Monday, June 28, 2010

Wildrose AGM review Part 2 - exec elections: hopes raised for operations, concerns raised for policy

On Saturday the AGM got underway with short speeches by the candidates for positions on the party executive. Barry Croucher announced that he was stepping down as a Northern Director, and although the 3 northern directors are not formally assigned to the province's northeast, northwest, and Edmonton, that's the de facto practice and Barry's departure paved the way for Chris Jones to become the director with primary responsibility for the party's development in the capital city. Chris brings a lot of energy to his new role and although I overheard one of the party's full-time employees with responsibility for operations express the opinion that Chris may be too controlling, someone inclined to take charge and advocate for Edmonton on the provincial executive is exactly what is needed in my view. Among the many lessons I've learned is that power vacuums do not remain unfilled for long when it comes to internal party politics, and if the director is not reasonably assertive, someone else, probably a candidate or supporters of a candidate hailing from a suburban constituency where the amount of common party resources diverted to his or her campaign could make the difference between victory and defeat, would take effective control. I am not at all concerned that Chris, who is a Strathcona resident, is going to be preoccupied with the needs of Wildrose in his constituency to the exclusion of the rest of the city. Although Chris has been an industrious servant of the party on the south side, going forward he should be a valuable aide to Wildrosers north of the river as well.

As I recall the only other position besides the regional directorships that was contested was that of VP Policy and I am not entirely sure what the ultimate verdict there is going to mean for the party going forward. I'm going to break from focusing on the AGM here and make the rest of this particular post an opinion piece on the party's policy process.

I've had my differences with John Hilton O'Brien over the past couple years, but I ultimately ended up voting for John HOB because John has been interested in complementing grassroots policy generation with "professional" input. My primary issue with John or, more precisely, the policy process in general was, in fact, that the moves in this direction did not go far enough.

John, whose distinguished history with the Wildrose Alliance and its predecessors goes back many years, was in any case defeated by a recent convert to the party from the PCs who unfortunately does not seem to envision a role for public policy professionals to inform and supplement member created policy.

I realize that Wildrosers reading this blog are going to be more than a little uneasy with my apparent readiness to raise doubts about our party's policy process going forward. Has this not been coming down the pipe for a while now such that it ultimately just suggests a character which doesn't value the concept of team loyalty high enough to be cut out for politics, perhaps? Can one reason with a blogger for whom dissent appears to be a point of pride? Doesn't my criticism just serve the interests of the other parties? This is, in fact, an excellent point and I fully acknowledge it. On this particular issue, however, which is getting more input from public policy experts, I am concerned that if there is no action taken it will not only up-end the basic reason I got involved in the first place (which implementing growth-friendly, fiscally conservative policy) but a reason many others got involved, which is ensuring that government takes its cue from the people as opposed to lobbyists, elites, and assorted insiders.

I was one of the few Canadians working on the taxation of income trusts between 2002 and 2006. The Department of Finance researched the issue carefully and advised both Ralph Goodale and Jim Flaherty that (unless all corporate taxation was eliminated) businesses that did not reorganize as trusts would become increasingly uncompetitive relative to their trust brethren unless the playing field was leveled and the Department could not discern a policy rationale for perserving the tax favourability extended to trusts. Interestingly, while I was working on the 20th floor as a civil servant, another current Wildroser was working with Flaherty's political advisors, whom we associated with the Minister's office on the 21st floor, and this group was urging the Minister to reject the Department's advice. I got into something of an argument with this person several months ago about the income trust decision and he eventually said that, whatever the merits of the move on policy grounds, the decision was badly made, not least because it was a decision that, never mind it not being made because of the grassroots, was made in spite of the grassroots.

On that much we could agree: the federal income trust move WAS undemocratic: the party made popular promises, of which not taxing trusts was one (albeit a minor, low profile assurance at most peripheral to the party platform), got into power and then was advised by an "elite" that a serious problem with the country's capital stock would emerge if the party, now as government, did not unwind a tax preference against the traditional form of business organization. Where the Goodale Liberals feared to tread, Flaherty moved boldly and went with the expert advice (the investment banking industry, which was making a fine living converting corporations into trusts, had expertise as well and opposed the move, but the finance industry's advice here was highly self-serving).

There is a lesson to be learned from the income trust decision, and that is that the Reform Party culture that prioritized grassroots policy formulation ironically exacerbated an anti-democratic, "elitist" policy move that occurred after the party formed government as the Conservative Party. I fear the Wildrose Alliance is going to end up in the same position, because if the policy process is entirely membership driven prior to forming government, after forming government the party is going to be in the difficult position of either dismissing the input that the ministries provide to the new ministers and the input of the various "expert"-staffed commissions and inquiries OR ending up in the situation Stelmach found himself when he refused to consider industry's input concerning royalties: a crisis of investor confidence and lost jobs. This scenario could be avoided if Wildrose considers the advice of the policy wonks now, despite the suspicions of the grassroots of these types.

Why am I talking about this in a post titled "Wildrose AGM review"? Because when I review Saturday policy session, it will be necessary for me to acknowledge the role that the caucus played in the debates and the possibility that the caucus was trying to bridge the gap between what the grassroots perceives the issues to be and what the reality is going to be for the party's elected members and ministers. As readers will soon discover, my position is that if the "reality" is that there are powerful lobbies and special interests lurking in the halls of the Legislature that can only be perceived from inside, the grassroots is entirely right to demand that the caucus simply find its backbone such that if tangling with these shadowy forces costs them their seats, at least they've gone down with integrity. But if the "reality" is rather that the grassroots-formulated policy is simply naive and/or incompletely informed, then the grassroots has to either trust its caucus / ministers who are in touch with the public policy specialists OR, far more preferably, demand a policy formulation process that gets the expert/informed opinion injected early so that the membership is not surprised with contrary decisions once the party forms government.

Some Wildrosers reading this may feel that I am creating a false alternative between broken promises and economic management by, as something of an elitist-sympathizer, inflating the danger of the latter. I would ask these readers to think about whether all the promises in the party's policy book to advance the interest of some group, be it taxpayers or the beneficiaries of government spending, are balanced by corresponding statements addressed to the group(s) on the other side that they can expect to do less well under a Wildrose government. This is the real issue here: even if a policy creates more winners than losers, there will inevitably be at least some losers and it is the identification of and advance communication with these losers that reduces the possibility that a Wildrose government would be perceived as undemocratically selling out to some elite or special interest. There is a great deal of rhetoric in the party's communications about fiscal conservatism, but when the concrete promises, especially on the tax cut front, inevitably don't add up to a budget surplus, something is going to have to give and the non-concrete, non-specific, purely rhetorical commitments to limiting spending are the most likely to become the hole in the dike. It is thus not an "elite" versus "grassroots" issue so much as a sum versus the parts issue: it requires taking up an elevated position that can see the whole lie of the land, not necessarily an "elite" position.

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