Tuesday, April 24, 2012

2012 Alberta election post-mortem

I ended up ordering special software to get around the Great Firewall of China such that I'm not blocked from blogging after all (at least for this week, not sure yet if I'll renew).

In my last post I had considered expressing my suspicion that Wildrose would skid in the end because they were taking the populist route to such an unprecedented degree I wondered whether they could really drive straight into the teeth of "elite" opinion and win. I hinted at this when I noted that the federal Conservatives are not always offside with the public policy establishment and but declined to make a prediction since I did not really understand why Wildrose was riding as high in the polls as they were and my on-the-ground experience as a candidate in 2008 taught me that it's very difficult to predict without polls, never mind with them. I also thought it was a strategic mistake for Redford to make an issue about the "conscience rights" the Wildrose platform calls for and I'd stand by that in terms of keeping many traditional PC party voters home but I neglected to consider how she might pick up traditional Liberal and NDP voters to more than make up for the PC voters that might well have been long gone anyway.

I recall reading somewhere that when it comes to Canadian elections, the safest bet is on the most boring outcome and that certainly seems to be true in Alberta. The PCs go into the election with 60-some seats and they go out with... 60-some seats. La plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose...

First, the best and worst outcomes of the night in terms of riding wins and losses:

Paul Hinman's failure to get re-elected in Calgary Glenmore is surely disappointing but creates a very important thought point that might get the Wildrose braintrust to rethink the road they have gone down. We win Glenmore in 2009 even before Danielle became leader, never mind before Rob Anderson was brought in and Tom Flanagan put in charge of policy, and we lose it in 2012. Hello! By far the biggest story of the night is the way urban voters turned away from Wildrose at the last minute and aside from Heather Forsyth, who enjoyed the advantages of incumbency, the only riding inside Edmonton or Calgary city limits to go Wildrose was Calgary-Shaw. Paul's fate, and the fact that Link Byfield didn't win anyway despite the current Wildrose obsession with the land bills, ought to be cause for pause but given that the Globe is reporting that on election night "Ms. Smith said her first priority as Leader of the Opposition will be rural issues" (and, according to other sources, won't do interviews today) suggests to me that perhaps she's OK with the party's current stance and isn't going to make a serious bid for premier in 2016 after all. With an overwhelmingly rural caucus seeking its own re-election, Danielle will have to have the confidence to push back against the flow if she's going to position Wildrose as any more urban friendly going forward.

The greatest disappointment then, in my mind, is not Calgary Glenmore which might prove instructive but Todd Loewen's loss in Grande-Prairie-Smoky. Todd is no political opportunist. We both ran under the Wildrose Alliance banner in 2008 and I thought the party was very fortunate to have Todd leading the way as our organizer in the Peace Country. For a conviction politician he is still very sensible and a great guy to work with.

Doug Griffiths is by far my favourite Progressive Conservative and I would like to be non-partisan enough to say his win, which makes him the southernmost rural PC MLA excluding Banff, best result but the fact he has helped put Redford the Red (or "Alison Redflag" as my mother says) back into the premier's office restrains me. So I'm going to go with Shayne Saskiw's election as most encouraging.

As the only Wildroser elected north of Ponoka, Shayne's going to have even more influence than he already has on the party. I've boosted Shayne on this blog in the past and I'll admit that a good part of my enthusiasm is based on his resume. I just happen to think the resume is very important since legislator is, after all, a job. I haven't met Shayne personally and have heard mixed things about his character. I do know that he's no Todd Loewen when it comes to commitment to the conservative cause since after calling me in 2008 to say he supported my campaign (he lived near the Edmonton Clareview LRT station at the time) he later indicated on his Facebook page that he was a supporter of the not-very-nice and not-very-effective PC candidate who ran over me in 2008, Tony Vandermeer. That said Shayne is highly qualified to be a MLA and defies the hillybilly stereotype.

What to say about the result generally? The political career of Ted Morton should have created more doubt about whether Wildrose would triumph once voters stopped telling pollsters the uptrending newish party was their choice and actually dwelt on whether they supported a party that chose to pick a fight with the Globe and Mail and the "elite". Look at today's G&M editorial and what do they express concern about? "... public-sector pay in Alberta rose by 119 per cent in the first decade of the 21st century, a rate almost double that of the rest of Canada." We heard very little about this issue from Rob Anderson and the Wildrose, and into the vacuum entered old comments by Wildrose candidates Ron Leech and Alan Hunsperger. I understand the gameplan did not call for a vacuum and Flanagan's Five Points were supposed to be the focus of attention but if the media doesn't do it the voters at least will try to set up the election as some sort of choice and there's minimal controversy in an "Accountability Act." Who is going to choose against that? If there were any back-and-forth on any of the Five Points, it would actually work against Wildrose because the media would start quoting pundits who were not keen on the economics of what was being proposed. Wildrose was thus left in the position of having to hope to just coast through the final week of the campaign. But a flare up will be invented if necessary and sure enough social issues hit the headlines. I believe the electorate may have still understood the Leech and Hunsperger remarks for what they are, which is of marginal relevance to how a Wildrose government would actually govern, if Danielle herself had not waded into the climate change issue like she did. It may well have galvanized voters into concluding that perhaps Wildrose truly intends to go to war against the "elite" and the foreigner which would in turn have consequences for Alberta's reputation if her party formed government. I have my own doubts about the climate change "issue" if not climate change itself but I look at the facts and don't put myself into the position of looking foolish should evidence emerge that was absolutely undeniable and unquestionable. Compare here again to the Harper Conservatives. Harper gets the votes of climate change deniers without standing up and explicitly denying himself.

Too many federal Conservative tactics and policies were imported into Wildrose without consideration of the fact that the feds have government experience and a corresponding familiarity with where the civil service stands and with where public policy experts are coming from. Vitor Marciano even admitted that the $1000 keep quiet bond was demanded of candidates for the simple reason that the federal Tories demanded the same thing. Fact is regional identification is a huge issue that drives Alberta's support for the Harper team and in turn has limited Wildrose to Alberta's rural south. Consider the fact that PC incumbent Hector Goudreau edged out the Alberta Alliance candidate 3670 to 3332 in Dunvegan-Central Peace in 2004 and in 2012 edged out the Wildrose candidate 3983 to 3756. You're not winning the rural north anyway, so why not go for the urban vote, which means enough with the dumping on anyone who might be at all cosmopolitan! Wildrose was crushed in Edmonton Whitemud, 12087 to 3381, but this is an area where the left wing would never have a chance. Edmonton's southwest happens to be one of the most educated areas in the province demographically. Last summer's HST referendum in British Columbia saw the most educated ridings vote "Yes"; more and more votes were coming over the the Yes side as the months went by such that a victory there was entirely possible had their been more time. Yet the current strategists in Alberta's Wildrose party would continue to scoff at any suggestion that the party take a chance by backing an expert supported policy like the HST. Be that way then but consider whether repeating your 2012 campaign in 2016 is going to get you any closer to government.

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"