Thursday, January 21, 2010

policy vs politics in Alberta

I found Daveberta's latest post quite interesting, and not just because it mentions Shayne Saskiw, who resided in the Edmonton constituency I ran in under the Wildrose Alliance banner two years ago and who was the first person to call me when the party's candidate list was released. Shayne seemed to me to be the sort who would be Wildrose if the party's level of organization and human asset utilization was comparable to the PCs (I mean here constituency association executives etc as opposed to MLAs, the elected PC caucus being very much a mixed bag when it comes to professionalism). It wasn't, sadly, and so while I wasn't surprised when Shayne indicated on his Facebook page that he was supporting PC MLA Tony Vandermeer, or when he took a policy position with the PCs, neither was I surprised to learn that he is officially resigning from the PCs (perhaps to be an unofficial chief of staff to new Wildrose MLA Rob Anderson? - they are both U of Alberta Law class of 2006 grads).

What surprised me was that a leaked email addressed to Alberta PC Association Executive Director Jim Campbell and party president Bill Smith, said "we also expect the WAP to issue a news release this afternoon." IF ONLY! If Wildrose actually did that I would have been completely stunned. Why? Because it would have meant that the Wildrose Alliance's biggest problem, which is recognizing quality people and putting them into positions of influence and authority, had been substantively solved.

I would be surprised if blogger Leigh Sullivan, who is organizing for Wildrose in Shayne's (and Premier Ed's) constituency, knew who this guy on the Fort Sask - Vegreville constituency membership roll was, not because I don't think Leigh is diligent in finding out who's who but because I have never heard anyone in the party advise local organizers to Google their membership lists so they find out who their members are, never mind taking the next step and kicking prominent names in specified fields up to the party leadership so that they can be approached about taking roles in the party either locally or provincially that fits their particular expertise.

Fact is, I kicked Shayne Saskiw's name up to the party leadership in February of 2008 and to the party's policy people (who are still in charge of policy) a couple months later in April but, given how far my input has gone in the past and the consistency with which names seem to end up falling through the cracks, again, I would have been stunned if the Wildrose exec had prepared the ground for giving Shayne a job in the policy process prior to this afternoon.

The problem, in my mind, is a culture which considers giving any particular person more influence over policy than another person undemocratic. I'm of the opinion that this is a fundamental misunderstanding of what the general population wants. What the people want is transparency. They want to know how the party came up with the policy it does. Who originated the idea? What can we infer about that person's motivations? Who thought it would be good policy but bad politics? Who thought it would be bad policy but good politics? What was the background discussion? I would like to see a group of policy experts have a thorough-going, comprehensive debate on the platform at the next AGM, together with political types to talk about polling and the communications angles, for a final vote to be made by the membership, as opposed to just the current practice which is effectively just small groups of members standing up on the floor and saying, "we think we should do this so let's have a debate on the floor involving hundreds of people and a vote."

To be sure, it won't be quite like that this coming June, since there will be some Task Forces chaired by experts that will be delivering policy proposals for a vote. But there will still be the issue of whether the membership will be privy to the full background debate of pros and cons. Why were the particular Task Force chairs chosen? Why them and not others? What are their motivations?

To sum up my grievance with Alberta's Wildrose party, it's that few of the people with power in the party seem to share my view that what matters is not policy per se but people. It should be well known that I am big on incentivizing capital accumulation, but really I would care less what the policy was if Jack Mintz dictated it all. That's because Mintz is far smarter than I am on tax policy and I think his motivations are sound. I suspect that a lot of Albertans would feel the same way. Is your policy shop staffed by people who are interested in a broad, growth-oriented agenda as opposed to advancing the narrow, leftist agendas of various unions or special interests? Are they qualified? Can we see the full back-room discussion, including the input of the campaign strategists and communications spinmeisters? This is what Albertans want. Most Albertans don't see themselves as the primary origin of good policy ideas. They rather see themselves as people of sound judgment who are qualified to and entitled to pass verdict on the various policy ideas produced by specialists whose motivations should be clearly visible.

There seems to be a mentality amongst some influential Wildrosers that people vote for policy. I disagree. They vote for people. Albertans don't vote for conservative policies but for conservative candidates. The role of enumerated policy planks is to keep candidates honest and consistent so they don't write themselves blank cheques. Policy planks are necessary, in other words, and are the focus of general debate, but really they are just examples of what the candidate's, or party leader's, mindset is, a mindset that shouldn't change after being elected if good faith with the electorate is to be maintained.

The candidate or party leader might not have the skill set to defend some of the policy planks he or she supports but the people are OK with that if the candidate makes it clear that the policy planks are supported because trusted people recommend the planks. The electorate is more interested in whether those advisors are all academics, or all right wing think tank types, or union careerists, or oil company execs, or banking industry lobbyists, etc etc than in the details of the policy itself. Again, the policy plank is just used in democratic discourse as an example of who can be expected to have the candidate or leader's ear, and what the role of political and communications concerns will be in the candidate's or leader's calculations.

Albertans want more Wildrose policy, although in fairness they already have a lot when they know the leader's personality and background and when they know the party leans libertarian. What they want is a few example policy planks in some key areas that would be of interest not so much in and of themselves but as products of a policy making process. The current party line is that party policy is whatever ordinary Albertans want and I don't think that will do because Albertans want contradictory things (e.g. some are on the left and want more spending in various areas, some are on the right and want less) and it doesn't provide any predictability about how decisions will be made on matters not enumerated in the policy book.

The floor-crossings didn't go over well with me primarily because transparency as to how they came to go down like they did was non-existent and because even if there were no guiding policy, if I had to guess what the party's stance would be, at a minimum the crossing MLAs would have been cut loose on the by-election question such that the crossers would have been expected to justify their decisions without further cover from the party. If the party is going to provide cover, then it isn't just a matter for the local constituencies. You can't have party spokespeople talking about how a byelection would create financial hardship for a MLA at the same time that a MLA Pay and Perks task force is running without creating confusion about what the party's branding is supposed to be. So what if the letter of the policy book was not violated. As I've been arguing, that's not of interest to most people. They are interested in a more generalized stance, such that what really matters is whether Wildrose is going to be true to non-specific expectations, as opposed to specific policy planks which everyone understands might not survive the messy reality of real implementation.

Develop a brand and then concentrate on remaining true to the brand as opposed to what may end up being a grab-bag of contradictory and impractical policy planks. Hire and promote the people with the strongest resumes and social skills instead of friends and people from the same tribe, be it geography (e.g. Edmonton/Calgary), industry (e.g. energy/media), prior affiliation (e.g. federal Conservative), etc.

No comments: