Thursday, January 7, 2010

72 Hours Later - Fall-out

Nation, 3 days ago, I woke up to find a flurry of messages waiting for me on Facebook and Twitter telling me that my political mentor and friend was crossing the floor to the Wildrose Alliance.

2 hours later, I was on a plane back to Calgary. By the time I landed, the press conference was already over.

I'm going to have a lot to say about how this was done - and about how it affected me personally. Later. I'm still not in a place where I feel I can address, in a coherent way, what I'm feeling.

What I can and will do, however, is talk about the political ramifications of what has happened, and what should happen next.


The Liberals have seemed to be at a loss ever since the now-infamous Angus Reid poll came out in mid-December. Dr. Swann, normally a pretty articulate guy, suggested at that point that a 25% support level meant the end of the Progressive Conservatives. Someone apparently neglected to tell him that his own party polled at the exact same number. Since the defections, Swann has been quoted as saying Ed Stelmach's days as leader of the province and the PC Party are numbered.

Obviously, Dr. Swann is doing everything he can here to try and convince moderate PC's that their only hope is to start supporting their local Liberals. The problem with that is twofold: Firstly, if Swann wants people to desert the PCs due to Ed's leadership, he should probably avoid predicting that Ed will be gone any day now - If Ed's on his way out, where's the incentive to give up on the PCs and switch?

Secondly, even if people WANT to support their local Liberal organization - they probably can't FIND it. The Grits need to take a page out of the WAP playbook, and get themselves organized on the ground, with 83 (soon to be 87) fully functional and easy-to-find riding associations and candidates (not that WAP is there, yet - but they clearly recognize that their efforts in that area are of paramount importance to their long-term prospects for success. So too must the Libs).


Mason is calling for by-elections. It may, in fact, go down in history as the first time that Brian Mason has agreed with the majority of Albertans on... well... ANYTHING. The stance that Mason is taking does his party no favours, politically - the NDP can't possibly win either riding. For that reason, I give Mason full marks here for putting what he perceives as the public good - a couple of by-elections - ahead of what is best for his party's political fortunes - avoiding a couple of embarrassing by-election beat-downs.


No such party. Sadly.


Premier Ed is on vacation - and if you think the timing of the floor-crossing was entirely co-incidental to that fact, I have a bridge to sell you (no, not the Peace Bridge - Mayor Dave tells me I love that, and bad people on council are trying to make it political, but I digress). In the meantime, we've had the embarrassment of the rescheduling of the announcement of the new cabinet (nobody in Edmonton knows how to use Google Calendar, I guess), which LOOKS, to the public, like a reaction to the floor-crossings. We're going to get 3 or 4 days of reaction from the Premier before he heads off on his trade mission, and then when he gets back it will be the end of January, and cabinet shuffle time.

If I hear one more "we're not worried, everything's fine, we just won a huge majority" I'm going to throw myself off some tall and scary. Every time the Premier's spokesperson or a party spokesperson says something like that, the general public think that the PCs are either stupid for not KNOWING they're in trouble, or stupid for not knowing what to do to get OUT of trouble while also being dishonest about being there in the first place.

What the PCs have to do is respond - not anything knee-jerk, like "purifying" the party by driving out moderates and lurching blindly to the right, but rather by coming out with a clear plan to eliminate the deficit that doesn't involve praying for natural gas prices to rise. Getting the financial house in order HAS to be Job One. Healthcare restructuring, social tinkering, everything else needs to either be an attainable goal that will help with Job One, or be taken off the table. No 5 points, or 10 pillars, or anything like that. "I'm Ed, we screwed up and I'm going to fix this. Here's how." The lack of focus draws comparisons to the days of Paul Martin as leader of the federal Liberals, when everything was a "high priority issue", and nothing ever got done. When everything's a high priority, nothing is.

The party needs to get control of its communications problems - which are so beyond obvious, they don't need repeating in this space. More than anything, though, the PCs need to be seen as a party that is LISTENING, instead of just TALKING.

Even the Wildrose website hearkens back to days-gone-by, with the oft-repeated slogan "Bring Back the Alberta Advantage"... the PCs can seize upon this, and the addition of one (at the time of this writing) or 2 (if Guy makes it official) or MORE (after the cabinet shuffle) Klein-era cabinet ministers can be shown as an example that the Wildrose Alliance, while itself a new party, is the party of yesterday's ideas - old, tired, and too simple for complex times. There are still a lot of PC loyalists who remember Lougheed as a pup - and while these people sit on constituency boards and shout all the time about how "Ed works for us, and needs to do what we say!!!", the reality is that the reality of modern politics has passed a lot of these old lions by. They have good viewpoints, lots of experience and ideas, and should be listened to - but not necessarily obeyed (the default position for many party members) by virtue of their age or seniority in the party. "The way it's always been done" clearly isn't working today.

The PCs can renew themselves with new ideas, elevate people like Jonathan Denis and Doug Griffiths to cabinet, and attract fresh young members and ideas, tempered by the experience of these elder members. The contrast between Danielle Smith and Ed Stelmach couldn't be more pronounced. If the contrast between a room full of surly 65 year-olds wearing WAP buttons and enthusiastic 35 year-olds waving PC flags can be put to the public eye, it will play as well here as it did "down south" when that Obama guy did something similar.


I'm of 2 minds on the next play for the Wildrose Alliance.

On the one hand, this seems like a major coup, masterfully played: Nobody saw it coming, the PCs couldn't respond, you got several days of media coverage talking about the impending death of the governing party, and you've added a pitbull who's not scared to break china (Anderson) and someone who's been in government for 16 years, and served in 2 cabinet positions without managing to mess anything up in Forsyth. You're appealing to young neo-cons, the religious right, suburban soccer moms and people who remember "the good old days" under Ralph. You're fortifying your base in Calgary, where the PCs have been slipping since the day Ed was elected leader.

On the other hand, though - is adding disenchanted PCs really what the party membership had in mind when they formed this party? If Ed stays on for the next 5 years, and all 67 PC MLAs and their supporters cross the floor to the WAP, haven't the PCs just taken over the party?

Consider the next Question Period in the Legislature: The lead questions are being put by Paul Hinman. On the attack is Rob Anderson, and hitting at the soft middle on issues like health care and children's services is Forsyth. Two thirds of your team were sitting on the government side of the house when these problems were created. They were sneered at by your party faithful as "Phony Conservatives". You ran candidates against them, who were attacking their records, less than 2 years ago. You've now inherited those records, and those on-the-record statements in support of the budget and Bill 44 - both of which your party opposes. Have you become a shiny, new branch of the same old establishment that's been running the province for 60 years?

Remember, the PC Party was joined, en masse, by thousands of SoCreds after Lougheed swept to power. In a grassroots organization like the Wildrose Alliance, where the party membership and democratic votes determine everything, a mass influx of former PC supporters, following the MLAs they supported under the PC flag, is going to radically change the kind of policies and values this party comes forward with - which, while certainly fair, might not be what the founding members of the Wildrose Alliance had in mind.

On floor-crossing itself, I think most of us by now understand that there is absolutely no legal reason that Anderson and Forsyth should not have crossed the floor. Vote go to candidates in our system, not to parties. In a legal sense, if you had elected Rob Anderson while he was a member of the Kinsmen Club, and mid-term he quit that club and joined Rotary instead, you'd have just as much a leg to stand on in insisting he step down - which is to say, none. Political parties are private clubs. People join, people leave, people get kicked out. The voters who blindly cast a ballot for a candidate based on which club they belong to are blindly throwing their franchise to the wind.

That said, though, the larger question becomes a moral one: Are the defectors MORALLY obligated to take their choice to the public? If you believe what you've been hearing from the MLAs, both Forsyth and Anderson were being urged by everyone from visitors to their constituency offices on down to the drive-thru guy at McDonald's to cross the floor. Which seems on the face of it to be reasonably unlikely, since if there was such an obvious sentiment afoot in the riding, it wouldn't have come as such a total shock when they DID cross.

Anderson says he believes in the right of citizens to recall, and so if 30% (could be wrong on that - the WAP website lists 20% under its Policies section) of his electors call for it, he'll step down and run in a by-election. I like the notion of recall, but in order to meet the threshold of 30%, virtually every single resident in Anderson's riding who voted in 2008 would need to sign the petition (Airdrie-Chestermere had 38.5% voter turn-out).

The PCs are screaming for a by-election in both ridings - and let's be honest, they would very probably lose both, and badly. The WAP argument against by-elections, as near as I can tell, seems to be legal and mathematical: "These 2 people won those ridings, and can legally sit with whomever they choose, and besides by-elections cost a lot of money". The first point is correct. The second point is correct, but irrelevant. Elections ALWAYS cost money - and they're always worth it, because the alternative is to let someone else decide whether or not to grant you, the citizen, the right to be heard - and that right is inalienable in this country. Hell, using that logic, the PCs could have argued that they had a majority of votes cast in Calgary-Glenmore in 2008 (50.7%), and thus a by-election was unnecessary and expensive and they'd just name a new MLA from the membership of their Glenmore constituency association. Which I imagine the WAP would have had an opinion or two about.

See, here's the thing about the Wildrose Alliance: It was founded not to impose right-wing theocracy on Alberta (I don't believe they will) or to run all the coloured people and "the gay" out of Alberta (I don't believe they'll do that, either) - it was founded to address a democratic deficit in this province. A feeling that the powers-that-be in the PC Party had grown so arrogant that they had started to view the citizens of Alberta as servants of the party, instead of the other way around. They came forward with statements about fixed election dates (I'm in favour), donation limits (I'm in favour), and transparency (I'm in favour). They talked about the right of recall (I'm in favour), and how politicians hiding behind what the current rules ALLOWED them to do rather than doing what was RIGHT was counter to basic democratic principles (I agree).

Since then, though, we've seen this group of idealists morph into a political party - which means compromise. We weren't going to be allowed to know the vote total in their leadership race - until they were leaked. We're still not allowed to know who donated to the leadership campaign of their party leader - that translates as "we don't know who she's beholden to". Rather than accepting all comers, like a truly democratic party, and letting the full membership determine the party's direction, their membership seems fixated on allowing only "true believers" who will tow the line (admittedly a hard choice: fully open, and risk letting the PCs take over, or closed off, and just ACTING like the PCs). And we have people crossing the floor and declining to put their decision to the voters (who, again, would very probably endorse both Anderson and Forsyth strongly).

Now, here's the clincher, so WAPpers, hold off on clicking "add a comment" for just a second: ALL of those issues, with the exception of the first (leadership vote tallies), are also very much present with the PCs. We don't know who donated to Ed's leadership race. The PCs, who until recently had been on a witch-hunt for progressives, are now checking under the bed for possible defectors. They've happily accepted floor-crossers in the past without putting the issue to a by-election vote.

But the Wildrose Alliance tells us they should be put in power because they're BETTER than the Tories. To this point, they look just like more of the same - and now, they look like more of the same with a former PC party member (Smith) and 2 former PC MLAs sitting for the party.

If you're going to grab for the brass ring, and ask the consent of Albertans to serve on the basis that you're better and more democratic and more transparent than the tired, old PC Party, then you have to BE better, more democratic and more transparent. Because if you're NOT - if you're just a carbon copy of the PCs with a few different policies and a more photogenic leader, you know what the tired, old PC Party becomes?

It becomes Coke.

"Yeah, we screwed up with New Coke. Yeah, we rot your teeth. But you know us, we're familiar, and those other guys at Pepsi had Pepsi Clear and they rot your teeth just as much. Hey, have you tried our new aluminum bottle?".

Wildrose can crush the PCs by sticking to their original plan - or they can copy the PCs through their actions, and give people no reason to move their vote to a party they're less familiar with.

They say Albertans deserve better than what the PCs are giving us right now. That may be true. But for that to translate into electoral success, the WAP has to BE better, in every way - not just a copy of the PCs with a more charismatic leader and a grumpy, elderly membership base that longs for the days of Lougheed and Klein - when they themselves were PCs.

In that regard, this move probably hurts the WAP more than the PCs. It shows they're just another political party trying to win power and a legislative budget, instead of a real movement for democratic change, trying to make Alberta a better place.

It's not too late for the Wildrose Alliance. For that matter, it's not too late for the Progressive Conservatives. The decision, as always, is going to be made not by party leaders, or by policy hacks, or by partisan bloggers. It will be made by the voters who bother to show up - and by the members of whichever party are most willing to hear and act on what the voters are demanding.
What they're demanding, by the way, is BETTER.

They're not getting it today.


Stay tuned.


Anonymous said...

Note ES that you have suggested that the PCs recruit new young faces. Actually think they've done a pretty good job on bringing in younger members and expanding on their youth wing, but I would agree that that renewal has to continue.

As for the Wildrose, they continue to a haven for the grumpy. The challenge remains to translate that into action.

The Liberals will remain the hope of the entire left side of the political spectrum in Alberta, which will remain relatively small. Dr. Swann has his share of grumpies, but they haven't been able to translate anything into action.

I enjoy your considered thoughts on these topics.

Jonathan said...

WAP is a haven for 14,000 grumpy people?

ES: just to clarify, because I was there. I would admit there was confusion over the count on the Leadership vote, but when the office director releases it that is not a leak.

Jane Morgan in fact stated that they were going to release it but when it was crystal clear (Pepsi reference aside) Mark Dryholm was toast they came out and announced. I think there was confusion but no cover up. Mostly because Jane was still counting the votes well after the announcement as I understood it.

Otherwise interesting discussion for sure.

Jeremy said...

Disappointed that LAN parties are never mentioned.

Kirk Schmidt said...

Jeremy, I see your LAN party, and raise you one LAN party in formal attire

Jane Morgan said...

Excellent post ES.

Only comment I have is about the WAP calling for donation limits. I don't recall that. Might have been before my time; but I have been here a lonnnngg time. LOL

Cheers & keep smiling. :)

Anonymous said...

Excellent Work Joey. Excellent.

johnnieh said...

I decided to leave the People's Paradise next door to the East over 30 years ago, because the government of Allan Blakeney was far too "conservative" (in its social policies) for my liking. I came to Alberta - not because I thought things would be any better here (they weren't, and have only been getting steadily worse since the time of King Peter - at least he was an enlightened despot). Rather, I was seeking fame and fortune - struck out there too.

But while I have been unalligned since I came to Alberta (with whom could one like me allign?), I have been a keen observer of the political landscape. And over the years, I have also found myself becoming more and more "involved" with the GoA. First as a lobbyist, and lately as someone as close to being a member of the public sector as one can be - without actually (technically) being a member of the public sector.

So, having said all that, I have to say that I think this post by ES is pretty much "spot on" - as is the one immediately preceding it (below) by the "mystery guest".

With some exceptions of course. One example - my suspicion is that "the brightest member" in the Assembly is probably Dr. Neil Brown from Calgary. Nobody ever talks about this guy, but I think it's a travesty that he's not in Cabinet. Of course, given my introduction - that's probably the kiss of death to Dr. Brown for all you conservatives. C'est la vie.

I guess my point is that, given my values, it seems strange to me that when I'm talking the political landscape with folks, regardless of the setting and the folks I'm with, there isn't a whole lot of disagreement with those values. Maybe they're just being polite - but I doubt it. Maybe it's because for the last 20 years that's taken place in Edmonton - but for the 10 years before that, those conversations took place in Calgary, and weren't a whole lot different.

So now we're seriously looking at the possibility of a Party that's potentially no different from the Harperites?

How the hell does that happen?

I'm not a Rebooter, but when I look at what's going on there, and talk to some who are extremely active in that - what? Movement? Exercise? Whatever.

I find that there is more of an expression of what I value for a democracy than in any other forum. Legislative or otherwise.

Jeremy said...

Kirk, xkcd is an awesome comic strip.

You're invited to the next LAN.

Anonymous said...

It shows that there's not much of a movement at all for the WAP if they only have 14,000 members. Plus how many of those did Craig Chandler buy during the leadership?

Jeff J. said...

One correction ES, you can't be a citizen of Alberta, you can only be a citizen of a country. That is what the definition of citizenry is.

I'm sure it was just a slip of the tongue, like most speakers in politics make. The correct word is resident.

Otherwise great article.

Enlightened Savage said...

Jeff: My intention was to suggest a citizen (of Canada) IN Alberta, as only Canadian citizens resident in Alberta can vote. My mistake - good eye. ;)