real estate of "fiscal responsibility and social hands-off" (Kevin Taft, to his credit, tried to squat on or near this spot, or just to the left of it, but nobody noticed).

If the party's right wing can resist the urge to legislate morals (Wildrose side-stepped this minefield at their policy convention, to their credit), and they can get in touch with the average Albertan's concern over the province's fiscal future (it's only a matter of time before the oil runs out, or alternative energy takes over), they can make some gains here. Just as important is the appearance of momentum - people love a winner, and will flock to join a party they feel will be in power. If polls show the Wildrose Alliance making gains, traditional Tory voters will take a look at the party. If the party co-opts the 1993 PC Alberta platform, those voters will like what they see (most of them already voted for that platform once, when it was Ralph's), and may park their votes there - to the dismay of the Stelmach Tories.

There are, however, 2 potentially deadly Achilles' Heels that this party will be burdened with, from the day of its birth onward.

The first is the fringe, far-right social conservative element. Albertans are socially conservative - on a small, limited scale. Most of us, however, are disinclined to revisit divisive social issues on a provincial scale purely for the sake of a politician's standing in his or her church (or mosque, or temple, or synagogue). The American-style (god, I hate that term) SoCon evangelical "vote for me because I'm the most Christian candidate" approach may work in a few towns across the province, but will NOT work on a provincial scale. Edmontonians and Calgarians will not support a party that tries to meddle in people's private lives. Should the party's social conservative elements make noise about re-opening the debate on same-sex marriage, abortion, or any number of other divisive social and moral issues, the cities will simply avoid this party like the plague. There is far too much important policy relating directly to Alberta's future to get bogged down in moral and religious debates:

"People shouldn't be able to do this, it's against my faith!"
"Yeah, but wasn't eating meat on a Friday against your faith, and punishable by hell less than 100 years ago, too? Where's THAT law?"


The second major dilemma this party faces is fundraising. There's no such thing as a free lunch - it's a cliche because it's TRUE. Parties without proven track records and, just as importantly, without an actual chance (or perceived chance, at the very least) of winning power have an extremely difficult time raising money with which to fund campaigns. People and corporations don't want to donate money so they can buy influence with the opposition - they want to purchase influence with the party in government. The only 2 groups that have the money and inclination to support this party are going to be Big God and Big Oil.

Big God - organized Christian religion (especially evangelicals) - is going to love this party. They're going to donate to it, they're going to join it, they're going to volunteer for it, and they're going to vote for it. The problem is, they're going to attach some pretty serious strings to that support:
"We'll support you, but once you're in power, you're going to have to help us turn the clock back to 'Traditional Values' and re-make this province back into the way it SHOULD be - no gays, baby-killers, or bikinis allowed".
As I mentioned above, even a whiff of this in the party platform (or, the PC's playing the dreaded "hidden agenda" card) will scare disenchanted PC voters away from taking a chance on this party (they'll likely stay home rather than vote for the Grits or Dippers - here's an idea: Vote GREEN if you're mad at Ed).

Big Oil, on the other hand, has no choice. They can't support the Liberals or the NDP, the Greens are their mortal enemy, they won't support the Tories after the re-jigging of the Royalty Regime, so who does that leave? The problem, again, being that the Wildrose Alliance needs Big Oil's money a lot more than Big Oil needs the Wildrose Alliance, and therefore influence on the party's policies and platforms will be the trade-off for all those nice, big cheques.

The danger here is to the campaign itself - To run a campaign as a brand new party and get bogged down on details of your proposed overhaul to the new royalty framework is a political car-wreck. When you're trying to get your new brand out to the people, and communicate your entire platform and your aspirations for the province, to spend half of your time explaining the math involved in your Royalty plan because the time is being paid for by Exxon or Shell is a communications nightmare. Plus, the support of Big Oil will make it problematic for this party to run a campaign of fiscal accountability based on the fact that "the oil's going to run out someday". Hard to argue the need to diversify the economy and rely less on Oil when Oil is paying for your t.v. commercials.

The way I see it, unless there is a popular uprising based on Hinman's personal likeability (possible, but unlikely) and hundreds of thousands of Albertans start mailing in $50 cheques to the Wildrose Alliance, this party is going to have to decide which is the lesser of the 2 evils - it WILL have to sell its soul to actually run a major campaign in 10 weeks. Will it be to Big God, and make its first impression to the province as a "religious fringe party", or will it be to Big Oil, and be seen as a "corporate, anti-environment party"?

My money's on Big Oil - you'll tick off the environmentalists, but a strong oilpatch means jobs across the province, which means disposable income - and people who have disposable income are happy and vote out of motivated self-interest - which, the Wildrose Alliance hopes will mean THEM and not the Tories, evil plunderers of the oilpatch that they are.

The Alliance is meeting on January 19th to ratify the merger. Polling day could be less than 2 months after that, so you know that they're working on election details NOW, and hoping like hell that the Alliance membership doesn't reject the merger.

In 2004, the Alliance was a fringe, and Wildrose wasn't yet a glimmer in Link Byfield's eye. In 2008, the Wildrose Alliance will either surpass its predecessor, or be still-born and crushed under the Tory electoral machine. It all depends on the Wildrose Alliance platform, and how they choose to communicate it - because if this party can't be ready to go to the polls in 2 months, and be a palatable choice to disgruntled PC supporters, it runs the risk of returning a single MLA for 4 or 5 more years, and withering on the vine.

For this merger to be a success, they must return no less than 5 MLA's to the legislature, to push the party's platform and make sure it stays on the radar until the next election. They need a podium at the debates, they need to run a good campaign, both leading up to this election and more importantly AFTERWARDS, and they need to make sure they present a MODERATE conservative alternative if they ever hope to win support in the cities.

Interesting times in Alberta politics... it truly IS "the most wonderful time of the year..."

10 comments:

Werner Patels said...

The whole religious thing you mention doesn't even come into play here.

Let's just look at the facts:

Fact 1:

The majority of voters, according to recent polls, are undecided. A clear sign that they were waiting for a new party to come along and save them (the Tories aren't the answer, but neither are Taft's Liberals, who have been plummeting in the polls despite one of the most incompetent premiers in a long time).

Fact 2:

The Alberta Alliance has always polled below the Alberta NDP (and often behind the Alberta Greens) in a supposedly "conservative" province. If the AA couldn't make any progress over a good number of years, what makes them think they can do so now after absorbing a new party that won't even leave any traces or footprints in the "merged" party (note: the "merged" Wildrose Alliance Party = old Alberta Alliance -- it's not really a merger; instead, the Alberta Alliance merely changes its names, while a new party gets annihilated).

Fact 3:

People who were hopeful that the Wildrose Party could be the party they, the undecided voters, have been waiting for are going to be extremely pissed off, and so the AA won't get any of their votes either.

Prediction:

The next election, therefore, will most likely see a minority Tory government, with an increased number of seats for the Alberta Liberals, NDP and, possibly, even a seat for the Greens -- but none for the AA (i.e., even Mr. Hinman will lose his seat).

Enlightened Savage said...

Werner: Fair comments, and quite possibly correct, as well - only time will tell.

I agree that this is a "merger" in name only - the Alliance press releases make it quite clear that their party is changing names, adopting the Wildrose constitution, and offering memberships free of charge to existing Wildrose members. That said, the same thing happened to the federal PC's. Merger, take-over... call it what you will, but the voter sees a new name on the ballot either way.

I doubt very much that the Tories are going to lose their majority... unless they have a mid-campaign meltdown of epic proportions, I can't see any more than a 20-seat swing (Tories lose 10, Liberals/NDP/Greens/Wildrose Alliance pick them up). This would leave the Tories with 50 seats in an 83-seat house, still a comfortable majority. In order to lose their majority, the PC's would need to lose 19 seats - essentially, the entire city of Calgary (or the entire city of Edmonton, as well as every rural riding south of Red Deer) would need to elect Liberals, NDP, Green or Wildrose Alliance MLA's.

Needless to say, this would be the textbook example of an electoral disaster of titanic proportions. PoliSci students would be reading about it for decades. I can't see it happening in 10 weeks - Taft doesn't have the ability to make it happen, Mason doesn't have the funding, the Greens don't have enough professional politicians to win more than a couple of seats at most, and the Wildrose Alliance is fresh out of the oven, but with the same Alliance policies (at this point) that got them 1 seat in the last election with a lame duck Premier leading the other right-of-centre party.

That said, I HAVE been wrong before (it was a Tuesday, in the 80's)...

Oh, and by the way... male. :)

Anonymous said...

Another prediction: Werner Patels will continue to post multiple blogs of essentially the same subject matter in a valiant attempt to get people to listen to him again.

Werner Patels said...

As for the federal PC-Reform/Alliance merger, that was an actual merger, with the new party actually sitting down to work out a new platform, policies, etc.

According to information received from someone at the AA (via one of my blogs), the AA does not adopt any of the policy resolutions taken by the Wildrose Party, so the AA may adopt the Wildrose constitution as you say, but according to what I was told by the AA official, they will merely open their doors to Wildrose members, and that's it.

Stelmach still has some time to go before an election, so there's plenty of time and opportunity for a Tory meltdown.

Look, Klein's riding was lost to the Liberals because the Tory voters stayed home that day (that should tell the AA something: left without an alternative (including the AA!!!!), Tory voters felt it was better to stay home and not vote at all).

If this happens on election day, a lot more ridings could be lost by the Tories to Liberals and the NDP (but NOT to the AA).

After all, Albertan voters have been quite clear about this (in general elections, by-elections and polls): the Alberta Alliance is not an option, not even for the most conservative voters. And even now, among conservatives who are disgusted with Stelmach, we see that the AA has not moved in the polls at all (and it is still behind both the Liberals and the NDP) -- in other words, both the Libs and NDP have better chances of electing MLAs than the AA, and this will still be true after the "merger" (actually, even more so).

Actual predictions in Albertan politics are almost impossible because Albertans will do whatever they feel is right at the time, without giving any prior sign of "warning", but if there's one thing that's safe to predict, it is that the AA is not an option.

Disgruntled Tories are more likely to migrate to the Liberals and even the NDP than vote for AA -- if they actually vote and not stay home, that is!

Just take the former PC Youth president who resigned in protest over Stelmach's approach (and also took the entire Youth wing with him): he didn't say he was going to vote for another conservative party; he actually said that he'd vote for the Liberals as long as Stelmach was in power.

At any rate, we're looking at interesting and fascinating times, and political junkies will certainly get their money's worth :-)

Anonymous said...

Werner,

People, including yourself, love to make much about the PC by-election loss in Calgary-Elbow. But first, this was a by-election, and by-elections are typically the strongest representations of unrest by party members, particularly in this case, where a loss would not imperil the government. You are correct in noting that most of the "lost" voters stayed home rather than vote ALP, but that is exactly the point. Calgary-Elbow includes some upscale, "Liberal-friendly" areas, and even there, people did not come out and vote Liberal. And it is certainly not a bastion of AA-friendly votes.

Funny how people love to pontificate on the Calgary-Elbow loss, but rarely mention the huge Drumheller-Stettler by-election win, even in passing. PC candidate Jack Hayden demolished the competition, taking nearly 60% of the vote, and this is not worth talking about? The Alliance candidate places fifth in a field of 7 in supposed "small-c conservative country" above only Green and NDP, and below Social Credit.

Those who dislike him (including PC's of convenience who have their nuts in a vice over Alberta's royalty changes) dismiss Stelmach as too rural. But if that is the case, look for the AA, and the WR/AA if the merger goes through, to possibly lose influence in the next election, rather than gain any.

I think your comment about the former PC Youth President also needs more context. First, young David was not President of PC Youth... he was President of YAPCA... a group he formed which took over after a decline in youth participation in the party. Also, he did not "take" the entire youth wing with him, more like two other individuals. [I also recall him making less-than-favourable statements about your guy Ralph K.] If you were interested, I am sure that the President of PCYA (the original, and current wing of the youth in AB PC politics) could fill you in on what actually occurred. And if you attended the AB PC policy conference last fall, I think you would have gained a far better picture of the state of the membership - that is, they actually feel LISTENED TO again, which is a clear departure from the last regime.

Danny H. said...

Does anyone else think that Werner's third FACT is more of an opinion?

Anonymous said...

Well, actually all three "facts" had some amount of opinion in them (Premier's adequacy, membership makeup of new Wild Rose/Alberta Alliance party).

Here's another opinion: great post ;-)

Anonymous said...

I think Warner is missing the rather huge and unavoidable fact that never before has the PC party made a decision so negatively affecting the economy.

People woudln't, and didn't vote for the Alliance in previous elections because there was no need to.

However, we have no come to a situation where the Wildrose Alliance will be the only true fiscally conservative option on the ballot. The PC's, with their huge spending, and falling revenues, are much more in line with the NDP and the Liberals.

So thats where this election becomes interesting. Alberta is fiscally conservative, and generall socially moderate. Can the Wildrose Alliance capture this essence.... I for one, hope so.

son of gaia said...

"Edmontonians and Calgarians will not support a party that tries to meddle in people's private lives."

Not accurate. I understand you were referring to religiously motivated meddling, and you may be correct about that aspect, but the fact is that Edmontonians & Calgarians routinely support candidates (from all parties) that advocate meddling in people's private lives. All parties in Alberta advocate Nanny State policies that are all about meddling in private lives.

If this new party doesn't climb onto the Nanny State bandwagon, that alone could bring them an avalanche of votes from people (like me) who are ready to give up (or have already given up) on bothering to vote at all. These days I'm feeling empathy for the unfortunates in the former soviet union - there's lots of candidates to choose from but they all belong to the same "Party" anyway (even if they run under different names).

Roy Harrold

Anonymous said...

"Disgruntled Tories are more likely to migrate to the Liberals and even the NDP than vote for AA -- if they actually vote and not stay home, that is!"

Not in the Alberta that I live in. No one who has an idea about ALberta Tories could really say that with a straight face.

Neither Taft or Mason have that kind of gravitas. This is the province of protest parties, and when Albertans decide they want change, they do just that --but they never quite go "established" parties. Even the Tories where nowhere on the radar before Lougheed swept in. They had been reduced to a small rump by the early 70s. Socreds and UFA were also new and certainly not established.

Someone is going to sweep the Tories out of power in Alberta one day, but it ain't going to be the Liberals or the NDs. I am not saying that it will be the Wildrose Alliance but Any casual observer of Alberta's electoral history, even a Calgary Observer, would bet on a new party doing the job.