I thought I knew something about politics. I was involved in my first political campaign at 14 and, 35 years later, have been through the roller coaster of numerous elections as a candidate, campaign manager) and pundit. Then came the recent vote in Alberta. The devastation of a 44-year-old Conservative dynasty by Rachel Notley’s New Democrats overturned much of what I thought knew—what most of us thought we knew—about what matters to voters. Reflecting on it all, I’ve developed 10 updated working assumptions on how politics works in Canada today.
The aura of managerial competence matters (probably) more than anything.
We live in an era when the dominant expressed desire is for unobtrusive government, yet the State is more intricately involved with our lives than at any time in human history. The maxim of the moment is that morality cannot be democratically legislated. At the same time, almost all our institutions and their public activities require at least passing reference to democratic government whether for acceptance, approval, protection or, of course, funding.
A second paradox is that while we know power truly lies with the enduring public service, and the vagaries of global events, we look to temporarily elected politicians for competence in managing the massive complexities of the modern State. The Alberta Progressive Conservatives ruled the province for 35 years under three leaders, each radically different in style from his predecessor, but each able to project tangible evidence of being in control of widely varying circumstances. In their last nine years of governance, the Conservatives went through four leaders, three of them in the last four years. The sight of such political scrambling was more than unseemly. It was de-stabilizing to the trust Albertans placed in Conservative politicians to lead through good times and stay the course in bad. Pop went 44 years of faith in Tory managerial competence.
Political labels are less significant. In fact, they might not matter much at all.
If you are a federal Conservative in BC, you most likely vote Liberal provincially. In Alberta, two leaders who were caucus-mates for years in the federal Conservative party opposed each other provincially, and the vitriol between supporters of their candidacies was more intense than that directed to opposing parties. Examination of the Alberta NDP policy platform suggests it is similar to, in some cases to the right of, the platforms of Liberal and Conservative parties in other jurisdictions. If there is no national standard for defining what conservative, liberal, or new democrats believe, there is diminished capacity to fear-monger on the basis of mere party label. Where governments of yesteryear could warn voters about socialist hordes or Liberal spendthrifts or heartless Conservatives massing to take over a given jurisdiction, the very relativity of the terms makes such claims tactically suspect.
It’s all about pocketbook issues, except when it isn’t.
When I was a candidate running in Ontario several years ago, a fellow church member told me he could not vote for me because the industry association to which he belonged said my party’s policies might be harmful to them It embedded in my mind the motto: “At the end of the day, pocketbook issues always trump.”
The Alberta results show it’s time to amend that motto. There is no way the majority of Albertans, who directly or indirectly rely on the energy industry for their paycheques, thought voting NDP was in the best interest of their pocketbook. From the Lougheed years beginning in 1971 to the end of the Ralph Klein era in 2006, Albertans felt their government and the province’s dominant industry were generally in sync, and so the economy, whatever its periodic ups and downs, was not threatened by government mismanagement. But in 2015, with oil prices subject to catastrophic price fluctuations and the provincial economy extremely fragile, they gave their votes to a party that has traditionally been highly sceptical of, if not overtly hostile to, the energy industry. Clearly, there are those times when something other than pocketbook issues do trump.
One them is clearly ... Loyalty. Big time.
There is little doubt the floor crossing by Wildrose leader Danielle Smith (along with 10 of her colleagues) played a significant role in the Alberta election. Dispassionately, one might make a case that the policy differences between Jim Prentice and Danielle Smith did not warrant them being in separate parties. But politics is not dispassionate. Campaigns are fought on many things, but it’s a mistake to minimize the importance of team colours. Even a casual following of the Twitter and social media comments of partisans makes clear that intensity of vitriol is greatest towards those who are politically closest. That is why a federal Liberal-NDP alliance (or an Alberta PC-Wildrose alliance) is far more difficult to achieve and maintain than would first appear. It is why the federal Progressive Conservatives and Reform (subsequently Canadian Alliance) spent almost 20 years fighting each other more intensely than they did other parties, against their own ideological self-interest.
Years ago, political scientist and political insider Tom Flanagan argued the case at a Manning Centre conference for what he called the “chimpanzee politics” of coalition building—the primacy of trade offs based on naked self-interest. Preston Manning argued the contrary: that ideals and principals count just as much, and perhaps most of all when it comes down to the fine nuances of each. What the Alberta election demonstrated is that loyalties and passions are as significant political variables as policy and ideology. Harnessed properly, as they were by the NDP, they can be the means to power. Left as free-floating radicals of personal ambition, they can topple the seemingly unassailable.
Meaning ... Character and conviction have gained pride of place.
Close cousins of competence, the projection of character and conviction by NDP leader Rachel Notley was no act of accidental political tourism. NDP campaign organizers have said publicly in the aftermath of the win that they keyed early, and returned endlessly, to Notley’s capacity to show voters she had personal integrity and strength of character that transcended the cynicism of contemporary politics. Of all the elections I have voted in, the Alberta election provided a most difficult choice.
I use a three fold criteria for voting decisions. Competence comes first. It doesn’t matter how much I like or agree with you, if you’re not up to doing the job well, I shouldn’t vote for you. Character is the second criterion. Leadership involves trust, integrity and transparency of conviction. I will vote for someone with whom I disagree, but who has integrity, over a candidate I agree with but feels lacks it. Finally, conviction or policy. The challenge I faced in Alberta is that when it came to party leaders, I judged Prentice the most competent; Notley as having the most integrity; and Wildrose leader Brian Jean as having a policy platform that most aligned to what I prefer.
Ultimately, though, I did not believe the Conservative budget achieved what needed to be done. The Wildrose platform had some appeal but on close inspection was simplistic. I found it very difficult to vote for party whose leaders I viewed as either lacking character or incompetent, regardless of the platform.
Which shows that ...
Catch assumptions 6-10 on the Cardus Daily here.