Friday, October 3, 2014

Just Win, Baby

Nation, as you're no doubt aware by now, the "silly season" is upon us, with 4 by-elections slated for October 27th, to take place in Edmonton-Whitemud (to replace Dave Hancock), Calgary-West (to replace Ken Hughes), Calgary-Foothills (to replace Len Webber), and Calgary-Elbow (to replace She-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named).

If you're wondering what I mean by "silly season", do a hashtag search on twitter for "#ableg". Don't say I didn't warn you.

Much has been made already about how crucial it is to the long-term success of the Prentice PC Government that these by-elections buck the normal trend, and go the governing party's way. So let's talk about that. Jim Prentice is essentially holding a mini-referendum on his "new government" with these by-elections. The only one of the 4 that the PCs can actually afford to lose without major repercussions is Calgary-West.

What do I mean by "major repercussions"?

Consider this: Under our system, it is completely legal to have a cabinet minister who does not sit in the legislature. We've seen it before, and we'll likely see it again. The reason for this is hard to argue: Sometimes, the voters don't pick anyone as a government MLA who is, quite frankly, qualified or ideal to run a certain department in the way the Premier wants it run. A medical degree doesn't automatically qualify you to run a major government department like Health, any more than having ovaries automatically qualifies you to be the minister responsible for Children's Services.

A little side-note, of course, is that it is ALSO perfectly legal in our system - though it hasn't been done, to my memory - to have an OPPOSITION legislator sit in cabinet. Some may recall that this was the suggested outcome of a possible Liberal-NDP federal legislative coalition to bring down the Harper minority government in its early days, with the Liberals said to be taking the bulk of the cabinet seats, but a major front-row seat going to several New Democrats, including their leader at the time, Jack Layton.

In the United States, that great exemplar of all that's right with freedom and democracy, members of the federal cabinet are NEVER elected legislators - if they hold a seat in Congress at the time of their appointment to cabinet, they have to resign that seat. In short, the expectation there - as it should be EVERYWHERE, frankly - is not that the person in charge of the Ministry is "the best choice from among the legislators who successfully won election", but rather "the best person for the job". Democracy still trumps all - if a cabinet member wants to do something and the legislative assembly shoots down the idea, it's not happening.

All that said, though, Prentice is putting himself and his 2 non-MLA cabinet ministers - Gordan Dirks (Education) and Stephen Mandel (Health) - to the electorate in their respective ridings, and asking those voters to give their endorsement. And here's where the peril kicks in for Prentice and his "new government".

If any - ANY - of the "Big 3" don't win their seat on October 27th, Prentice will have no choice but to see that person replaced. Even if that person is himself.

While an non-MLA in a cabinet position has the legal authority to serve in that capacity, once that same cabinet member has gone to the electorate and been rejected by them, it's hard to argue against the notion that they've lost the MORAL authority to continue to serve.

If that happens to Dirks or Mandel, Prentice is going to either have to shuffle his cabinet, or bring in another outsider and - if he wants them to sit in the legislative assembly - go through the uncertainty and hassle of finding them a place to run and rolling the dice on another by-election. This starts being problematic for Henry and Martha Albertan because of the costs involved, not to mention the optics of a government in a perpetual state of construction. It ALSO starts being problematic for the grassroots members of the PC Party, many of whom serve on local Constituency Association Boards, sworn to uphold constitutions that are built around the notion that local members, and nobody else, determine who their PC candidate will be. If someone tries to appoint a candidate against their wishes, then they - and their labour, their years of experience, and their fundraising - might walk away from the table.

If PRENTICE himself fails to win his seat in Calgary-Foothills, I don't see how he can continue to serve as Party Leader and Premier. A rejection by the people of Foothills would throw the PC Party - and the higher functions of government, by extension - into a state of chaos that would make this past spring look like High Tea by comparison. The other parties know it, too, which is why they're going to put everything they've got into Foothills. It's only one quarter of the available seats, but a victory for them there means the ballgame.

Jim Prentice isn't the only leader on a short leash with these by-elections, however. Danielle Smith's Wildrose Party leads in most polls, and as such it's expected that they *should* be capable of winning at least 2 of these seats, if not more. With many voters (erroneously) thinking that a vote for their local Wildrose candidate is a vote for Danielle Smith (it's not), some may be looking to try and "send a message" to the PCs, much like the voters of Calgary-Glenmore did when they elected Paul Hinman in a byelection (only to vote him out at the next opportunity).

Nobody expects Wildrose to realistically win all 4 of these byelections - a Wildrose win in Whitemud would be shocking, even to their staunchest supporters. If Wildrose DOESN'T win at least 2 of these seats though, given their standing in the polls, their successful fundraising efforts, their attempts to moderate the party's image and policies to make it more palatable to progressive urban voters, their status as the Official Opposition, and the fact that the governing party often loses byelections because voters feel free to blacken their eyes without needing to worry about actually changing governments as a result, then Danielle is going to start hearing more earnest whispers within her own party as to whether or not she's got what it takes to bring them over the finish line. If Wildrose doesn't win ANY of the 4 byelections, there's reason to believe you may start to see the type of open insurrection within Wildrose that you saw in the PC ranks earlier this year - MLAs looking for greener pastures, opportunists letting their feet do the talking as they seek out opportunities in a party they think has a better chance to be in power come summer of 2016, party rank-and-file and donors calling for new leadership...

It really is lonely at the top. And for Jim Prentice and Danielle Smith, the stakes couldn't be higher. They know it. Their advisers know it. And their mantras, whispered fervently before they go to bed each night, are exactly the same - inspired by the great philosopher Al Davis:

Just win, baby.

(author's note: this post was edited to correct a factual error kindly pointed out by Timothy Gerwing on Twitter - the Al Davis quote was originally credited by me to John Madden. No offense to Mr. Davis)

1 comment:

Berry Farmer said...

Like your analysis. I'm the Alberta Party guy going in Whitemud. I'm a realist and he's one big fish, but it's going to be fun to be involved. Thanks for the thoughtful appraisal.