Sunday, October 10, 2010

State of the Rose: Wildrose vs libertarians

In mid-October 2009, the membership of Alberta's Wildrose Alliance Party elected Danielle Smith as its new leader. Since then the party, which was polling 7% in April 2009, has never polled below 25% across the province, while the official opposition Alberta Liberals have never polled above. Wildrose has so sidelined the Liberals as primary opposition to the governing PC party that a newspaper editorialist has contended that Wildrose is fighting a proxy war against the governing PC party in the upcoming municipal election in Edmonton. Ms Simons' opinion piece has to be taken with a grain of salt: her previous columns suggest that she would like nothing more than to see Wildrose humiliated in the capital city, and a possible route to that end would be to render as a verdict on the party the October 17 municipal vote, which should see the incumbent mayor Stephen Mandel win at a canter. The proxy war narrative also fits it rather too conveniently into Mandel's ranting about provincial politicians interfering in Edmonton's affairs. But whether the thesis that Wildrose has what military strategists call force projection capability to contest the most Wildrose-unfriendly territory in the province on a proxy basis is well-founded or not, there is no denying that Danielle Smith has a significantly higher profile both provincially and nationally than Official Opposition leader David Swann.

Writing about my view of the state of the party this weekend is going to be lengthy chronicle of woe, sad to say. As such, I'm dividing it into three parts: 1) the regrettable and unnecessary falling out between the party and libertarian pundits at the Western Standard and Macleans 2) Wildrose's education policies, which on at least one unsettling point are more teacher union friendly the PC government's policies, and 3) a broader view of the fundamental policy problem that North America in general faces and how the "conservative" parties are failing to address it.

Ms Smith' convincing victory in the race to become Wildrose leader was seen by many "libertarians" who supported her as the membership's endorsement of a libertarian positioning for the party. Danielle told the Edmonton Journal's Capital Notebook that she was "libertarian and pro-choice." Matthew Johnston, owner of the Western Standard, says that at his e-magazine "we aim to be fiercely and openly loyal to libertarian ideas" and in April 2009 Johnston described Danielle as close to the "perfect candidate". Johnston co-hosted a reception for Danielle with federal Libertarian Party leader Dennis Young in Calgary in June 2009, shortly after Danielle declared her candidacy for the party's leadership. The blogger "CalgaryLibertarian" volunteered to help the party win the Glenmore by-election later that summer. While organizing for Wildrose in Edmonton's south-west late last year, I tried to get a 20-year old Edmonton libertarian on to a constituency board in order to ensure that the voice of young people was heard and although this student had to decline because of school commitments, he said he was very interested in getting Danielle to speak to his local libertarian meet-up group.

I'm not a libertarian, I'm a paleo-con, but I nonetheless feel that, in general, libertarians are a valuable part of any conservative movement not least because their enthusiasm for what is largely an abstraction makes them less susceptible to partisanship on any particular issue. Earlier this summer Western Standard writer JJ McCullough noted an "important" fact that is "largely forgotten or unfashionable to recall in the present day," namely, that "[t]he 1993-2003 Liberal government of Jean Chretien embarked on a remarkable agenda of fiscal conservatism." Another Western Standard contributor, Mike Brock, uploaded to Youtube a video of Andrew Coyne blasting the Harper Conservatives.

By being frequently found outside established brokerage parties, Libertarian pundits serve as a conscience check of sorts, and so it was that I thought that Matt Johnston's view should have been given some consideration when early this year he warned against floor-crosser Heather Forsyth being "given prominence in the party that could put her in a position to shape policy." I, myself, was more concerned about Rob Anderson, writing to a Wildrose executive member on January 4 to warn that Anderson is "a communications risk for going off message on social issues." The idea of "prominence" that Johnston refers to is an important one: floor-crossings are not all created equal. If crossers are going to justify not running in a byelection with the argument that they were elected as individuals instead of as representatives of a party, if post-crossing those individuals are presented more as individuals than as party representatives, the hypocrisy is minimal. More than a year ago I had written to the same Wildrose executive member to express my concerns about floor-crossers in light of the then rumours, noting that accepting the crossers into the party is one issue and "[w]hether we want them to step into what would amount to commanding positions in the Wildrose Alliance is another issue."

So when, just a month after I blogged here that "the less we hear from caucus... the better," caucus puts out a "Wildrose statement" that provokes Matt Johnston to write, "I feel sick about this. I really thought Danielle would be different," I don't know whether to laugh or cry. It is, of course, not just Johnston that is upset. Mike Brock has waved the "I told you so," finger as well, saying "[a]s I predicted, the libertarians must compromise." My former high school classmate Colby Cosh, writing for Macleans, deemed the press release evidence of an anti-evidence-based social policy and perceived Forsyth's idiosyncratic policy concerns in the text. In my view, whether or not a politician makes "extreme" remarks is unrelated to how accountable that politician is. An elected politician who makes idiosyncratic policy announcements, however, is necessarily insensitive to accountability considerations to at least a degree because an accountable politician keeps in mind the fact that the people who volunteered their time and money to elect him or her did not do so in order to advance a particular person's ambitions and personal agenda, but to advance a general agenda. De-particularizing one's platform is correlated with removing one's particular self such that getting elected becomes a team effort. The fact that Cosh, Johnston, Brock et al have all gone off about this incident suggests that these critics are voicing a view that is generally held. What's especially headshaking here is the fact that Forsyth and Anderson have used the soapbox given to them by Wildrose and funded by the Alberta taxpayer (through the MLA office allowances) to go off about a court decision in Ontario, calling on the federal government to wade into a provincial issue.

As a non-libertarian, I am not as disturbed by the substance of the policy issue here, prostitution, as the Western Standard writers. The legalization of prostitution was one of the weekly Economist debate forum topics in September and I think the "con" speaker helpfully raises some of the fallen nature arguments that libertarians, who have have little time for depth psychology, all too often give short shrift to. I also think that that if Johnston, Brock, and Cosh were true libertarians as opposed to anti-social conservatives, they would have reserved their greatest indignation for when "the caucus" (read: Anderson and Forsyth, since I can't believe it was Hinman's idea) took their very nearly successful run at the policy planks that said Wildrose "will allow individual workers to voluntarily determine their membership in labour organizations" and "will extend to workers the democratic right to a secret ballot vote" at the party's AGM in June. I would think that the right to freely buy and sell labour in general is more fundamental that the right to freely buy and sell the human body. But the fact that more than three quarters of Economist readers should think prostitution should be legalized shouldn't surprise anyone and this sentiment was not confined to the upscale readers of the Economist either, if the comment threads on the CBC and Globe and Mail websites are any guide.

Libertarians are something of a fringe group and evidence for this is the fact that the caucus press release at issue here was uncontroversial in the eyes the mainstream media. But as a fiscal conservative I have to wonder how fiscal conservatives would fare under a Wildrose government. Mike Brock writes:
It's time, as I've been saying for a while, for libertarians across the country to withdraw our support for conservative parties across this country.

Even though we are a small minority in the movement, we played a big roll in the media, within the party establishment and on the ground shilling for conservatives over the past decade. What have we gotten for this?

Insults by the prime minister, who used to identify with classical liberalism. A complete abandonment of fiscal responsibility. More regulation. Bigger government. More military spending. Intensification of the drug war.

Oh, and some token tax cuts. At the expense of the biggest deficit in history, mind you.

No. I call on libertarians from all over to withdraw their support and do their damnedest to sabotage the conservative movement by playing to it's hypocrisies on economic issues, in particular.

I have to agree completely that self-styled conservatives need to be exposed for their "hypocrisies on economic issues", with the prime minister being offender-in-chief. Boondoggles like the Atlantic Opportunties Agency are getting as much taxpayer money as ever. It seems to me that what Brock and I have a common problem with is PARTY conservatives. Principled conservatives need to stop drinking the kool-aid, especially the kind labelled "citizen's initiatives", which the worst of the demagogues, like Bill "indicted-by-the-Conflict-of-Interest-Commisssioner" Vander Zalm, exploit for their own purposes. Consider the chain of the events that led to this latest incident. It was ultimately set into motion by a decision that was made, not by ordinary voters who elected Anderson and Forsyth to represent Wildrose, or by a grassroots membership vote to take a positioning that would alienate libertarians, but by an extremely small group of insiders at the top of the party under conditions of negligible transparency. That the financial interests of the floor crossers was reportedly taken into consideration as well (note the potentially "without an income for six months [if the crossers resigned to run in byelections]" quote in that link) just underlines how the fateful decision was made in the best traditions of back room politics.

Brock in fact has it wrong when he contends that the libertarian supporters of the party ended up with a "compromise" outcome they find unsatisfactory. Were that the case, as someone who doesn't hail from that wing I would have no objection. The real problem is that how libertarians would perceive the caucus press release on the Ontario court decision was simply never even considered.


Anonymous said...

You are right.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post.

I believe Danielle Smith may well be destined to become Alberta's first libertarian premier in over a century -- since the then small-l Liberals were in power.

But I also believe the party is beginning the purge libertarians.

The bleed is being led by liteweight freedom-phobe and Airdrie MLA Rob Anderson, who clearly has leadership ambitions of his own.

Oddly this is happening at a time when socon ground warrior Craig Chandler has also left the party, and when libertarianism is undergoing a North America-wide resurgence.

The consequences and casualties from these developments are unforeseeable, but sure to be entertaining.

Anonymous said...

If the perception of Rob Anderson is true and he really wants to be premier, then the big question is when will Danielle get it in the back. Bringing in the floor crossers might be her downfall.

Anonymous said...

ob Anderson will do tow things in his pursuit of the party leadership.

He will hang back and see just how much popularity Danielle can bring to the party.

All while he recreates it in his own image, right under her nose.

Hence his behind-the-scenseswar of attrition against the libertarians.