Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Race to the Premier's Office - 52 Days to the First Ballot

Nation, this blog isn't going to become JUST about the PC Leadership Race over the next few months...  but, it would be stupid and, quite frankly, irresponsible to NOT cover the race which will determine who gets to spend my tax money. That's the nice thing about being a blogger - no Editor telling me what to cover.

There WILL be other topics coming - one in particular on the Democratic Reform proposals recently released by the Alberta Party that is worth looking forward to - but, for now, it's once again "#pcldr Time".

Here's what you might have missed over the past 6 days since the last Leadership Update post...

- The PC's have tweaked some of the rules ahead of their second leadership forum, which takes place tomorrow night in Grande Prairie starting at 7 pm (live streaming on the Alberta PC website). In particular, several of the camps were calling for longer time allowances to flesh out their ideas and vision - adding a minute to their opening statements, doubling the time to answer direct questions and doubling (to 1 minute) the time to rebut. This is thought to benefit Doug Griffiths and Alison Redford in particular, as both had a lot to say at the Vermilion forum and the 30 second rebuttal limit seemed to stymie Alison in particular. The change is considered by some party insiders to be potentially dangerous for perceived frontrunner Gary Mar, whose speaking style in Vermilion seemed focused on the standard 20-second soundbyte (despite his later criticism of the format as not allowing enough time to hold sitting MLA's to account on their records). Stretching those answers out to a minute or longer might throw Mar off his rhythm. Then again, it might not - it's not Gary's first barn dance. I guess we'll all have to tune in to find out.

- Ted Morton has suggested that in order to fund a new arena to host the local hockey heroes, Edmonton might consider a 1% consumption tax. Now, while "those who would use it should pay for it" makes good common sense, it's still worth noting that I got an email a few hours ago from the Ted Morton who ran for the PC Leadership in 2006, appalled that someone using his name and likeness would endorse the idea of creating a new tax.

- The Calgary Herald and Edmonton Journal have commissioned a poll by Environics, which sought the opinions of 900 Albertans from across the province on a number of issues. As far as the PC Leadership race goes, the respondents (who were randomly-chosen Albertans, and not necessarily PC Party members or supporters), indicated their support as follows:

Gary Mar 12.1%
Ted Morton 8%
Alison Redford 6%
Rick Orman 4.7%
Doug Horner 4.7%
Doug Griffiths 1.5%

(quick correction for the Herald folks: Dinning led on the first ballot only in 2006; Stelmach led after the 2nd by almost 500 votes over Dinning, and won on the 3rd).

Now we all know what polls are good for (hint: it involves dogs), but Environics is reputable enough to at least have this sort of result steer some of the otherwise uncommitted donor money in interesting directions.

It's worth noting, more than 6 weeks from the first ballot, that a mere 4 weeks before the Calgary Municipal Election, Ric McIver polled a dominant first-place with 43% of decided supporters, compared to 28% for Barb Higgins and just 8% for eventual winner Naheed Nenshi. So, campaigns matter, and 6 weeks is an eternity in politics. Nenshi overcame a 35-point deficit to win. Even polling last, Griffiths would be in first place with a mere 11-point leap. It's still anyone's ball game. Gary's people know this very well - some of them were working for Ric and Barb.

- Lindsay Blackett, MLA for Calgary-North West and Minister of Culture & Community Spirit, has endorsed Doug Horner for PC Leader. Blackett is Horner's first MLA endorsement from Calgary.

- Peter Sandhu, MLA for Edmonton-Manning, has endorsed Ted Morton. So has Rob Anders.

- Doug Griffiths was the subject of a piece that ran in the Globe & Mail this week. Griffiths, a former teacher himself, is said to be garnering attention from teachers in the province as result of his strong pro-education statements in the first Leadership forum.

- Alison Redford is talking about bringing fresh perspectives to the PC Party, as her tour of Alberta continues.

- Gary Mar released an iPhone app this week. I downloaded it (of course). It's good. You can download it from the iTunes Store.

- Rick Orman wishes he wasn't wasting his time doing the Leadership forums.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Race to the Premier's Office - 58 Days to the First Ballot

Nation, the race to replace Ed Stelmach as leader of the Progressive Conservative Association of Alberta is now, by any measure, under way. While nominations opened in mid-June, it was just 6 days ago that the nomination period ended. All 6 previously declared candidates had their paperwork and deposits accepted by the party, and they will appear on the first ballot.

I thought I'd take a quick spin through the candidates, and see what it is that they and their campaigns have been doing to this point to try and capture the imagination of the members of the PCAA - and, by extension, the people of Alberta.

In alphabetical order, by first name...

Alison Redford made a heck of a good impression on my 9 year-old niece. She's now torn between being a ballerina, a doctor, or the Premier of Alberta when she grows up. As I tweeted at the time "it would seem 'hope' is contagious".

Redford has spent a lot of time early in her campaign in Fort McMurray, and talking Energy. One of her most recent announcements was her position that Alberta should take the lead in developing a Canadian Energy Strategy. From her press release:
"We need to take the lead on this issue," says Redford. "It is not leadership to that say we need to be afraid of Ottawa imposing environmental standards on our province. We have the opportunity to work with both Stephen Harper's government and industry to establish world standards in environmental protection. Albertans know more about this issue than virtually anyone in the world. Let's use that knowledge to set standards that we know are practical and effective."

The focus on the Energy sector is an interesting one for Redford, given that one of her opponents has worked in the oilpatch for 2 decades, and another has the backing of Alberta's current Minister of Energy. She's definitely giving the impression that she's in this fight to win it, however, by taking the fight to them instead of waiting for their own releases and then responding. It's a strategy reminiscent of the Nenshi "Big Ideas" in the Calgary municipal campaign, which shouldn't be surprising considering Alison's campaign is being run by former Team Nenshi big wheel Stephen Carter. Alison again channelled her inner Naheed when she challenged Gary Mar to a one-on-one Health Care debate, "any time, any place". It's hard to turn down challenges like that without looking like you're running away - ask the perceived front-runners in Calgary's mayoral race how that turned out for them after the votes were counted.

Incidentally...  Alison: I challenge you to take me out to lunch. Any food truck of your choosing. I await your response. ;)

Doug Griffiths has been quietly buzzing from living room to living room, making use of the best resource he has at his disposal: Doug Griffiths. Much-rumoured to be short on cash, Griffiths finds himself without the resources to be shuttled around the province in a giant motorcoach with his face plastered on the side of it, so he's going back to his roots: Talking with people, about what they think matters. Doug's focus has been generational: He's asking people how to build an Alberta for their grandkids to enjoy.

The early knock against Griffiths was that he was "too young and inexperienced" to run the province. The rebuttal to those criticisms was typically good-natured, though no less on-target: Doug is the same age as Danielle Smith, and has been an MLA working for the people of Alberta for 9 years - that's 9 years longer than Smith, the "Premier-in-Waiting" of Wildrose lore. Subsequent criticisms have tried to paint him as an "insider, unable to change". Anyone who has paid attention to the inner workings of the PC Caucus would tell you, Griffiths was about as likely to get a full cabinet appointment as blogger Dave Cournoyer. As a former school teacher, Griffiths keeps education policy close to his heart. Speaking to the Calgary Herald about recent job cuts in education, Doug was quoted:

"The best way to transform our economy and ensure our success for generations to come is to make sure we have the best education system from kindergarten to post-secondary and all the research and development components that go with it," Griffiths said.

Griffiths is going to have to visit a lot of living rooms and convert a lot of undecided Albertans into proselytizing Griffiths Supporters in order to make up the ever-widening gap between what he needs to do to win, and what he can afford to do. He's been the most personal of the candidates to this point - folks who ran into him at Stampede breakfasts remarked over and over to me about how genuine he seems - and he gets full marks for doing all of his own Tweeting and blogging rather than farming it out to staffers (his campaign staff, from Campaign Manager on down, is entirely comprised of volunteers). The question is, can Griffiths - easily one of the most tech-savvy and approachable MLA's, from any party - translate "Tweeps" into "votes"?

Doug Horner has been collecting so many endorsements from MLA's and Cabinet Ministers he's probably keeping his "doubles" in a shoe box to trade to other kids or put in the spokes of his bike. At last count, Horner had the endorsement of no less than 12 of his caucus colleagues, including Speaker Ken Kowalski and sweetest-woman-on-earth Genia Leskiw.

Part of the problem for Horner at this point, though, is that 9 of those endorsements are coming from what most would term "northern Alberta" - which is to say, from constituencies north of Edmonton. The PC Party has traditionally favoured an unofficial system where the leadership would alternate between the north and south - and if this pattern holds, the PC power-brokers in Calgary are going to be working hard to keep Horner out.

The knock against Horner has been his strong ties to the outgoing Premier - indeed, it's been suggested that Horner comes as a package deal with Stelmach's Chief of Staff Ron Glen and most of his northern and rural party connections, as well as with his policies themselves. Doug hasn't gone to a whole lot of effort to criticize the past decisions or direction of government, either - rightly perceiving that it would be a tough sell to convince voters that the former Deputy Premier was opposed to the decisions that were being made around the cabinet table.

Rather than focus on his own past, though, Horner has come out with an impressive list of policies. Most recently, he postulated about the value of Alberta coming up with its own immigration policy, much as Quebec currently does, in order to address workforce shortages. As one Horner supporter put it to me:

"You need more doctors, but they don't grow on trees. They train perfectly good doctors in India, Poland and the Philippines, though - so why wouldn't we try to get them to come to Coaldale or Athabasca instead of Vancouver or Montreal?"

Gary Mar has been spreading so much orange across Alberta in his motor coach that he probably owes Sunkist royalty fees. Mar's rolling in caucus endorsements - 17 so far - and in donations. While the exact numbers aren't yet available, he certainly seems to be SPENDING the most, at any rate. The mainstream media line has been that Gary is running a "General Election-style campaign", and it's hard to argue that point.

Of course, being the perceived front-runner in a campaign has its drawbacks - just ask Jim Dinning. It paints a big, fat "bull's eye" on your back. While Mar spent the last 3 years working to advance Alberta's interests in Washington, that hasn't stopped one of his opponents from trying to paint him as a Stelmach lackey - despite the fact that the height of Mar's previous political influence was under the Premiership not of Ed Stelmach, but rather of Ralph Klein. Another opponent has challenged Gary - a former Minister of Health, let's recall - to a Health Care debate "any time, any place".

This attention, though, certainly seems to not be affecting Gary's ability to have a good time. One of the high points of the leadership race thus far, in my opinion, is the "Cooking With Gary: Flank Steak" video his team did up. I haven't tried it myself - can't get past the fish sauce. But the video shows us a side of Gary Mar that we wouldn't otherwise have gotten to peek at - and if anyone tries to tell you that these politicians are exactly the same when they're relaxed as they are when they're in Question Period, just smack them upside the head, L. Jethro Gibbs-style.

I have heard quiet criticisms from some PC's - both inside and outside of other campaigns - that Mar's backstage team is running some pretty grungy, old-school political manoeuvres. In a vacuum, I'm inclined to dismiss such allegations as tripe. There are a lot of people I know who are actively working on Gary's campaign who are of the highest calibre and class. I have all the respect in the world for these people, and don't believe they'd be party to such garbage. But I'm not talking about merely one or two rumours from competing camps... IF this kind of stuff is going on, I've got to believe that Gary, and most of his team for that matter, are completely unaware. As he himself wrote on his campaign blog:

We must remember why we are candidates in this Progressive Conservative leadership race. It’s because we care about the Party and we care about Alberta. I care deeply. So let’s talk openly, let’s be transparent and let’s be inclusive. Each and every candidate brings a unique perspective and the best Alberta will be built by hearing from all points of view.
Mar is the man to catch at this point... but 58 days is a long time. 58 days ago Anthony Weiner was a shoo-in to win re-election to the U.S. House of Representatives, if he didn't decide to run for - and very possibly win - the Mayor's job in New York City. Now, he's a punchline. Gary's a smart man - he won't take his foot off the gas. The question is: Does anyone else have the horsepower to catch him?

Rick Orman is not in this race to make friends. If there was any doubt as to this fact, his recently released campaign cartoons painting Ed Stelmach as a hapless dupe and Orman's 5 opponents as a gang of backstabbers should make his position crystal clear.

Orman has spent a lot of time, effort and money suggesting that the current PC Party has strayed from its founding principles. In particular, he lists "Fiscal and Economic Responsibility" as the first of those principles (just as they appear on the PC Alberta website). His critics are quick to point out that, while he served in cabinet under Premier Don Getty, Alberta's debt doubled, and per capita spending was the highest in Canada by over a thousand dollars per year, even after a nearly 30% drop in provincial revenues (source). Orman, to this point, hasn't explained why it was okay when he was in cabinet, but it was grossly inappropriate when he was in the oilpatch and other people were in cabinet.

On the "Issues" section of his website, Rick makes his feelings pretty clear. On most of the issues he addresses, the PC Party is just flat-out screwing up (in his view). The only issue that doesn't include a criticism of the current government is Education. Really and truly, and I'm not saying this for hyperbole's sake, it reads like the website of someone who's trying to get the PC's kicked out of office. I can fully understand the desire to "re-make the party" - continuous evolution is what has allowed the PC's to hold power for so long in Alberta. Without that generational change, they'd already be gone. But running for the leadership by saying "you've all screwed this up, and I'm here to fix it" is a tough sell. Especially for someone who supported (eventual Liberal leader) Nancy Betkowski over Ralph Klein in the 1993 leadership race. Are we to believe the last good leader the PC's had was Getty?

It doesn't make sense to me, but maybe it's not supposed to. If Rick spends his money wisely, and runs a good Get Out The Vote operation on September 17th, then he could have an impact here. And if those people he brings to the party - be they from the Wildrose or from somewhere else entirely - stay involved in the party going forward, then he'll get the change he so fervently preaches in favour of. The question is: Will the Klein and Stelmach-era PC's still feel welcome? Or will Rick change the locks?

Ted Morton stayed relatively quiet in his leadership campaign until the race was officially underway, out of respect for Premier Stelmach, and this is very much to his credit. Also to the Professor's credit is that he seems to have learned some very hard-earned lessons from his last run for the party leadership in 2006. Ted is staying focused on policy. And, unlike 2006, he's making it really hard to look at him as the boogeyman of the PC leadership race, because so many of his policies just flat-out make sense. I mean, I just read his entire page on Democratic Renewal, and there wasn't a single thing - not a SINGLE THING - on that page that I disagreed with.

Granted, it's easier to grasp some of Ted's policies if you were already leaning far enough to the right that your Friendly Neighbourhood Red Tory (that's me) would suggest you see a chiropractor - but, the reality of this race is that the people who leaned left likely weren't going to vote for Ted anyhow. He knows his market.

And SPEAKING of that market - Ted Morton has either hired an absolutely brilliant polling firm that is getting down to the brass tacks on what his likely voters care about, or he's totally off his rocker (I'd think the first option is more likely). Ted's 2 big newsmaking items over the past few weeks have been to defend Alberta's rodeo heritage (I hadn't realized some of the leadership candidates were, in fact, ANTI-rodeo, but I guess it must be so) and to show off his Vanity Plate proposal, to boost awareness of conservation efforts. Again: Ted knows his market. You've got to play to your strengths, and Ted's strength is rural populism and his years-long tenure as Minister of Sustainable Resource Development - which means he was on Page 3 of everyone's hunting regulations, for years.

Morton is also one of only 2 candidates to have garnered significant MLA endorsements from both Calgary AND Edmonton, as well as rural Alberta. Now, an MLA endorsement doesn't mean much if you live on the other side of the province... but if you live in Calgary-Egmont or Edmonton-Calder and you're a very involved PC member in your area, then the fact that your MLA is endorsing Ted Morton gives you a reason to take a look at him. And in the more populous areas, with more members on the rolls, that can make all the difference.

There's a lot we don't know about Ted's chances just yet. But the one thing we DO know? An older model blue van will quite possibly be involved. You heard it here first. ;)

The first PC Leadership Forum takes place in Vermilion tonight at 7:00 pm. This forum - and all of the forums - will be live streamed across the province and the world via the PC Alberta website. Tune in and watch these 6 closely - one of them WILL be the Premier of Alberta on October 2nd.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

"The Next Premier of Alberta"

Nation, I've been watching with interest as the mainstream media began to notice that there was, in fact, a leadership race going on within the Alberta PC Party.

I admit to experiencing some level of schadenfreude as I watch some not-quite-ready-for-primetime-members of the Wildrose Party (nee Wildrose Alliance) - some of whom are nominated, or are contesting nominations to be elected Members of the Legislative Assembly - talk about their leader as "the Next Premier of Alberta".

Here's a tip, gang - if you want to run the Legislative affairs of the Province of Alberta, take the time to learn how our system of government works. The only way Danielle Smith can be the next Premier of Alberta is if she wins the PC Leadership race this fall. Failing that, someone ELSE will be sworn in on October 2nd, or before.

I don't expect members of the general public to understand this part of our arcane, centuries-old system of governance... but a candidate for provincial office who doesn't understand this is akin to a mechanic who insists that your car's electrical system can be fixed by pumping the tires and lubricating the door hinges...  you just might want to reconsider your choice of mechanic.
All that aside, though, I want to talk today about the choice that faces members of the Progressive Conservatives as they choose the person who will, in FACT, be the next Premier of Alberta - and how that choice affects not only die-hard PC's and their party's future prospects, but all of us as Albertans.

In the days and weeks since the leadership race became official, I've begun to hear a rising sentiment among my PC friends that there are, in fact, multiple factors at play that might radically alter their choice by late September.  Some of those factors include:

  • Which candidate can best unify the party's progressive & conservative wings, north & south wings, rural and urban wings?
  • Which candidate can renew the party and inspire a new generation of young PC's to replace the stalwarts from the Lougheed era?
  • Which candidate can raise the funds required to wage an election campaign within a year of assuming the Premier's office?
  • Which candidate can capture the imagination of the Alberta public, and win an election?
  • Which candidate can out-duel Danielle Smith, Brian Mason, Glenn Taylor and the eventual winner of the Liberal race in a debate and in a campaign?
  • Which candidate will best be able to thwart efforts by the other parties to paint the PC Party as hopelessly left of centre, or hopelessly out of touch in the minds of the Alberta voters?
  • Which candidate will represent enough of a change from the status quo to satisfy voters who were less than impressed with the Stelmach years?
  • Which candidate would make the best Premier, whether that be for 6 months or 15 years?

... and, one question that I've started to hear more and more: Which candidate would be able to hold the party together if it lost the next election, and help it rebuild? (My answer? I seriously doubt that the PC Party could survive an election loss. The coalition between populists and progressives was built in an absence of other options, and held together by success. Lose that glue, and the members would disperse among the other options on the political landscape.)

There's a feeling in some PC circles that the best thing that can happen to the party is for it to lose an election, and spend 4 years on the other side of the Legislature. Losing has a way of flushing out the people who are just hanging out with you because you're a winner. It shows you who your true friends are. And it forces you to closely examine what it is you're doing wrong that led to your defeat - and let's be honest: A lot of PC Party members are still so completely convinced that the party has never once made a mistake that it would make your head spin. I'm not saying those people are in the MAJORITY - but they're certainly still around.

The complication facing party members is that the names they come up with in response to the questions posed above are often consistent from one party member to the next, but vary wildly from one question to the next. For example, most people would answer that Rick Orman and Ted Morton are the best candidates to avoid being labeled as "Phony Conservatives" by opposition parties, but those same people admit that they're hardly the best choices to bridge the "progressive/conservative" fault in the party's membership base. Likewise, Gary Mar is clearly a fundraiser of rare ability, but it's hard for some party members to see a lot of party renewal in the cards under a successful Mar leadership bid, considering the large number of entrenched, multi-term incumbent MLA's backing him.

The long and short of it is, there's no "perfect candidate" - no obvious first choice, who can deal with all of the issues raised above.

So, the question PC members need to ask themselves as the summer BBQ circuit hits full-stride, and pancake breakfast season begins, is: Which of the above points matter MOST to me?

Do I really care if the new leader can beat Danielle Smith? Or is it more important to me that the party renews itself before dying a slow, atrophic death?

Is it more important to pick someone with business connections who can raise money? Or is it more important to pick someone who can appeal to common Albertans around a kitchen table rather than a boardroom table?

The choice is a tough one, for the party members, because they need to examine what they REALLY value, and that includes being honest with themselves about where the party has gone wrong, in their view.

No matter what happens, there are going  to be a lot of people who are disappointed that their first choice didn't win. There are going to be fences that need mending. The party is going to need time to heal. So these assertions that the PC's are planning a fall election within weeks of choosing a leader are simply preposterous. The new leader is going to have dozens of nomination contests to approve and sign off on, and that doesn't even give the successful candidates time to door-knock ahead of a fall date. If the new leader holds an election in 2011, it will be because he or she has decided they want to maximize their chances of LOSING said election. A desire on the part of that leader which is, at best, unlikely.
I'd encourage Albertans of all political stripes - or of none - to pay attention to the policy planks being rolled out over the summer by the various candidates. You can buy a PC membership for $5 through the party website, if you want to vote in the leadership race. Remember: The winner of this race WILL be Premier, for months if not longer. There's absolutely no doubt as to that fact. So, you have a rare chance to directly elect the person who will be setting government priorities and a budget. Making decisions that affect you and your family, and spending your tax dollars.

Decide what's important to you.

Don't let me, or any other blogger, or the media tell you what you care about, or who the "legitimate contenders" are.

Decide for yourself: What matters to me?

Then come back here or visit some of the other great Albertan political blogs, read about what these candidates are saying, and decide which candidate makes the most sense, and which one you trust the most on the issues that you care the most about.

That's democracy, folks. That's the way this whole thing works. That's how you choose the Next Premier of Alberta.

- Savage out.

The PC Leadership Contenders (alphabetical by surname):

Some great blogs that talk Alberta politics, covering the PC Leadership: