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?