Monday, April 16, 2012

a Wildrose government?

I'm at Vancouver airport waiting for my flight to Shanghai to board and once I arrive there I'll lose easy access to Twitter and Blogspot so I'll seize my one and only chance to comment on the Alberta election.

The prospect of a party that I was heavily involved with in 2007, 2008, and 2009 forming the government is an exciting one, after all, I don't regularly see people I've met personally on several occasions like Danielle and Link Byfield on TV never mind in positions of power. But the reality is this isn't the same party that I ran as a candidate for in 2008 and I'm not along for the ride this time.

Did it have to be this way for me? I've reflected on the what's happened since the beginning of 2010 and have concluded that the January 2010 floor crossings were the most decisive event of Wildrose history. It's true that Link was playing a dominant role in the party since 2007 and Danielle assumed the leadership in 2009, but frankly I don't see how Danielle has taken the party in a direction that wasn't in notable ways foreshadowed by Link early on. Link once asked me about agricultural policy and who amongst my acquaintances in the U of A faculty might help develop policy that would appeal to rural voters. This isn't the starting point for policy development that I'm accustomed to, of course. At Finance Canada, although there were certainly exceptions (such as the GST cut and the tax credits for kids sports), we started with a policy problem (such the the fact the income trust form of business organization was on track to dominate the way businesses are organized in this country) and then looked for solutions. A fellow MBA student who worked at Ag Alberta at the time told me that the civil service is well acquainted with the fact the rural voter runs the show in this province. I'm supposed to figure out a way to out-pander the PC party regarding rural votes?

If Link still envisaged some sort of role for me in the party with respect to policy this seemed to be further put away when Tom Flanagan was invited to address a group of Wildrosers on November 28, 2009 at the Calgary Airport. Flanagan basically laid out the plan that Flanagan is now following closely in April 2012: 1) ignore the membership (or expert?) created policy platform as much as possible, which just gives more targets for the competition 2) lock down communications and 3) run on 4 or 5 policies developed by a couple people at the top of the party. I told Link at the time I wasn't keen on Flanagan's prescription and the most striking thing for me was the incongruency between this and Link's frequent calls for having the grassroots determine the policy. For a long time Link's theme was that the Alberta PCs were top-down and controlling while Wildrose will take its direction from the little guy. For an even longer time my concern was that there wasn't enough opportunity for expert input into the policy process, yet at the end of the day the mass participation policy conventions did not end up mattering a great deal. Belinda Stronach was guilty of "venal ambition" according to Link but not those that cross to Wildrose? Belinda makes the Wildrose eminence grise "gag" but a $20K payout to a floor crosser's constituency association to help ensure the crosser keeps his or her job is just the cost of doing business, apparently. Fact is, I might have been able to stomach the crossings had there been any transparency surrounding what the terms were.

But it was never clear that I could never work with Link. And I never had a problem with Danielle besides her never giving any evidence that she was prepared to pull rank on Link and Rob Anderson. A telling example was Danielle's conversation with iNews880 reporter Liza Yuzda about the floor crossings on January 5, 2010:
"You would be asking both Heather and Rob to step down for a period of as long as six months," [Danielle said, re why standing for byelections were not demanded of the floor crossers], "because the by-election would be called at the pleasure of the current sitting government and I can imagine they wouldn't make it all that easy for either of them to be without an income for six months." [Smith added that Wildrose] party policy had been to require a by-election for 'floor-crossers' but, when it came to reality, they had to make a decision that worked for everyone.

There, in a nutshell, you have Danielle essentially admitting to more than what she was compelled to. In a word, I trust Danielle. When I once scratched my head about why she hired Stephen Carter, someone with bad debts and who didn't seem especially committed to the (at least then) Wildrose philosophy of government, she gave me a personal explanation at that November 2009 event. She surely didn't have to, but cared about what I thought. Rob Anderson's first impulse, in contrast, is to deny. "I really can't remember ... who asked for what" concerning the terms of the floor crossing, says Anderson. Yet "the CBC has obtained an email sent by Anderson to the party. In it, Anderson states that there was an arrangement made with leader Danielle Smith for that money — an arrangement made prior to Anderson and Forsyth crossing the floor." Bottom line is that I don't believe Anderson does not remember. Anderson once told me, "I clearly support “right to a secret ballot.” In fact, that topic never even came up at the convention - there was never a resolution vote." I checked the facts and this simply was not true. A measure calling for replacing this clause with some meaningless generic verbiage calling for "fairness" was "PROPOSED BY CAUCUS" and since I don't believe for a minute that Paul Hinman, a conscientious true conservative advocate for individual freedom, would support this measure this was necessarily a floor crosser's initiative.

Link was prepared to at least humour some of my ideas, like the tax talk that PC MLA and PC leadership candidate Doug Griffiths was trying to advance. I would be cautious about trusting Link with provincial money, not least because of what I've heard from Link's former Alberta Report employees (and, I should say, the financial relationship between Link's "Citizens Centre for Freedom and Democracy" and at least the early Wildrose), but as difficult as it would be with Link, it'd be even harder with Rob, and Rob seems to have a interest in Finance such that I would somehow have to find a way to act as an advisor to Rob on the file or be his parliamentary secretary if I ran for office again myself or something of that sort.

Now I'll grant that a possible solution would have been for Rob to have to accommodate me instead of the other way around. But that just wasn't in the cards when he crossed the floor and become the party's Finance critic. He became the "caucus" whereas I was just another party member. I would have had to have been on an equal standing which in turn would've meant running for the PCs in 2008 and crossing the floor like he did. And run for the PCs in 2008 I could not have possibly done. Rob is the odds on favourite to become Alberta's next Minister of Finance and I believe when he sits down with his civil servants and looks at the deficit problem for what it is it'll be clear to him that the real origin of the current deficit is the natural gas royalty fueled spending of 2006-2008. It is far easier to limit spending increases than to actually cut, and missing the opportunity to exercise restraint with natural gas royalties (which won't be returning to anything like their former level) has put the province into the position of having to make decisions that I don't think Rob is prepared to make, other than cutting the easy targets like the infrastructure budget.

Which brings me to the Wildrose's 5 point campaign plan. As so ably noted by former Liberal leader Kevin Taft, Alberta's failure to save is a grave disservice to future generations, and infrastructure spending is the one form of spending that at least leaves a potentially enduring physical asset behind after the cheques have been cut. But buildings don't vote and the civil service unions, along with the ordinary guy promised a handout, do. The tax breaks for families that engage in government approved activities is a left wing spending program in conservative guise. The (largely) non-partisan economists over at TaxVox have been complaining about this fragmentation of the tax code in North America for a long time now and conservative economists understand this point. The promise to pay out energy revenue to Albertans means the Heritage Fund faces even longer odds of ever actually growing in a significant way. A tax cut would at least create incentives to add to the economy and lower royalties would at least leave more money in corporate hands that are in a position to invest in property, plant, and equipment that could ensure more and higher royalties in the future. An unconditional cheque paid for simply existing arguably reflects the ultimate entitlement mentality. Besides the fact this is pro-cyclical and may well just drive inflation across the province, the "only if not in deficit" condition is not an economically significant condition. Why? Because what matters is net asset position. Running down the province's assets to fund current consumption does not become a better idea by looking at periodic income statements as opposed to what's happening to the balance sheet. It was, after all, the "we're not in deficit" argument that justified the circa 2007 spending spree that has make it so difficult to get out of deficit now.

When Danielle slammed "the Globe and Mail and the elites" I could only shake my head (again). The fact is that if the party had even one headline plank that economists, even just conservative economists, would support the Globe, or at least the Globe's Economy Lab, would help sell it. Witness the federal Conservative plan to cut corporate taxes.

Now maybe it's just me. It may be worth noting I also fell out with the local riding association, some of whom accused me of being a carpet bagger from the north side, and I have to admit I never did close a deal for a home in Ambleside in the end. I note that Edmonton South-West has decided to run a controversial candidate in any case.

I fell off the wagon because of ideas that are, well, ideas. Perhaps I'm just too abstract a personality. But living in the world as if it were the world you believe it ought to be is perhaps the only way to live in the world as it is.

"He goes away from a living woman to celebrate his pitiless wedding with a shadowy ideal of conduct. Is he satisfied - quite, now, I wonder?"
- Joseph Conrad, "Lord Jim"


Berry Farmer said...

Wow. Thanks Brian Dell. How thoughtful and well-expressed.

Glen said...

alreseI too am a former member and a CA President. Many descriptions you make are accurate and true to form. In my view, not many things are the same as in even 2010 except for Anderson's ego and spite.
The abandonment of principle for power is all too obvious. Surprised you did not mention The Godfather, VM. As you know, nothing happens on the administrative side without the approval of him or Anderson.
Good luck in China, it may be a great blessing to be there instead of tied to this scenario.

Anonymous said...

I, too, was considering running for the WRA. I left the party when it became obvious that the Adjustment Bureau had taken over from an untrustworthy grassroots...

Brian Dell said...

"You can say what you want, but you will lose the $1,000."
- Vitor Marciano

This official restriction, or as VM would perhaps style it "condition", of course merely hints at the legion of "unofficial" or informal restrictions, which are much more the real issue in my view than the official restrictions.

I would rather be in a party that officially kicked out dissidents in a public way but had some, shall we say independent-minded types advance to positions of influence, than in a party that never officially booted anyone and formally welcomed all but ignored and/or failed to appoint anyone who didn't act as a flunky to the leadership.

A Wildrose majority government would have some upsides but one of the worst downsides is the chilling effect that it will have on dissent. Vitor's approach will have been vindicated, in the eyes of many, and people like us former activists and organizers will become case studies in what to do if one wants to end up exiled to the political wilderness.

grumpy old timer said...

Hey remember when Link tried to oust Paul as leader and make a power grab for the party at the 2008 Red Deer AGM?

That guy is a jive turkey. He's done more to damage this party than help it. Oh and thanks Link for inciting rebellion among the Edmonton members of the Alberta Alliance and going off and forming your debt laden Wildrose Party.

Thanks Mr. Byfield sir for foisting Mr. Parliamentarian Rob James on us all, that worked out great.

Oh and remember that time you endorsed Avalon Roberts during the 2009 by-election nearly damaging Hinman's chance for winning the by-election? That was a smooth move on your part.

Hinman is the whole reason this party even has a legit shot at forming government. His win in CTW in 2004 and his by-election win. His 2005 leadership win that kept the crackpots at bay and his by-election win. Hinman had a major hand in recruiting Smith to run for leader.