Yesterday, FOES (Friend Of the Enlightened Savage) Blake Robert - unabashed conservative and hardly a PC cheerleader, by ANY measure - posted some political predictions for 2011 on Twitter, which generated some subsequent discussion (as you'd expect).
The discussion that really caught my eye, though, was based on THIS prediction:
"As implausible as it may sound to some, (Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta) will have the most contested nominations of any party in the (Alberta Legislature)."It's worth noting, before we get started, that the PC Party has held exactly zero nominations for the next election to date. As in, NONE. There are no nominees. The Party is going to reorganize from 83 constituency associations to 87, and will THEN nominate candidates, later this year. So the drum-bangers from other parties and the media who whisper of a possible spring or summer snap election call by the Tories are completely and totally out-to-lunch.
Hint: If the party in power in a majority government hasn't nominated candidates, there's no election coming.
Now that THAT bit of business is out of the way, back to Blake's prediction - or rather, to the discussion it generated. Brock Harrison, Communications Co-ordinator for the Wildrose Caucus, responded to Blake's prediction in 2 tweets:
- 1) There's nothing implausible about the governing party of 40 years having the most contested nominations.
- 2) That you're trying to pass it off as some kind of achievement is very revealing about how far (the PC Party) has fallen.
Now, Brock (who was, as I recall, a proud PC Caucus staffer until the Wildrose made him a better offer) is the official voice of the Wildrose Caucus these days, so his comments bear some scrutiny - ESPECIALLY when one considers the narrative that his party and their friends have been repeating, ad nauseum, for over a year now.
"The PC Party is old, stale, and out of touch. Their polling numbers are embarrassing, and Albertans have given up on them. They don't do anything right. They're corrupt, past their prime, anti-democratic, anti-business, and have no idea what they're doing. They're bleeding donors and members of the legislature and their volunteers are flocking to the Wildrose Alliance and Danielle Smith is all but guaranteed to be the Premier of Alberta by Christmas 2012".
Sound about right? I think I touched on most of the speaking points in there...
Here's the thing, though... if that narrative is true, if those speaking points are accurate, then WHY on EARTH would Brock, or anyone for that matter, feel it's a natural for the PC's to have the greatest number of contested nominations?
There are 67 sitting PC MLA's. Sitting MLA's are rarely challenged for their party's nomination. Assuming 25% of the current MLA's are looking at retirement, that suggests 17 retirements in addition to the 20 seats not currently held by Tories... that's 37 contested nominations, give or take a few acclamations or a few extra retirements.
If the Wildrose narrative - that they are the Party of Destiny, overflowing with members, donations & public support and have the next Lougheed as their Leader - is true, and a Wildrose nomination is a "Get into the Alberta Legislature Free" card - then why don't we see people crawling all over each other to contest Wildrose nominations?
The WAP has 4 sitting Members of the Legislative Assembly, all of whom have committed to stay on through the next election (so, no retirements, if they're to be believed). Even assuming you arrange to have the Party Leader acclaimed in her riding of choice (purely that - an assumption), that leaves 82 seats with no incumbent WAP MLA, and without Danielle running for the seat. And since WAP is so obviously going to form government in 2012, those 82 nominations are golden. Every right-of-centre Albertan with a shred of political ambition wants one. They're tickets to a $100,000/year job - even more, if you get into cabinet. They're tickets to the Halls of Power. They're tickets to ride the Wildrose wave directly to glory...
And they're not being fought over.
They're being given away, with only one person bothering to file nomination papers.
The Wildrose Alliance has 25 nominated candidates (according to daveberta's handy nomination-tracker), and reportedly fewer than half of those nominations have been decided by a vote of the local, grassroots members.
They've been selling us this line that they're the Party of Destiny, no other opposition party has a chance, and that the PC's are bleeding out... and yet, when given a chance to show their strength and popularity with vigorous and open nomination contests, we get...
Well, not quite nothing. We do get allegations that the party office is playing fast and loose with its own rules, to get people (the right people?) nominated. So that's something, I guess.
The conventional wisdom in Alberta political circles regarding the WAP nominations and the troubling number of acclamations is that potential candidates are coming together - with or without the urging of the party - and deciding among themselves which of them would be able to mount the best challenge to the local PCs. Which happens in every other party, every day. So it's hardly ground-breaking or scandalous on its face.
Until you consider all of the ink and airtime this party gives to the notions of "bottom-up management" and "respect for the grassroots membership" and "open and democratic principles"... does the image of a few powerful people getting together in the back room of a Legion Hall and deciding amongst themselves who will be acclaimed the party nominee that their grassroots members get to support sound like any of those? Or does it sound like "old-time politics as usual"?
I'm not saying it doesn't happen in my party - of course it does. But if you're going to make "That guy stinks, vote for me, I smell nice!" a part of your platform, you've got to make sure that you're showering daily.
The rush to acclaim candidates, or push local constituencies to hold nomination contests, ready-or-not, by the WAP is obviously a calculated move. They're not stupid - not by ANY measure. The hope, it would seem, is that by "vetting" problematic candidates in the back rooms and by holding nomination races before other such candidates have time to organize, they can keep the "undesirable element" off the ticket, and out of the public eye come election time. Out of sight, out of mind, after all. What types of members and candidates, exactly, they're uncomfortable having represent the party you'd have to ask them (unless this is all happening locally, being done by local potential candidates and their teams, and is one giant province-wide coincidence).
But the other benefit to this approach is that they're not showing the gaps in the party armour to their opponents. It's the same sort of logic that kept the party from releasing the vote totals in their leadership race, until one member leaked them herself - and the same logic that leads to party press releases that don't differentiate between nominations won and acclaimed, and CERTAINLY never list vote totals - "we're one big, happy family". No fault-lines between the party majority and the values voters, or the Smith supporters and the Dyrholm supporters... It's like a scene out of High School Musical. We're all in this together...
And the PC's do the same thing in (internal party) peace-time... I mean, Dave Hancock and Ted Morton quite literally held hands and sang "Kumbaya" at the PC Annual General Meeting in October (scroll forward to the 10:15 mark). So the "there's no friction in our party" act is hardly new.
But what the Wildrose is gambling on with this approach, however, is that the benefit of not having obvious fault-lines for your opponents to exploit outweighs the risk of not having a robust and engaged membership base on the constituency level.
Nomination races bring in more membership sales than anything, short of a leadership race. Local constituencies can sometimes sell over a thousand memberships during the course of a hotly-contested race, and each of those new members is added to the party database: Name, address, constituency, phone number, e-mail. Come General Election time, this database gives you a 1,000-voter headstart on your rivals. And while many who buy memberships do it only to support a particular candidate, and will disengage should their candidate be unsuccessful, many others DO stick it out (win or lose), and become something much more valuable to the party than mere voters: They become volunteers. Board members. Soldiers on the ground, in the constituency, fighting the good fight on a day-to-day basis to spread the word about the party. They become the mythic "hyper-engaged voter" we heard so much about in conjunction with Social Media during the recent municipal campaigns. The people who raise money for your party, pound in lawn signs, knock on doors, and (eventually) carry your party flag and run for election themselves someday.
Contested nominations bring these people in to your party. And the number of acclamations taking place in the Wildrose ranks means they're missing out on a lot of these people. No race means no membership drives by nomination candidates. Which means a lot of potential assets to the party left untapped.
I don't know if the PC's are going to have more contested nominations than the Wildrose when everything is said and done. But I know that if they do, then with all due respect to Brock's "point number 2" above, it IS a big deal - a party with 67 sitting MLA's, approximately 47 of whom will probably stand unopposed (from within) for re-election, should NOT have more people running for nominations than a party with 4 MLA's and 82 open nomination races. Not if the PC's are dying, and the Wildrose is the Government-in-Waiting - as the spin doctors would have us believe. The bigger question is, why doesn't the "sure thing" Wildrose have 82 hotly-contested races, with multiple excellent candidates for every single open nomination?
Not to be overlooked in all this, of course, is the Alberta Party. They're in the process of organizing province-wide, and have a leadership race in the works, with several people kicking the tires and one candidate who formally declared today, Chris Tesarski of Calgary.
If I was one of their organizers (I'm not, obviously), I'd give serious thought to running good candidates in targeted, winnable ridings instead of rushing to get organized constituency associations and nominated candidates in all 87 ridings by the next election, as they've stated they intend to do. You only get one chance to make a first impression, and running a college student in a riding where you have 7 party members is not the first impression you want to make to voters in that constituency. It says "We don't take you seriously, and you should feel the same about us" (the Alberta Greens had that particular approach down to a science). But, that's just my opinion. What matters, though, is that the Alberta Party is trying to cultivate deep roots, appealing to a broad spectrum of Albertans from both the right and the left, and trying to engage them fully in the formation of their party. What they'll end up with is anyone's guess - but for my money, I'd rather have support that was 20 ridings wide and 5 candidates deep than what the Wildrose is showing - support that's 87 ridings wide, and apparently not even deep enough to hold contested nominations in half of them.