Tuesday, July 21, 2009

It's Not About Boutilier - It's About Politics and Leadership

Political leadership, particularly when in government, has three key elements. There is the party leadership, caucus leadership and the government leadership. They are all different but they are significantly overlapping elements that together determine the effectiveness of modern political leadership.

Premier Stelmach's government leadership is legally and technically secure for at least three years until the next election. Given that timing and his impressive majority government in the last election plus the enormous political powers of the Premier's office as head of state, Stelmach is pretty secure, at least technically and conventionally.

Stelmach has just confirmed and consolidated his caucus leadership with his unilateral, fast and furious firing of the backbencher Guy Boutilier. Boutilier built his political bed and the caucus knows it. They concur with the Premier's conclusions and support his actions. Boutilier, while appearing to merely represent his constituency, which is his right and his duty, his timing and technique was off as a government MLA and member of Treasury Board. He left Stelmach no choice but to expel him from the PC caucus. I expect a strong caucus backing for the Premier's decision. It will not be out of fear for future reprisals but rather for better teamwork and better policy execution in what will be difficult times ahead.

On the other hand, Stelmach's governing leadership is being actively questioned on the streets all over Alberta. It is mostly happening in Calgary and led by energy sector executives but there are others who are also grumbling and rumbling about him too. The Calgary based energy sector seems to have made it their mission to undermine the Premier, allegedly over royalties, but their angst goes deeper. It goes all the way back to Stelmach's "surprise" winning of the PC Party leadership over Jim Dinning. Dinning was the Calgary choice for heir apparent to the Premiership. That never happened and some of the Calgary elite have never gotten over it.

Now we come to party leadership. Here is where members of the PC Party of Alberta get to rate Stelmach and relay a message to their party leader. It could be good, bad and even ugly. We have no idea today what the outcome will be. This party leadership evaluation will not be done without serious consideration of all the duties and responsibilities Stelmach has as Premier. So frustrations will be tempered by reality when the vote happens.

Like politicians, political party influentials also want to retain political power. Winning elections for rabid political partisans is not everything, it is the only thing. Indications are that the party faithful were pleased with the Premier's performance at the recent Policy Conference. A good sign. However a recent poll however has shown no growth in the Premier's support since the last election and some surprising softness in rural Alberta. If winning is the only thing how will that desire drive the decision about Stelmach's party leadership performance in the climate of an AGM, not a policy conference?

Policy conferences attract a different kind of partisan political animal than show up at AGMs. Policy wonks are interested in talking and exploring ideas, political processes and governance issues - forever! They are often more interested in getting the governing right and forget the need to get the right to govern thing done first. AGMs, on the other hand, attracts a more red meat kind of partisan player. These are folks who are more interested in the power of politics and being ready for the next big political fight. They want to do what it takes to win elections. Leadership is job #1 for achieving that goal for any political party.

The PC Party Constitution requires that its leader be subjected to what is essentially a confidence vote at the next AGM after each election - win or lose. That vote will happen at the November AGM in Red Deer. I think there is good reason to be concerned about the final outcome. Who will show and how will they vote? What issues or concerns will be on their minds as they "evaluate" the Premier as the leader of their party? Will we have pooled political ignorance or collective reflective wisdom in determining the outcome? What pressures will be brought to bear on party members leading up to the process? There is a lot at stake this November no matter how you look at it.

Ralph Klein, much to his surprise, was turfed as leader of the PC Party at one of these AGM evaluation votes. If Ed Stelmach suffers the same fate will we be back into a PC leadership race for the Premiership of the province as soon as spring of 2010? Will we be in a federal election at that time too? What will an early leadership campaign do to the PC political brand and the confidence Albertans? Will Albertans be happy with another chance to select a Premier - or not? What will be the impact on the economy? Will a lack of strong support for the Premier cause investment uncertainty and will it prolong the recession? Or will the party decide that another change is necessary and will they cause it to happen, sooner than later? Damn the consequences!

So I think Premier Stelmach's caucus leadership is well in hand. Government leadership is always a work in progress and the record so far is mixed. But the party leadership is also in play. It may have a serious negative impact on the other two political leadership realms, especially if the party evaluation of the Premier goes badly. Even a tepid support for the Premier's party leadership in November will damage the Premier, the party and the province. I expect a full court press from the PC caucus to encourage PC party members to show up and indicate their strong support Stelmach's party leadership in November and that will start in earnest by mid September.

There a hundreds of critical questions facing the future of Alberta. But make no mistake about the importance of the PC Party leadership results. That may determine much of the future for the province. This November in Red Deer is when a small group of Albertans, who just happen to be members of the PC Party, will show up at their Annual General Meeting. They will take a vote and they will make a very important decision. They will have the power to impact the entire future of the province.

It all depends on how they express their confidence in Premier Stelmach in a secret ballot vote. That all depends on how they feel about Premier Stelmach's overall leadership performance at the time. That enormous power is in the hands of a small group of citizens who belong to what is essentially private club, namely the Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta.

November is a long way off and lots can happen. The 100 days between now and November is an eternity in politics. Let's hope for the best but lets not presume anything between now and then. There is much at stake for all Albertans, not just the political partisans. The outcome of the PC Party AGM vote on the party leadership this November will dramatically impact the entire province - regardless of the final results. Scary eh?


  1. Anonymous4:22 pm

    It is more than a little strange that you suggest that Albertans might get the chance to select a new Premier and yet you make it abundantly clear that it is the Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta which will decide if a new Premier is to be selected. While I know that one of the tennants of the PC Party of Alberta is that they are the natural governing party of Alberta and all that, maybe you could be a tiny bit more clear regarding who will be selecting a new Premier should that eventuality come to pass. There is, after all, at least some modicum of difference between Alberta and Albertans as a whole and the PC Party of Alberta!

  2. Ken,

    I love your ongoing wrangle with Alberta politics. Now, do your blog readers a favour and take some time to reformat the style of your blog--it's not eye-pleasing or welcoming enough to want to make me come back regularly.


  3. Some items I will disagree on:
    1) The Premier is NOT the 'Head of State', the Lieutenant Governor is.
    2) When the Government spends taxpayer dollars to advocate Conservative party lines (for example incessant advertising in western media against the Canadian Wheat Board) is not the use of 'enormous powers' but the abuse of system and theft of money.
    3) It IS about Boutilier and Leadership. Guy would be one of the next logical choices and with Calgary pissed off about Stelmach - regardless of the reason - and Boutilier's excellent record of representation there is a clear likelihood people will see him as a potential Lougheed. Stelmach is simply acting out of fear.
    4) The caucus IS afraid of reprisals from the premier's office, the entire restructuring of health care, besides fitting into the party-elite's agenda of rendering public health care dysfunctional in order to please their multinational health-relatied company friends, served to punish those who were Dinning supporters and had plum politcal jobs, like health region chairs.
    5) As long as Alberta remains under the absolute control of Big Oil, who the party leader is and even which party forms the government is totally unimportant. Oil corrupts and Big Oil corrupts absolutely.

  4. Thx for the comment Don. You are correct the Lt Gov is the Head of State but not in a power and political sense - almost purly ceremonial in function. I cold haver used a better descriptor of the political power of the Premier's office.

    I don't think Alberta spent money to advertise against the CWB. Haprer might have.

    There is no evidence that Boutilier is the next Lougheeed. Stelmach wes acting out of frustration so far as I see things.

    Is causucs fearful of the Premier's office? Not over the Boutilier decision but some sure seemed to be MIA when they avoided the oporutnity to exercies a so-called "free vote" on Bill 44

    As for Big Oil's "absolute control" that is as much our fault as Albertans as it is anyone elses. We are culpable for failing to act as owners of the resources. We are way too passive in exercising our responsibilites to ensure our tenants (the energy sector) and our proxies (our government) act in ways that are more responsible, respectful and sustainable.

  5. I have been asked who gets to vote on the leadership review at the PC AGM. The Constitution roughly designates delegated voters. There are 15 Delegates from each constituency plus party officials, Federal MPs representing Alberta, current and former PC MLAs, 20 Youth delgates and 2 from each post secondary campus club, 35 from the fund raising committees and 15 members from the Provincial Campaign committee. The exact details are on the PC Party Consititution webit look at clause 13

    It is not one member one vote for the leadership review like it is for the leaderhsip itself.

  6. Anonymous9:36 am

    Federal MPs? Of all parties, or just the CPC? If it's just CPC MPs then that's an explicit link between the provincial PCs and the federal CPC that I did not know existed. That would seem very odd, given that the two parties are supposedly unaffiliated with one another.

  7. Sorry just CPC Federal MPs representing Alberta get to vote as I understnd it. Linda Duncan is not likely to be eligible ;-)

    Some think this is not a "private club" because anyone who wants to can join. True but will they be selected as constituency delegates or youth delegates? I have no problem with this at the political party level. I just wanted to point out the power of political parties have in influencing the workings of our democracy.

  8. Anonymous9:47 am

    "I expect a strong caucus backing for the Premier's decision. It will not be out of fear for future reprisals but rather for better teamwork and better policy execution in what will be difficult times ahead."

    Get serious Ken. It will absolutely be out of fear of future reprisals. Nothing like a flogging in the town square to show the peasants who's in charge.

  9. Anonymous9:57 am

    The idea that Boutlier could be a potential Premier suggets that the author of the comment doesnt know him or know his vulnerabilities. He stands no chance.

    But the Premiers announcement of "no new taxes while I am Premier" is a response to concerns re the November leadership review - there is no other rational explanation for this.

    Ken raises strong issues about his leadership - his own cabinet colleagues are privately expressing concerns and feel that he is not leading from the front or from behind but from the side. Not good.

    We're in for an interesting period between now and Xmas

  10. Harry4:52 pm

    Um, Don, Boutilier as a potential Lougheed? Why don't you ask any public servant of a Ministry he was in charge of. Nothing like making gov officials lie to cover a Minister's tracks to make one into a candidate for Premier.

  11. Anonymous11:20 am

    This is certainly not the time to refuse to support the Premier at the Leadership Review, solidarity provides good Government. What is needed is a Cabinet shuffle before the next session begins, not just a movement of chairs but a relocation of MLAs into Ministerial positions usually has a positive effect.