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Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Thoughts on Why Ed Stelmach Won the PC Leadership

My previous post was about why Dinning and Morton lost the 2006 PC leadership. That commentary was based on a study we did on leadership qualities Albertan’s were looking for in the the summer of 2003. A visit to the previous post will give you some context on the leadership attributes we considered.

What was it about Ed Stelmach that the Albertans liked about him when they showed up to chose him as their next Premier last December? The most significant positive Preparation driver for leadership in Alberta was someone with Business experience. None of the leadership candidates were strongly identified with having a business background, including Stelmach. However, his advantage was that he was also not identified with the other very negative Preparation attributes of being a professional politician, a lawyer or an academic. Other candidates were strongly identified with these negative attributes and that benefited Stelmach.

He was able to be identified with issues around the importance of Alberta’s role in Canada and the world. This was partly because of his past portfolios like Agriculture and top of mind issues like BSE and concerns about Alberta’s beef export access to American and other markets. His stint in International and Intergovernmental Affairs helped him understand and explain Alberta's place in a Canadian and international context. Stelmach’s recent success at the Council of the Federation, where he spent time explaining Alberta’s growth challenges and environmental plans, helped persuade most of the First Minister’s to sympathize with us and give us the benefit of the doubt and accept that we were engaged and up to the task.

In the end, I believe it was his personal qualities that made him the most attractive as the next PC leader and Premier. He was seen as an honest man with integrity and he campaigned aggressively on that theme. Even as a politician, he still farmed. That framed him to many as a potential leader who would not lose contact with the real lives of real people and not just identify and deal with the beautiful and bountiful or the rich and famous once he was in office.

His obvious ability to listen and even his lack of media skills would be perceived as positives in the campaign. Remember from the last posting, any media savvy candidate was seen as someone not to be trusted. They tended to be perceived as slick and masters of spin. The quality of being media savvy was a big leadership negative to Albertans in our survey results.

The other high value communications skill the survey showed was the ability to bring clarity to issues and to be a good listener. Stelmach is a very good listener. He sees and appreciates the complexity of most modern political issues and has a mind that likes to explore their implications and nuances. As a result clarity is sometimes sacrificed to his predilection for a fulsome understanding and "explanation" of the issues. In that way he is more like Jed Bartlett of the West Wing than George Bush of the Right Wing.

Being articulate was ranked as such a minor positive attribute that it could be considered as a neutral matter in our survey results. During the campaign, and ever since, the mainstream media in Alberta has made much of Stelmach’s “communications challenges.” Stelmach obviously lacks the polished “skill” of mouthing media-speak sound bite answers. That seems to drive the main stream media to distraction because they are so used to the professionally packaged politician. Citizens are not as concerned so long as they feel they can trust his judgement and his grasp of the issues. After all how many citizens get to (or have to) sit through an entire news conference or press briefing?

The second most important positive attribute for leadership from our study was being able to be an agent of change and to bring forth new ideas and support new ideas from others. This is where Stelmach's real potential lies, in championing changes. He has lots of change in progress in areas like energy policy, royalties and infrastructure funding. He is setting new priorities with an emphasis on innovation and technology, to concerns about managing growth and even raising issues about literacy.

He has instituted democratic reforms and reorganized the legislative policy committee structures to be all-party inclusive. He has introduced health reforms like legislation for smoking bans in public and work places. He is committed to cleaning up the teachers and other pension debts which was a holdover from Klein’s era. He is reviewing roles and responsibilities of agencies boards and commissions and the provincial government relationship with them including regional health authorities and municipalities. And he is instituting lobbyist legislation.

The record already shows Stelmach is an originator and supporter of new ideas and is a positive champion as an agent for change. None of this as yet to resonate with the mainstream media and, as a consequence, it is far from top of mind with the public. He is perceived by some, including me, as not having communicated very effectively nor has he executed political power particularly well.

There may be a change afoot however. The recent meetings in Moncton with the provincial Premiers at the Council of the Federation, Stelmach is being given media-based credit, for the first time, for his governance ability. He showed his capacity to articulate effectively, bring clarity to complex issues like climate change and GHG emissions and explain them in the context of accelerating economic growth pressures. And he has made the point of how Alberta's growth is benefiting the rest of Canada. All of these elements were identified by Albertans in our study way back in 2003 as the high value positive leadership attributes that we wanted for the next Alberta Premier.

Communicating clearly and executing the Premier's governance and political roles more effectively is a big part of what the PC government needs. These are key elements towards the Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta revitalizing, rejuvenating and retaining its position as the preferred voter choice to govern the next Alberta.

An election is less than a year away and the Red Zone is a few months away. If our survey findings are still valid, letting Ed be Ed in ways that show off his personal qualities is one of our "secret" weapons to this continued success. Showing off Stelmach's personal qualities and capacities, especially as a champion for positive change, is big part of what we need to do to reconnect with Albertans. There is no time to waste Mr. Premier.