Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Own It

Nation, it has now been just a shade over 2 months since the end of civilization as we know it NDP was elected to govern Alberta. We're going to talk about our new government a LOT over the next while, but today's post is about a particular reclamation project that has been off-and-on for many years now, which with this new government running things might actually (finally) get off the ground.

I'm talking, of course, about the Progressive Conservative Association of Alberta, which traces its lineage back to the founding of our province in 1905. You might remember them more recently as "The Natural Governing Party of Alberta (TM)".

The reality of the election result this spring was that Albertans had finally had enough of the crap they had been seeing from the PC's for years. In the age of social media, where any jerk with a keyboard can get a message out to hundreds or thousands (case in point: this blog), the dirt was starting to come to the surface, and Albertans didn't like what they were hearing or seeing.

At a certain point, it doesn't even matter whether allegations are true or not. Once you reach a tipping point, where the public no longer trusts you, the response goes from "that's probably not true" to "I could see them doing that". And at that point, the battle is over: In politics, once you've lost the people, you don't have anything left.

To govern, you have to win a popularity contest first. And people won't vote for someone they don't trust.

The PCAA, as the third largest caucus in a majority legislature, is in a perfect position now to do something they should have been doing LONG ago, but couldn't due to fears it might hurt their chances at fundraising and re-election: They can finally own their shit.

I'm not suggesting they dig through files going back 110 years and trot out Ric McIver for daily sessions of self-flagellation on the Legislature steps. Trust me - NOBODY wants to see that.

What I *am* suggesting, though, is that for the first time in nearly 20 years, the PC's have an opportunity to have their Leader, or President, or Managing Director, stand up in response to a question about a past transgression and say "on reflection, we've looked into this and what happened was in violation of our Principles. It was wrong, and it won't happen again."

Not since Ralph Klein have the PCs had a Leader who was willing to stand up and publicly say the words "I made a mistake". Not the passive "mistakes were made", but a straight-up mea culpa. Klein felt free to do it primarily because he didn't have much viable opposition in his heyday, and also he was just GOOD at apologizing. It's a skill that comes from years of practice, making lots of mistakes and being able to admit - to yourself and to others - that they were mistakes. At any point in the last several years, did you get the impression that a PC Leader was humble enough to admit - even privately - when they were in over their head? Yeah. Me neither.

Over the course of at LEAST the next 4 years researchers from both the government and opposition caucuses, MLAs, Committees, and the general public are going to scour every record they can get their hands on, to try and put a stake through the heart of the PCAA for good. They might well succeed. But the absolute best, sure-fire way to ENSURE that they succeed is for the PCs to refuse to own it. When something comes out - and make no mistake, things WILL come out - it is incumbent on the Leader of the PCAA to step up to the mic and own it, even if it didn't happen on their watch.

And if the Leader isn't willing to do that, then it's incumbent on the PCAA President to do so.

A failure to own up to mistakes and be honestly embarrassed at having made them, and a lack of a clear statement that such behaviour will NOT be tolerated on a go-forward basis is the death knell for the PC Party in Alberta. Albertans showed with Klein that they would be willing to forgive almost ANY transgression, so long as the violator showed honest remorse. For the past decade-plus, "remorse" has been a dirty word in the PCAA. But pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.

Even now, some well-known party members advocate for a "no rear-view mirror" policy, where the only discussion that can be had is "how positive the future looks", and any reflection on how they got to this point is "too negative". Nobody's suggesting that you have to sit in the corner for the next decade and do nothing but mull over your failings - but you have to reflect on what you've been doing wrong, in order to ensure it doesn't happen again, and a big part of that starts with the PCAA coming to terms with the "cult of personality" it has built around its Leaders for decades now.

Let's keep in mind that the President is the "Executive Head of the Association" (per the PCAA Constitution) and the Leader is the "Chief Public and Political Official of the PCAA". I'm not saying that when the 2 disagree they should battle it out American Gladiator-style, but for the past several years the practice has been to let the Leader have whatever the hell they want, almost without exception. Votes have been whipped by Leaders using their MLAs to get local delegates to elect the President they wanted - so obviously, the position must have some authority, or why go to the trouble? If the Leader is stepping out of line with the Party that put him or her in that position, the President needs to be able to pull the Leader back in line.

MLAs and Leadership Contenders are always careful to note when talking to members of the Party that the Party and the Caucus are 2 separate, yet equally important things. I agree that they're separate. Where you lose me, though, is the "equally important" part. The PCAA caucus just shrunk from 70 seats to 9. There is still a Party. If the Party had folded up camp and taken the volunteers and money with it, how many of those 70 would have won re-election? Probably fewer. The Caucus, in MANY cases, owes their jobs to the fact they're running as members of the Party. The people who spend dozens or hundreds of hours volunteering to get that candidate an MLA job could just as easily spend those hours volunteering at a soup kitchen, or playing with their kids or grandkids and be none the poorer.

The insinuation has been, of course, that if Caucus or the Leader doesn't want to do something that the Party does, it won't happen. If the Caucus doesn't feel like something should be a PCAA policy, it won't be. And if they feel like something SHOULD be a PCAA policy, it *will* be - no consultation with the membership required. This position completely disenfranchises rank-and-file members of the party. During the "re-building" phase, people are absolutely right to be asking "what is the actual VALUE of my $10 membership - what do I get with that?". And if the answer is "a chance to volunteer and be asked for more money to attend expensive cocktail receptions and events through the year" rather than "a chance to put forward and work on policies that we'll run on in 4 years and will make this province better", it is going to be a looooong rebuild. And I know long rebuilds - I'm an Oilers fan.

This idea that the Leader or Caucus sits aside and above the Party is ass-backwards, and 100% wrong. It's that kind of thinking that leads the Party Leader to decide they want to hire a new Executive Director for the Party, even though the Party already HAS an E.D, and the job of hiring and firing that person belongs to the Party Board of Directors. Or leads a committee loaded with loyalists to decide who is and isn't eligible to be a nomination contestant based on the Leader's wishes rather than objective standards. Just as a couple of purely hypothetical examples, you understand.

The bottom line for any potential candidate or leader of ANY political entity is this: The party membership is the people who raise you money and knock on doors and put out your lawn signs and convince their neighbours to give you a chance. If you think for one second that they are NOT the ultimate authority in the organization, enjoy your next career, because THIS one is ending sooner than you think.

The Leader isn't the Party - the MEMBERS are the Party. And they're in charge.


Donal O'Beirne said...

Well said Joey. It's time for us to build a new party out of the ashes of the old.

Concerned Albertan said...

Coming from a non-tory political background, I was surprised at how informal most of the operational structures in the PCAA were. Even attempts to make processes better weren't designed well (like candidate vetting) so it shouldn't be a surprise those blew up in our collective faces. There wasn't an internal culture besides muddling through.

Now, I wouldn't say that going full binary reversal and copying the federal liberals who are probably overly formalized is the way to go, but if you want a place to start it is easy to look at them. Plus they have had many major reforms to their party constitution since 2006, which are all available.

Shane said...

Excellent post Joey.