I have been puzzled lately by a widening dissonance in Alberta politics. In our non-partisan municipal elections, we have seen the undeniable trend of electing leaders who inspire our communities to think forward, to be our better selves, and who seem to have a skill for gathering massive followings of cheerleaders and proud evangelists.
Also, it seems, municipal elections last month were an indictment against unhinged rhetoric, as we saw candidate after candidate fall on their own sharp words. This noise, which can be found easily on both ends of the political spectrum, seems to have slayed many a candidate. Those who chose to act with confidence in their policy and position, doing so with a humble smile on their face and chose positive even playful language, swung a near-perfect weapon against the stodgy establishment or simple angry candidate.
Large margin victories in most mid-sized and large urban centres, went to thoughtful, young, policy heavy candidates who pledged to ”politics in full sentences”. With balanced ideological style; forward-looking, aspirational and inclusive platforms. Modern ideas like open-government, responsible urban development, knowledge economy entrepreneurship, social-enterprise innovation and valuing diversity – seemingly table stakes for most political parties at a provincial level – were the key platform fodder for the next generation of successful municipal politicians.
Beyond this trend, we have also seen an emergence of a new successful personality trait for non-partisan politicians. They are fun, playful and prone to be more honest and human in front of their constituents. We get to know these folks as people like us. They are good citizens of their community, but have also learned something about the 24/7 social media communities they must learn to navigate. Be nice. Be honest. Be real and communicate, don’t just broadcast. Certainly don’t fight for a position if it’s only defensible by an ideology and can’t be reinforced with a good idea.
In Provincial and Federal politics, when we add a layer of partisanship, this model seems to implode. Frankly, it makes sense on one level. A meaningful conversation about ideas, attempt at progress-oriented discussion and eventual good government, suffer from many enemies:
- Attacks from ideological foes who will always be there, trying to drag you across to their end of the political spectrum
- The seemingly irresistible allure of criticizing any position held by a competing party
- A party/caucus/cabinet machine that fights against it’s own parts, to control messaging, consolidate power and manufacture outcomes
Traditional “party strategists” seem to want to argue that these things can never change. In fact, the “establishment” strategy suggests perfecting all three of these things, as opposed to transcend them, and victory is a cinch. But, this is shortsighted thinking. As parties focus on attacking others with constant, often mandated feigned outrage, or tie their own hands behind their back with command and control cultures, they are acting in the exact opposite way that the successful non-partisan municipal politicians, have acted, to win with impressive margins.
Probably, more simply stated, we want to elect people who behave like us. Get mad, sure, be passionate, of course… but live by a set of rules first that are respectful and aspirational and you have less chance of trapping yourself in a corner of ideology, ego or pride. It makes sense. In every workplace, home, church group or sports team, we will gravitate to people we like and trust first. They will almost always be hopeful, helpful and humble.
Many of you know that I was involved in the early days of the Alberta Party and it’s attempt at creating a new model for partisan political success. It succeeded, if only in shilling idealism and acting accordingly. Yet, it can only be considered a failure in electing an MLA. No matter how much it’s candidates exemplified the theories I am making around a new style of politics. I have asked myself why, many, many times…. Why didn’t it succeed?
I blame the Queen. Or perhaps more honestly, the Westminster Style of Parliamentary politics, with it’s plurality voting (first-past-the-post), and an emphasis on PARTY > LEADER > CANDIDATE in most voting situations. Add to that in the last election, a frenzy of last-minute fear around vote-splitting and Alberta possibly electing some radical minded social conservatives… and there you have it. Even I would have voted for my PC MLA if I honestly thought he had been at risk of losing to the Wildrose candidate.
Luckily(?) neither the Alberta Party or Wildrose candidate in my constituency was within striking distance of our popular MLA. So I could vote for the Alberta Party candidate with a clear conscious. I am not so sure that same luxury will be given me, or the PC candidates next go around.
But, and there is a point to all of this, I think we are in a new and interesting time. The Wildrose have made significant progress in cleaning up their policy position and now shun their loose-end ideologues. This may be window-dressing in an attempt to gain power, and should be easy to expose as disingenuous; but here is the problem… the PC Party is losing its ability to compete using traditional establishment politics. They are losing financial support; they are losing the war for new members, and influential past supporters are fading away. The establishment party, is losing it’s own establishment.
In Calgary, with its independence ethos, being anti-government can be fashionable and recent fights with the government between the Mayor’s office and the Province have replaced a very short-lived truce over the flood response. In Edmonton, where appeasement is a bit more widely held strategy, mostly because of our proximity to government as an employer and vendor, dissidents have simply gone into hiding. Fights over arena funding, university cuts and political meddling into board governance at AHS and other institutions have many questioning this government for the first time.
Going into this weekend’s PC AGM and a mandatory review of Premier Alison Redford’s leadership, I would argue that the PC party is at an unprecedented inflection point. From every party insider I have talked with, I have heard of concern for the performance of the Premier and the Party; yet consistently have also heard the rational for supporting her. The party lacks the resources and an heir-apparent to make such a significant change with only two years to rebuild yet again. Up until just recently, I would have vehemently disagreed. In my experience, a fire-fast mentality always made for better outcomes. Now, I am not so sure.
It may be a last-gasp, but the Party with a 42-year monopoly has the single best opportunity to govern for another term over any party. Let’s face it; they have a majority power, and the pulpit from which to sell a vision. But it must be an abrupt change in style, and only that, which will save it. By and large I think the government has made the bigger policy decisions consistent with how most Albertans would like to see. Namely, don’t go into extreme austerity mode to balance a budget when we are at least for now debt-free, and experiencing massive growth and economic prosperity. Sure, some of the cuts to services have been too harsh, especially in post-secondary funding, but to me this government has lost support as much on style. Or lack of it.
By that I mean, the Government has stopped creating a hopeful vision for Albertans, based on well-defined vision for the future and backed by smart policy. They seem possessed with arguing against the only political pressure it feels, from their right. Somewhere around the period where the Premier’s communication office lost 5 staffers in a month, and responded by promoting an attack-style Ontario transplant to Chief of Communications, things have taken a turn towards a nasty narrative. Not just the communications pro’s, but the Premier and her Deputy, have been particularly negative.
But, style can be fixed. Perhaps, it’s just a matter of an Extreme Makeover. This government might want to take some tips from the political success-stories, popping up all around them. Of course, a makeover usually requires throwing out some old things from the “wardrobe” that simply will never fit a new image. Leaning on the analogy, it’s time for the Premier to throw-out some of the worst offenders of a positive and forward-thinking style. At least, publicly and seriously rebuking the attack-antics politics and gamesmanship, at best learning all new habits and bring up some fresh faces into the mix. To avoid any ambiguity whatsoever about the communications department, let me be even more clear. AFTER you have made a humble commitment to act with a different style, hire yourself any of the amazing and thought-leading professional communicators who understand Albertans. They are out there, but in my experience, this line of business attracts idealists and inspired types, so you had better mean a new change in habit.
Obviously the PC’s more than any party, could impact the Province the most in the next two years, if they made a transformation in style and standing. No matter their failures, the Party is also filled with people like you and me. People who voted for the inspiring forward-looking municipal candidates of the last election, and some MLA’s who want to embrace a new style of politics, to help Alberta be it’s best self. If they could be reinvented to a better version, we all would benefit. Immediately.
BUT and this is a BIG but; are they willing? On paper, this Premier was a ray of hope for many moderate forward-thinking Albertans. Yet many ill-deployed decisions and thoughtless political hijinks have undermined her success on every front. The list is endless if you value either responsible fiscal decision making or stable social programs. But, I am going to give this government the benefit of the doubt, for a moment, and suggest that based on the theory I have presented to you, they are killing themselves with a bad and outdated political model. Namely, shifting and swinging power at problems, instead of building an image of the future Province we all want, and then compelling us all together to build towards it.
If this government could double-down on ideas before ideologies, humility over hubris, acting real vs. contrived, then it’s possible they would find a tidal wave of new support. There can be no mistaking the fact that the political mindset of Albertans has shifted, as it has done again and again over the evolution of this place.
5 years ago, at the 2008 PC AGM, I saw a party that was broken and lacking vision. I left the party a month later, following many who chose the Reboot Alberta movement. I will return to the AGM this weekend a proud member of the Alberta Party, and a tentative renewed member of the PC Party. I am not going because I have already seen the change this Party needs to persist; I am going because I want to see if it’s even possible. I am going to see if there is any indication of renewal, any spark of optimism, and any place for idealism. But to do so in good faith, I must also go with an open mind and willingness to help it, if I see it.
To many this might seem like a betrayal of one party over the other. In my perspective it’s the rejection of the very problem that has led us here. Partisanship. I am looking for the best ideas and the fastest way to achieve the best Province.
I’ll let you know what I find.