Friday, September 25, 2009

where we are going

This a long post, but I've decided to keep the latter part, which is about where the Wildrose Alliance Party is, and ought to be, going, within a discussion of where Alberta's governing party is at.

There is some concern amongst the more reflective, or at least jumpy, of Stelmach supporters that their man's hold on the PC Party helm may be in jeopardy.

They shouldn't be concerned; Ed isn't going anywhere he doesn't want to.

Ed has a problem, all right. But it is a Calgary problem.

The Wildrose virus may have infected a critical number of Calgarians, turning upstanding citizens into right wing zombies, but, according to experts at the University of Ottawa, when “extremely aggressive” countermeasures are taken after a zombie outbreak the bulk of the population can still be saved.

If setting up a quarantine would be too harsh a term, one could always borrow a term of art from Messrs Morton and Harper and call it a firewall.

"Rob", an Edmonton Journal story commentator, lays out the containment strategy succintly:
Leave Calgary to twist in the wind. The only reason they don't like Stelmach is because he is not from Calgary. They can still keep power through their support in the rest of Alberta.
"Rob" is more correct about the coarse political calculus than polite company is likely to let on.

Of the Edmonton caucus, Allred, Elniski, Sarich, Bhardwaj, Klimchuk, Lukaszuk, Xiao, Benito, Horne, and Vandermeer all owe their seats to Steady Eddie, and quite probably Sherman as well. The reason Sandhu had an easy ride in Manning was the fact Dan Backs split the Liberal vote. Vandermeer stated quite frankly on election night that Stelmach was worth at least 1000 votes for him (his margin of victory was 318).

And it was not just Edmonton in terms of picking up votes. Far from it. 1000 votes, or even more, was probably the average gain for PC candidates throughout the province excluding Calgary. The Wildrose Alliance ran Link Byfield in Whitecourt - St Anne and despite a name candidate and plowing a good fraction of the party's provincial resources into campaigning there, the WRA vote share went down relative to the Alberta Alliance performance of 2004.

Amongst rural ridings, only in Ted Morton's Foothills-Rockyview, which hugs Calgary's outermost western ridings, and Highwood, which borders the city's wealthy southern suburbs, gave evidence of a backlash against the northern premier. Combine those 2 with the 23 Calgary ridings and you're talking just 30% of the seats. Even then, in Calgary's east and northeast the 2008 Stelmach election results were generally stable relative to the preceding Klein election, meaning that although opposition to the premier has undoubtedly grown, it may yet be far from the danger zone with respect to the re-election prospects of PC incumbents.

So let them go and sleep soundly knowing that the more identified the Wildrose Alliance becomes with corporate Calgary, the less the WRA will sell in the rural ridings. Calgarians can rage away over their catered boardroom lunches or over white wine at the Petroleum Club while Edmontonians luxuriate over beers at the Blackdog, comforted by the knowledge that while Captain Ed may have run us aground, at least he saved the ship from those oilpatch pirates.

A comment at the CBC may sum up the rural view:
Farmer can lead this province as well as any back stabbing lawyer, or any old drunk, Depression is difficult foe.
Some smartypants might observe that this comment got 1 thumbs up and 12 down when I last checked, but this is under the "Calgary" news section, not Canada or even Alberta. These thumbs downers are surfing the interwebs from the comforts of their Evergreen mansion overlooking Fish Creek park.

In truth, even rural Albertans are alive to the possibility that the premier may be in over his head. Nobody is suggesting that he is an administrative genius who ought to be named to an endowed chair in Management Science over at Big City U. But who would you replace him with?

Should Calgary area PC Alberta members attempt to shove Steady Eddie aside in favour of a Calgary business executive, the whispering around the rest of the province about Calgary's sense of entitlement would become open indignation. The pride of Lamont County is not just a northerner, he's as Ukrainian as a Kiev pierogi, a factor that many who are not familiar with the power of identity politics underweight.

When Ted Morton is considered in isolation, he may look like a solution. He could revive the party's popularity in the Calgary area and shouldn't hurt rurally. But when contrasted with Danielle Smith, Ted "Hunting Day" Morton might simply change the type of people the governing party is bleeding to the Wildrose Alliance without staunching the net flow. And cashiering Stelmach to crown Morton would go over like a lead balloon in the capital. While there is a certain Edmonton crowd who would greet him with garlands (right wingers may be found in good numbers throughout province outside of Edmonton's Strathcona and 118 ave neighbourhoods), it would be more enthusiasm in a smaller tent. Morton would polarize Albertans, and if the party decided to move with Morton to pin Smith to the right, she might well slip behind him into the yawning libertarian space the Morton PCs would leave behind. Ken Chapman is of the view that recent personnel changes suggest that Stelmach is bent on moving the government to the right, and to the socially conservative right, a move that in my opinion would be as much or more an effort to nip a Morton insurgency in the bud than to squeeze the Wildrose Alliance, given that most of the more prominent Wildrosers have been less enthusiastic about Bill 44's s.9 than the people whose careers Stelmach seems to be promoting.

The PC Alberta Association may thus be facing the same situation Social Credit did in 1966: in need of yet another reinvention that may be one too many for the same party to manage after so many decades in power. According to Allan Tupper, Lougheed believed that Albertans were beginning to find the SoCreds too rural and out of touch with the province's potential. It would have been difficult to sit through the tangents that Finance Minister Iris Evans went off on during her speech in Toronto and then argue that the leadership of the PC party is in touch with contemporary Alberta. It's one thing to deliver an interesting argument for the conservative values that many Albertans still hold, and another thing to be unable to broach the topic on the national or international stage in an professional manner. Sadly, this wasn't a one-off incident.

Alberta has gone through a succession of dynasties, and this could be because movement liberalism or leftism has never been mainstream enough here for the government to be headed by people hailing from that background. Within the circumscribed spectrum that results, the ideological differences are not sharp enough to warrant multiple parties. A single party system follows, such that its leaders tap dance a little to the left, a little to the right, as circumstances require, until the background tune of the evolving society changes to the point that the rigidities or inexorable logic of internal party politics can no longer keep up with the music and the principal actors cannot help but repeatedly wrongfoot themselves. Exeunt the whole troupe.

This analysis isn't especially original. As CalgaryGrit wrote on September 15:
In short, Ed Stelmach is Harry Strom, and it's not a stretch to think that Smith could be Peter Lougheed for the 21st Century. (note to WRA: I know you guys aren't big on royalties, but I demand royalties on that line should you use it!)
Perhaps a more original suggestion on my part would be to emphasize the idea that the last dynasty did not come to an end because of a shift in ideology per se. It came about because the momentum of the governing party and/or its failure to listen kept it from keeping up with where Albertans were at. Successful governments in Alberta have to be A) modern and B) conservative (what exactly "conservative" means can be disputed, but I'd suggest that Albertans are never going to be keen on political movements that perceive capitalism, or perhaps more accurately its sociological manifestation in the "Protestant Work Ethic", critically not just on a case by case basis but in a fundamental way). The opposition has historically been short on either one or the other. The Stelmach government's been increasingly doubtful on both, with their lefty lean flowing not so much from where they've placed themselves on contentious social issues but from Stelmach's natural suspicion of the investor class and from a nonchalance with respect to the concept of taxpayer value. The pay raises for the cabinet and the many golden parachutes that have been awarded to assorted bureaucrats do not sit will with Albertans.

Quarantining the virus in Calgary may end up incubating it. Link Byfield, whose vision of where he thought the party should go is the primary reason why Danielle Smith was actively recruited, explained his perspective to me by arguing that it has always started in Calgary. Lougheed made his move in Calgary. Reform? Calgary. Is there a plausible alternate history whereby the more conspiratorially minded (or reflective, depending on one's POV) would have been talking about the influence of the "Edmonton School" on the Prime Minister's Office as opposed to the "Calgary School"? It terms of the capacity of Edmonton's policy thinkers for influence, absolutely. My time in the U of A's business and law schools and exposure to the thinking of the Dept of Economics profs leaves me without doubt on that point. Several City of Edmonton departments have been early adopters of new technologies and business processes. But it's hard to see a political movement originating in Edmonton because much of the city shares with the rest of the country a general suspicion that stuff that can be traced to think tanks is out there to serve an agenda. This is, of course, precisely why Stelmach is so popular: the suits can't roll him (sadly, neither can reason). Edmonton will come around, and come around faster than a lot of cities, but Edmontonians are not going to be on the leading edge of a political movement when there is a risk that the movement may be a vehicle for moneyed interests. Calgarians are generally less concerned (some would say less paranoid) about the prospect that a menacing "corporate agenda" may be on the move. I say this as someone who is neither Calgary nor corporate, at least not at the moment.

Lest anyone take this post and look at my cite of Link Byfield to say, "look Edmonton, the WRA braintrust is not cozying up to Calgarian sentiments by accident, it's deliberate" I'd respond that we look for a beachhead where Stelmach gives us one. He's got us pinned to the ground in the Edmonton area so totally we can't even organize constituency associations. But after the flood of membership applications coming in the wake of the Glenmore victory and associated with the leadership campaign are processed, we can look at the addresses and see if we've got the numbers to make a move in the River City.

The same Dyrholm supporter whose remarks I quoted and attacked in recent days once told me that he felt the party executive "too corporate." Now this I cannot dismiss, since the sentiment is a perfectly legitimate difference in terms of vision. But I cannot emphasize enough the fact that Link Byfield is both socially conservative and rural and supports the personnel changes, the most critical of which involves Danielle. The reality of life is that the people who are best qualified to run a multi-billion dollar economy are more likely to drive Escalades than tractors. I can see how this notion can strike a lot of people as exactly what's wrong with society: the last thing we need is hand the people with money political power. But one needs to understand that putting "someone like me" in power is not necessarily going to advance one's interests. I want someone, not "better" than me because more skills and abilities do not necessarily make one a better person, but more skilled than I am at crunching the numbers and communicating persuasively. And for what it's worth, the idea that longtime Wildrosers are just in it to serve the high rollers doesn't square with the fact that it has been a labour of love with very little prospect of any sort of material or immaterial reward, at least until very recently. I don't have money. I don't think Danielle Smith has serious money either. I may be in finance and I may have 4 degrees, but I'm currently a one man operation and in the wake of Lehman's implosion a year ago have been just getting by. The people with money, ironically, are the ones trying to roll us back (in the name of "traditional values"): Chandler and, formerly, the Thorsteinsons.

Next month this is all going to come down to one person, one vote, regardless of where one's from, what one has, or even what one's gifts are. The membership will decide where we are going. And whichever campaign wins, it will have to explain to supporters of the losing campaign how it plans to get the Wildrose Alliance party out ahead of where Albertans want to go.

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