It became inevitable. Alison Redford’s resignation. After abandoning promises made to supporters, rising debt, all it took was a trip to Nelson Mandela’s funeral (and other associated travels) and the departure of two MLA’s to precipitate this action on Wednesday.
This may all seem odd to the rest of Canada. Here we are in the most prosperous province, the boom still on and low unemployment rate, and there is strife with the ruling party. Especially, in a ruling party that has been in power after 43 years and the sentiment of stable government the preferred state for Albertans.
Where did this go wrong?
Redford came to power in the 2011 leadership race. She was a fresh face, well-spoken, always impeccably dressed (with her signature pearl necklace and perfectly coiffed hair), as well as, more importantly, a spectacular lineage as a lawyer, a stellar dossier of international experience and the ability to take on the “old boy” network. She entered the leadership race with the sole support of a single back bench MLA. Her win was a result of her reaching out to Alberta’s progressives and bringing them under the tent. She was a moderate as the tide was turning toward the centre in Alberta’s politics.
Now at middle-age, the Progressive Conservatives (PC) Party’s was starting to show the associated signs of sag and spread. The most dramatic change beginning with the disenchantment during the Klein era and under Stelmach’s leadership that resulted in the formation of the Wildrose Party. Redford was reluctantly accepted by the Party’s governing body – Progressive Conservative Association of Alberta (PCAA) – and caucus with hope of Party’s reinvention.
Redford’s flirtation with the left was fruitful in 2012 when the PC Party won another majority. But this election exposed weakness with the ruling party. Facing a potential defeat and a Wildrose majority, the Party cried wolf and garnered support from the centre-left parties to fend off this right-wing threat. Albertans sent a message – while they were not happy with the PCs, they did not identify with nor wish the rest of the world to see their province associated with the Wildrose’s brand of politics. The PCAA knew they dodged the proverbial bullet.
Living in Alberta you actually come to appreciate the work ethic of the PC Party (and for many, begrudgingly so). The Party remains a conundrum in Canadian politics – it is actually big tent party that comprises the entire political spectrum. For years that diversity of thought served the party well. So strong the Party brand was that to win a nomination race meant that you would likely going to win a seat in Alberta’s legislature.
But one of the oddities of being in power 43 years is that there is a new generation of MLAs that grew up knowing nothing about PC rule. Let alone starting their careers among their “Generation PC” cohort. This is a generation whose social capital, careers, financial status and friendships are defined by their relationship to the Party. This is where arguments of entitlement have taken hold – when you grow up under royalty, you begin to think and act like royalty. There is also the dimension that this is a family business – with dad being the PCAA, there is a constant reminder for those who ascend to premier or caucus that they are the progeny of a successful, powerful franchise.
With these intricate connections comes the problem of groupthink and lack of creativity in policy. There is typically limited desire for the “family business” to engage Albertans on serious issues facing the province while the economy is humming along and the party is strong in the public opinion polls – problems can be swept under the carpet.
This is why Redford – a product of the Party – became a problem. While it is debatable that she had the political capital to pursue her promises with newly engaged centre-left support, on the issue of the $45,000 trip to Mandela’s funeral it is hard to agree with what she did and how she dealt with it. Based on the strength of the Party brand, the strategy was initially to let it blow over. But there were more significant problems – fundraising… one of the key indicators of a Party’s brand strength, dropped under her leadership. When it comes to party politics, money matters. Combined with an increasingly well-funded Wildrose party, the first formidable opposition in years, as the polls dipped, her disconnection with caucus exposed, the patriarch of the business stepped in and took back the keys. As Gwyneth Midgely astutely tweeted: “… she’s betrayed the left and was never wanted by the right – what was she thinking?”
A statement by Steve Robson, President, Edmonton-Beverly-Clareview PC riding association, during the melee last week was particularly enlightening: “Alison’s group doesn’t care about the people who got the party to where it is in the first place, at all. I would like the PC party to be in power after the next election … I don’t think the PCs will win with her in power.”
While the cliché that politics is all about power holds true, the PCs mission has become exclusively about staying in power. When your sole focus is about winning elections you forget how to govern. This balance between governing and winning elections was abandoned during the Klein Era. The PC Party is a well-oiled machine and for years made the effort to stay connected with and attuned with their constituents. But over the last decade, things have changed and it is time that that the Party got caught up with Alberta itself. The public wanted Redford. Not the PCAA.
While some may say this is schadenfreude, dissent and Redford’s resignation have exposed cracks in the PC’s armour. The Party prides itself in reinventing itself via “change from within.” However, with the younger generation hoping to take the reins, like a family business, conflict with PCAA stalwarts will likely be inherent and the Party’s concept of change may be pushed past its natural limits.
Recent polls by Angus Reid and ThinkHQ have also exposed Albertans to the reality of the Wildrose party gaining in strength. Born out of frustration and anger, this is a party founded from a family feud with the PC Party and a decidedly right-wing agenda. It is also a party closely aligned with Harper’s Conservative Party of Canada. Albertans have a right to be concerned. However, supporters of centre-left parties may be at their limit and likely will ignore the PC’s next very real “cry wolf” call.
Donna Kennedy-Glans, a former Minister, stated in departure on Monday: “I am increasingly convinced that elements of this 43-year old government are simply unable to make the changes needed to achieve that dream of a better Alberta.” This belief is shared by many and presents a problem for the PCAA where their intransigent culture is destroying the appeal of the brand, and aspects of entitlement being exposed regularly. They may take a lesson from Redford’s resignation – when supporters lose belief in what you have to offer, while the path is long, the demise is fast.