Sunday, June 27, 2010

Wildrose AGM review Part 1 - setting the tone

The 2010 Wildrose Alliance Annual General Meeting kicked off in Red Deer last Friday evening with an impressive rally that in terms of size, scope, and sheer spectacle suggested a party that had to be taken very seriously as a political contender. An example of the differences from previous AGMs was that not only did many candidates for positions on the party executive distribute full colour professionally printed brochures instead of a paragraph or two of text written up on a word processor at home, but later in the evening they hosted well-stocked hospitality suites where attendees could schmooze.

The keynote address on Friday was, of course, delivered by the leader, and the Edmonton Journal's Capital Clicks blog provides a copy of the speech. Just reading the text, however, doesn't tell you how well the speech was delivered, and on that front Danielle Smith nailed the timing, tone, and body language. There were some word choices that I thought were rather too populist, like working "big corporations" into the speech in an disapproving context and mentioning "Stephen Harper" in an approving one, but Calgary Herald columnist Don Braid had it exactly right when he contrasted her speech with the one she delivered at last year's AGM, and described the Danielle of 2010 as "confident, self-possessed and very quick on her feet." A good politician has taken significant strides towards becoming a great one. Now it could be said that what the people really need is non-politicians, indeed, advocating for that will be the theme of this blogpost, but it is worth keeping in mind that if the people really wanted persons in office who are not good politicians, they have had many opportunities to vote for those meritorious people but, in their infinite wisdom, have generally declined to do so!

If I had a substantive general reservation about a speech that had me up on my feet with hundreds of others, cheering, clapping, and waving signs, it was that it was very tough on the governing party and while entirely appropriate for an opposition leader (I don't believe one should apply the "how statesmanlike was the tone?" question to speakers not currently in power) I wondered if the intensity of the political salvoes signaled a narrowing of the policy chasm. The belligerence exhibited by Preston Manning's Reform, for example, rarely approached the levels of hostility for the federal Liberals routinely exhibited by today's Harper Conservatives, and the economic policy of the current Tory government is scarcely more fiscally conservative than that of the Liberals, especially the Chretien/Martin Liberals circa 1996. The more that mountains of policy differences are reduced to mole hills, the greater the effort in terms of optics that is required to inflate them back up into mountains, perhaps.

On this particular point, which is to raise the issue of how much political partisanship is necessary or desirable, I would not take principle issue with Danielle, since she's just not an attack dog in terms of personality, or at least she wasn't. I'd rather take issue with long-time PC strategist and current acting Wildrose party president Hal Walker's apparent choking up as he introduced Guy Boutilier, who in turn introduced Danielle. Now I understand that when introducing a speaker, it is advisable to invite the audience to applaud the speaker, and never so much so as in the context of a political rally. But I couldn't help but wonder if Mr Boutilier would be seen as a hero to the point of getting emotional about it if he were still part of Team Stelmach. The suggestion of (excessive) partisanship is arguably the flattering interpretation, since the alternative interpretation is that the sentiment is affected. As followers of the blog would know, I had reservations about the floor crossings that occurred earlier this year, not because I am necessarily opposed to them in principle, but because person(s) whom I assumed were instrumental to the negotiations about what terms (if any) would be applied to the crossings were the same people who had been mightily indignant when Belinda Stronach crossed over from the federal Conservatives to the federal Liberals. The argument for taking a nuanced, practical view would be easier to support if that view won out over the view that leads to expressions of outrage rather less selectively.

I suspect that cynicism about politics is one of the biggest drivers of falling voting participation rates. How is that cynicism being countered when political group B denounces group A as a gang of cowards and sinners, and then honors some of those same group A people as heroes and saints after they've adopted the colours of group B? Now maybe there truly is ennobling, redemptive power in the Wildrose jersey, but in at least my own case when I bought a membership I still had all the many character faults that I had before!

Having said all that I should make it clear that this is not an entirely fair criticism given the context. Waving the flag too much at a rally? That's the whole point of a rally! Let me be clear that I consider Hal Walker to be an excellent party president. The night really was an overwhelming success, and I quite enjoyed both it and the hospitality suites, which included a stetson-clad David Gray refining the art of political entertainment (photo below). My purpose here with respect to the opinion element of my review is primarily to further advise readers ahead of my reviewing the Saturday policy sessions in my next post that your blogger has a background working on policy issues in a non-partisan federal Finance Department, where he settled upon the conclusion that political parties are ideally just a means for clarifying the level of democratic support for certain policy philosophies as opposed to a means for dividing ordinary citizens into warring, grasping camps.

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