Monday, February 14, 2011

the power of personality

I have wound down my blogging, in the short term because I have been on the road and don't expect to be back in Alberta for at least a month yet, and in the longer term because, at least with respect to Alberta politics, I had largely said what I wanted to say on the subject and didn't want to muddy the message (that Albertans need to turn more of their current incomes into assets, real or financial, that will grow into the future).

The new year's news from Canada's most fortunate province creates some interesting prospects for further shake-ups on the political and policy fronts, however.

The premier not running for re-election is the biggest news, although there is a limit to what the pundits can add to this headline. Albertans already know that Ed Stelmach (photo at right) was a charisma-challenged but nice guy. Whether it was his fault or not, it was on Ed's watch that a rival party emerged that, for the first time since at least 1993, seriously threatens the Progressive Conservative dynasty. It is nonetheless worth reflecting on the fact that Mr Stelmach's resignation announcement came less than 3 years after his winning an electoral landslide. What changed to compromise Steady Eddie's political security when he'd already proven that he can kick the Wildrose Alliance to the curb? Danielle Smith?

Which brings me to the main thesis of this post, which is that personality - and personalities - matter more, and ideology less, in politics than many observers appreciate. While it is generally recognized to matter with respect to the individual party leaders, consider the fact that the next tier of people below the leader are also, well, people, with personalities, and so on down.

Daveberta's blogpost on the resignation of Alberta Liberal David Swann (left) has attracted no less than 60 comments, and a comment by Calgary Grit, the most read (or perhaps just most readable) blogger on federal politics who (formerly) hails from Alberta is a representative example of the sort of punditry that gets a lot of thumbs up from those who have not been heavily involved in internal party politics and/or the machinery of government. CG contends that the Alberta Liberal Party and the fledgling Alberta Party occupy the same "centrist" ideological ground, while "[Wildrose leader Danielle] Smith and [PC leadership candidate Ted] Morton [are] splitting the right wing vote..." To a lot of people it makes perfect sense to look through an ideological prism like this and assume one is getting a reasonably complete view. While I have never really been a true political party "insider", based on what experience I do have, and especially upon my experience working within the machinery of government in a central agency, I would characterize this perspective as one that perhaps ought to be satisfactorily explanatory, but not one that is.

Consider how the cogs of government policy actually turn. Suppose you were to come into a position of real political power in a parliamentary democracy. This would generally involve being elected and then being assigned a cabinet position responsible for a ministry. The first thing one would be expected to look at after being sworn in would be the briefing books prepared by the civil servants in one's Department. A great many problems will be identified in these materials and solutions suggested, problems and solutions that never made it into the political campaign debates because 1) the issues are too dull to interest the electorate or 2) the solutions are generally unpopular with the electorate. When I first loaded up my 1982 Mazda RX-7 with my limited personal effects to drive from Edmonton to Ottawa nine years ago and begin work for what was then Paul Martin's Department of Finance, I was curious as to how the competing ideologies would play out in the policy discussions that occurred. Of course, at the end of day the elected Minister makes the final policy call, but what of the details? I was ultimately struck by how un-ideological the Department actually was and I came to appreciate how frequently "ideological differences" are just political campaign artifacts as opposed to seriously competing policy alternatives.

Having said that, I have to concede that the dominant culture is only non-ideological if one sees organizations like the IMF, OECD, World Bank, European Commission, etc as non-ideological. Some strong leftists would contend that there is an "anti-people" or "corporate" agenda dominating these entities and if that's true then this agenda dominates the culture in provincial finance ministries as well. But I don't believe it is, in fact, a left or right matter nearly so much as a matter of how populist one is in one's sensitivities. It's not the job of, say, an OECD economist to recommend what the "people" want. What the people want in the short term may be in full contradiction with what they want in the long term. Now, there are several "think tanks" that are clearly "ideological" in almost everyone's eyes and an organization like a Department of Finance or a Privy Council Office is somewhat analogous to a think tank, but neutralize the funding of these think tanks (e.g. take self-styled "progressive economist" Jim Stanford off the union payroll, or diversify the Frontier Centre's funding from former Alberta Report readers) and a remarkable consensus would emerge on most issues. As it is, I think the consensus is already there, one simply has people like Stanford trying to obscure the "expert" consensus on, say, the efficiency of corporate taxes at the one end while at the other end the Frontier Centre obscures it on, say, the efficiency of carbon taxes.

As a newly minted minister, one's first lesson would thus concern how one's ideas about what one is going to do in office have to be heavily modified based on the advice of one's ministry re what is feasible and just what the most pressing problems are. An example here would be how neither Jim Flaherty nor the federal Tories in general felt that income trust taxation was a problem in need of a solution before taking office. It was after being bombarded with memos from the civil service saying there was a problem that Flaherty eventually overruled his political staff to make a move on the file (as an aside, when I learned that Wildrose constituency operations manager Dave Shillington was part of Flaherty's political office at the time, although I suspected we would end up disagreeing on something significant in Wildrose it wasn't until Dave indicated to me that he was inclined to take a laissez-faire attitude towards how nominations were conducted that I saw a red flag for a disputed nomination at some point down the road and, more ominously, a party culture that sees loud self-promoters advance at the expense of quieter voices).

The decisions of real consequence cannot, or at least should not, be taken unilaterally by a minister, however, even if the decision is well-informed by consultations with one's Department, external experts, and industry. One still has to convince one's cabinet colleagues. Suppose I was elected as the sole Wildrose MLA from within Edmonton city limits. I might have to be made finance minister simply because, given the political realities, an Edmontonian would have to get a post that at least appears to be among the most important. Now of course I would be encouraging my cabinet colleagues running line departments to support cuts to or at least caps on their budgets, and especially cuts to line items are only indirectly related (as in the case of wages and benefits for current provincial workers) or not related at all (as in the case of benefits for retired provincial workers) to the quality and quantity of services delivered to the general public. But how much power I would actually have in this situation, at the top level of internal party politics and of the government machinery, is only very approximately suggested by what an external pundit like Calgary Grit reckons the ideological positioning of my party to be. The personalities of those around the cabinet table matter far more, and it matters more the higher one gets.

When I blogged here last year saying I should no longer be described as a current Wildrose supporter, I noticed a couple people wanting to explain my defection in terms of ideology. As someone who joined the Wildrose Party even before it merged with the Alberta Alliance, I'm easily perceived as a fiscal conservative ideologue who cannot tolerate the ideological compromises that a mature brokerage party must inevitably make. But in fact I believe I would have more influence and work more effectively as part of an Alberta Party cabinet than a Wildrose one, despite the fact the Alberta Party is universally seen as significantly to the left of Wildrose. If I wasn't a member of a the cabinet but a backbencher or even just a local constituency figure, the situation would be same but at a lower intensity. Now it's true that in a parliamentary system, it is the first minister who drives cabinet dynamics. If the party leader wants to shoot down a spending proposal originating from a line department, for example, he or she will typically ask the finance minister for his or her thoughts at the cabinet table. In the case of Wildrose, although Danielle Smith would make a good premier, if I demanded that we go to war with the public service unions, or cut back on all the programs that amount to subsidies to farmers and accordingly distort the provincial economy, I doubt that she would be keen to back me in a dispute with, say, Rob Anderson who would warn darkly of the political consequences of picking a fight with the unions, or Link Byfield who would be sensitive to the political consequences of alienating rural Alberta. This isn't to say that I'm concerned the leader would tell me to sit down and shut up. I can't even imagine Danielle telling someone to sit down and shut up. It's rather that she wouldn't tell anyone to sit down and shut up and as a consequence the voice of the professional policy community would be left to fend for itself against the self-promoters, opportunists, demagogues, and assorted lobbyists. It's the power of personalities. If people think my problem is that I'm upset about having ended up on the losing side of an ideological showdown, I can only say, "if only!" There was about as much of an ideological showdown as the one in the federal Tory party that led it to going on a spending spree when in government (which is to say, effectively none).

Which brings me to Doug Griffiths. Not only does Doug (at left with wife Sue, photo from Facebook) make time to hear out the professional policy community, he understands how these sorts of people get drowned out and pushed aside in the jungle of politics. He's a fiscal conservative, which of course I find salutary, but more important to his appeal to pundits across the spectrum is that he does not try to push a particular agenda per se so much as call for a framework that ensures that sober, serious, evidence-based agendas win out. If Doug were first minister, I believe he would be less interested in getting his way, like so many politicians who have a pre-conceived and rigid idea about what's wrong with world and how they are going to fix it, than in ensuring that those who are following the advice they are getting from their Departments and non-partisan experts get a full hearing despite the political risks, and, more importantly for democracy, ensuring that that hearing occurs in front of Albertans as opposed to behind closed doors. I don't just endorse Doug Griffiths for leader of the Progressive Conservative Association of Alberta. Whether Alberta Party, PC Party, or Wildrose, if Griffiths were contending for the leadership I would be taking out a membership to support him. I admit that this seems to contradict my call for more ideology, or more precisely more ideas and consistency in those ideas, in what distinguishes and defines political parties, but that's because I think it generally needs to be made clear to campaign volunteers and donors that they are working for something larger, that they are a part of, than just a person who is not a part of their personal lives. I am not asking readers here to help advance someone's political career because he deserves it. I don't know Doug personally and I don't know what he deserves in terms of his personal fate. I support Doug Griffiths because what he stands for deserves support.

Liberal party? Whenever I think about joining the Alberta Liberals, which is never for more than an occasional nano-second, I ask myself how I would explain the move to friends and family. The politically active could potentially understand, but everyone else would think I've lost my compass completely. I could call attention to a selection of Kevin Taft speeches but Taft is no longer leader. Federally, besides the Liberals there is no other option to the Harper Conservatives that isn't fundamentally at odds with either the federation or the prosperity-creating business community. That's not the case in Alberta.

In any case, I'm not the only person who ran for election under the Wildrose Alliance banner in 2008 to now be mulling support (if not more) for the relatively legacy-free (dare I say, baggage-free) Alberta Party.