Wildrose: 10 Points To Ponder
December 17th, 2014 is a day that will live in infamy. It is a day that marks a turning point in politics, democracy and Alberta's history. There are many words that have been written and many words to come, but as a long-time supporter of the Wildrose I felt the need to provide an assessment of where we’ve been, where we are and where we’re going from here.
Let’s begin with the obvious. Where did it all go wrong?
#1. Wildrose wasn’t clearly defined.
The Wildrose Party has a long history. Most people start recounting it from the merger of the yet-to-be registered Wildrose Party of Alberta and the right-wing Alberta Alliance in 2008. The party only really took off when two things occurred:
#1. Danielle Smith became leader.
#2. Former Premier Ed Stelmach raised royalty rates on the oil industry.
A flood of interest in the party, due to Danielle Smith’s charisma, a flood of money, and bad Stelmach policies turned the party into a magnet for the anti-PC vote.
The party was many things to many people and with an influx of volunteers, supporters and members, the party had too much ideological variety to be sustained. It was a grab bag of anti-PC malcontents. It was a group of people brought together in order to destroy the PC’s, rather than build something better. It was just too random.
I worked on a variety of Wildrose campaigns in 2012 and one thing that I noticed is that the people volunteering had very little in common. But first, let me back up...
I was introduced to the Alberta Alliance during the 2004 election. I was sent by Citytv (A-Channel at the time) to cover a rally with Randy Thorsteinson and was impressed with his hard-right rhetoric. The people in attendance were sparse and made up of older folks. The media I was with never gave him or the party much credit. I figured I’d keep my eye on them and, in the fall of 2009, I volunteered for Paul Hinman in the Calgary-Glenmore by-election.
At that time there were a variety of fringe right-wing parties floating around and, under Hinman, they consolidated under the Wildrose Alliance. I loved it, because I was (am) fantastically right-wing. My assumption was that anyone drawn to the Wildrose Party would be people like me or, at the very least, people slightly more conservative than what the PC party offered in 2009.
During the 2012 campaign I realized I was wrong.
People in 2012 were supporting the Wildrose Party because they were a new, populist party that people associated with friendly, photogenic Danielle Smith. I found myself campaigning alongside wildly different types of supporters. Liberals informed me that they were voting Wildrose because they offered the best alternative to a PC government. This was before they seemed to realize what the other, original half of the people in the party were about.
For example, I remember one lady got a robocall from the PCs reporting that Heather Forsyth was “very right-wing”. Her daughter had to explain to her that the Wildrose Party was MORE right-wing than the PC party. She was met with a blank stare. Apolitical people (or the normals as I like to call them) didn’t really get what Wildrose was and, when they did get it, they didn’t really like it. The Leech & Hunsperger fiasco was brushed off by strident conservatives at the time. We thought it was typical left-leaning media boilerplate. Loads of apolitical voters looked at the episode as an indication that the new party wasn’t ready (although PC Gordon Dirks, winning the Ron Leech riding, gives one pause for consideration).
This ideological divide carried on continually within the party as well...most notably between social conservatives and non-social conservatives. The former saw Wildrose as their creation: a principled party built for the purpose of pushing forth ideals based on tradition and common sense. They saw the later joiners as bandwagon jumpers that didn’t really “get it”. People that supported Wildrose, but appeared to be kind of liberal, seemed odd to the more hard-core supporters. The late joiners, however, saw the so-cons in the party as embarrassing hicks unable to keep up with the times. These were the same sort of smears so-cons were used to seeing from leftists, so the confusion continued. On top of this development, there was a divide between party brass and the grassroots. The brass wanted to go all in on compromise and a Danielle-style of watering down ideology, while the grassroots wanted more control and a rightward tilt. The AGM was an example of this.
It’s a really tough gulf to bridge.
I attended a lecture at the Manning Centre late last year and Danielle spoke about trying to hold together a coalition of conservatives within a political party. She made it clear that it is difficult to prioritize everyone’s interests and sometimes adopting one policy that a group desires requires burning another. An example of one of her pet issues was land rights. Rural constituents care about this a lot as every transmission line or gas pipeline can impact the land. Urban constituents...not so much. Every party requires give and take, but holding everyone together requires more than constant compromise and it requires a target bigger than defining yourself by what you’re not...in this case...PCs.
#2. Danielle Smith has some valid points.
"I look at it that we won. We took down two administrations — the [Ed] Stelmach administration and the [Alison] Redford administration — that were leading the province in the exact wrong direction," –
Smith on CBC
Wildrose was, at heart, a protest party. A protest against what the stagnant, corrupt and increasingly leftist PC party had become. Ed Stelmach was a disaster. Alison Redford was arguably worse. This was the reason for the rise of the Wildrose Party. Danielle said long ago that she didn’t leave the PC party, but that the party left her. Many people felt the same. After five years and the election of Jim Prentice to the Premier’s office, many average, conservative minded people weren’t quite so wound up anymore. Prentice has fairly decent conservative credentials. He’s made a lot of good moves over the past few months and the feeling was, why fight it? The party was looking at a period of decline. The latest poll numbers had Wildrose at NDP levels... roughly 20%. It was possible that the moment had passed and the party was going to fade away into bickering and decline. Things didn’t work out exactly as hoped, but Ed Stelmach is gone and forgotten and Alison Redford is ruined forever. Alberta is better off now and it was thanks to the Wildrose movement.
#3. There was no conspiracy.
Some people have speculated that a conspiracy was afoot to tank the party. Fact is, part of what makes Wildrose more of a protest movement than a real political party is the fact it is so ideologically driven. The honest agenda by most people involved was winning for conservatism, not necessarily for power.
Paul Hinman advocated Wildrose members take out PC memberships in order to vote for Ted Morton to lead the PC party, because Ted Morton is a fiscal and social conservative. Danielle Smith always thought she would join the PC party as a candidate and work from the inside to purport her libertarianism. Merger talks had been in the works for months. Reports of a behind-the-scenes, unite-the-right Blue Committee, started even before Wildrose really took off in Alberta.
Some have speculated that the by-elections were lost on purpose or that too much money was spent in order to drain the Wildrose coffers. This is baloney. If too much money was spent, it was because Wildrose knew how important it was to win those by-elections and they were willing to spend big in order to make it happen. The lame, “Send the PC’s a message” slogan was a variation on, “Send Ed a message” slogan from Hinman’s 2009 by-election win. Danielle’s harsh words for Kerry Towle and Ian Donovan were simply too harsh for her not to be serious about them at the time.
Having the nefarious nine cross the floor later and essentially scorch the earth behind them was still a deplorable thing. Danielle should have lead a proper merger of the parties and if she failed to make it happen, then she (by herself) should have stepped down as leader and crossed the floor. Very clearly, the Prentice plan was to annihilate the party as part of the deal, but there was no conspiracy. There was just the slow, but sure realization that Wildrose was on the decline and jumping from a sinking ship, after lighting it on fire, was preferable to going down with it.
#4. You can’t put all your eggs in the leader’s basket.
When you buy and drink a Pepsi do you give any thought to Chairperson and CEO, Indra Nooyi? Are you walking down the street and thinking, I could use a refreshing Pepsi because I really like Indra. Indra’s great and she does a great job leading the Pepsi corporation, so I’m going to buy a Pepsi.
No you don’t. You didn’t even know who Indra Nooyi was until you read this, but you knew of Pepsi.
For some reason when it comes to political branding, Canada has moved in the direction of the cult of personality. This weakens political branding and puts too much pressure on one person. It is also corrupting for that person, as too much power wielded by someone at the top is naturally despotic. Wildrose is suffering now, because they allowed themselves to become the Danielle Smith party. A pretty face and some media savvy presence isn’t a substitute for a political organization.
I wrote recently about the problems with modern political parties. They are too formal and cash hungry. They treat members like ATM’s and haven’t got an interest in building relationships. Here’s an article from November about the issue.
Wildrose needs to get back to basics. A big part of the reason the 2012 election was lost, wasn’t because of an old blog post about a lake of fire or a comment about being caucasian. It was lost because the ground game sucked. Part of the reason the ground game sucked was because Wildrose was too much of a “pop up” entity based around the personality of Danielle. Deeper roots need to be laid. When Danielle spoke about being the party of fun at the AGM, she wasn’t wrong. A bunch of disgruntled conservatives (mostly former PC supporters) scrambling for power, isn’t all that interesting to normal people. Wildrose needs to engage and develop.
More on that later.
#5. Voters are collectively dumb and smart at the same time.
It was frustrating as a Wildrose member to constantly see questions like, “Why do you just whine and complain? What are the policies of your party? What would you do any differently?” The questions usually implied that Wildrose didn’t have any policy. People knew of Danielle Smith (or Danielle Steel as I heard more than once), but they didn’t really get what the party was about. (See point #1.)
Voters are distracted, influenced by weird random impressions, habitual, and often totally ignorant. I can say this with certainty as I used to work full time in television news, primarily as a cameraman. Whenever a municipal, provincial or federal election rolled around, if we were short on content, the news director would send us out on the street to ask regular people what issues they cared about most in the upcoming election. I would always finish shooting these filler segments with a gross disdain for democracy, because the answers and reactions were just so incredibly sad.
“The best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter.” –
I have to admit, however, that democracy does have a way of working out for the best. Even in the past when I’ve been disappointed with the outcome of an election, I’ve usually reflected on it years later and realized that the result was probably for the best. There’s something magically intangible about the mass of voters, the collective consciousness of a population, pointing government in the right direction.
“I am obliged to confess I should sooner live in a society governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory than in a society governed by the two thousand faculty members of Harvard University.” – William F. Buckley Jr.
Voters sensed something was wrong with Wildrose in 2012. With the floor crossing events of 2014, we now know what they didn’t like. The party wasn’t ready. It wasn’t serious. It wasn’t worthy. It lacked integrity. It was shambolic. It was a facade. It contained too many people who were interested for the wrong reasons.
People may not have truly liked Alison Redford, but they trusted the PC brand enough that they were willing to risk voting for a bad leader of a known entity then a questionable leader of an unknown entity. Arguably, Wildrose in opposition helped oust Ed and Alison, but Ed was incompetent and the divide between real conservatives and progressives was at play anyway. Ted Morton threatening to resign is what pushed Ed out. When Redford swept into power on a wave of progressive hi-jacking, it didn’t take long for her behaviour and corruption to disgust the public...and her own party. The PC party leadership was responsible for kicking her out the door.
Would they have cared about this stuff as much as they did, if not for pressure coming from Wildrose? Probably not, but who knows. The fact remains that what happened, happened because of internal action. Voters trusted the known entity (the PC party) more than the temporary leader (Redford) and the actions of the nefarious nine (or eleven) proved that they were right to do so.
#6. Alberta is a one-party state.
"We don't need an opposition...They're just a hindrance to us. You don't hire a man to do a job and then hire another man to hinder him." – Ernest Manning, Social Credit Party leader/ Premier of Alberta
The authoritarian nature of Alberta’s government is long standing. For some reason, Alberta never got accustomed to the notion of cyclical elections. Competitive parties are supposed to replace each other from time to time, but in Alberta one populist party sweeps the province and permanently wipes out the previous government forever.
“I can’t be premier of this province anymore. The new oil money in Calgary doesn’t care about the things we stand for.” – Ernest Manning in 1967
When Peter Lougheed swept to power in 1971, the PC party established itself as a more modern, urban and socially liberal, right-of-centre party. Lougheed has great (undeserved) acclaim for standing toe-to-toe against Pierre Trudeau and his National Energy Program. This fight with the federal government is what solidified him as Captain Alberta, and the PC party has never been out of power since.
How do they do it?
#1. The PC party uses it’s incumbency status ruthlessly. It is the party of graft, pork-barrelling, and cronyism. People know that if they want to get a road paved, or flood relief or a new hospital built...they’d better vote PC or their community will be ignored. When I was campaigning in the 2012 election we came across the attitude of people who did business with the government. They needed to vote PC because they needed the network. They didn’t want to risk a change in power, because in their eyes...the party is the government. For this reason, the PC party NEEDS power, because their base is shallow and cynical and power hungry. If the PC’s lose one election, they lose everything.
#2. The PC party is the party of business. Until Ed Stelmach changed the royalty structure, business was supportive of the PC party. Who else would they bother donating money to? The NDP? The Liberals? The Alberta Party? Not a chance. Wildrose offered an alternative, but the reality of politics is that money talks. You need a decent amount of money for legitimacy and action. Since we live in a society where individuals can barely be bothered to vote, let alone donate cash...business takes the lead. They lead their cash toward the party with power. It becomes a self-fulfilling. They got the money, because they got the power...they got the power, because they got the money.
#3. The PC party is professional. Part of the reason the PC party has incumbency and cash, is because the party is professional. People think success happens the other way around...that cash and incumbency make professionalism, but not necessarily. This is why Danielle Smith was such a catch...she embodied the essence of a young professional woman. People saw a relatively hot, educated, urban leader and the nature of the Wildrose Party was suddenly too professional to dismiss. The PC party is always professional, even when they’re not. Ed Stelmach and Alison Redford were disasters, but they were professional disasters and it allowed the party time to act.
People can get mad about the state of politics, or they can accept the truth and move forward. Alberta is a one-party state and it’s not going to change until the options do.
#7. The next election will be a Prentice landslide.
Jim Prentice thoroughly did not care about “uniting-the-right!”. What he cared about was destroying the opposition. The events that led him to the Premier’s office were plain for anyone to see. Jim knew he had to govern from the right. His victory during the sleeper leadership campaign was, in itself, enough to satisfy many right-of-centre moderates that were disgusted by Ed and Ali.
Jim was installed at a time when tough decisions are going to have to be made. The price of oil has plummeted, and Alberta’s budgets are a mess of deficits. In order for Jim to make harsh cuts, he would look far better squaring off against a left-wing opposition. This may seem counterintuitive, but a screaming leftist telling the government to spend more and save union protected high paying public sector jobs, is exactly the sort of adversary a Jim Prentice-type character wants to define himself against. This would help to restore the base and the far-right, as well as portray him as a friend to businesses and private sector working voters.
In other words, he’s willing to sacrifice the 100,000 Alison Redford Liberal-PC voters in favour of the 400,000 Danielle Smith Wildrose-PC voters.
Because Smith and her cabal have thoroughly scorched the earth behind them, the Wildrose brand is severely – possibly terminally – injured. If the next election is called in the spring, as Danielle has reportedly desired, then Wildrose won’t have the time to properly organize. Jim Prentice will win in a landslide and we will be resetting the political clock back to 1993. Multiple landslide PC victories await.
#8. What will become of the Wildrose 11?
They probably think they pre-emptively made a good strategic decision. All this schtick about so-cons and vote splitting isn’t enough to paper over the sheer optics of gross, hungry opportunism.
Floor-crossings like this rarely work though. For an example of what is likely to happen read about how former Saskatchewan Liberal leader, Jim Melenchuk, tanked his party in favour of becoming a minister with Roy Romanow’s NDP in 1999. For Danielle and the rest, it may be even worse, as Jim Prentice has them all over a barrel now. They really have no power to do anything. If this was a pure Machiavellian move, we’ll see it play out shortly.
My guess is that the Wildrose eleven will be lucky to run in the next election as PC candidates, and if they do they’ll sit on the back benches and slowly fade away. They jumped on a bandwagon in 2012 and now the band has finished playing and they need to earn a living. While you can never tell someone’s financial situation from a wikipedia glance, I think it’s safe to assume that a lot of these folks need their jobs as MLA’s more than might be realized. Just looking over their resumes, it’s not hard to see that a $156,000 a year paycheck, is more than any of them could achieve by doing a real job. As a result, they’ll do whatever they’re told so long as they can squeak in another four year term. They think floor-crossing will help. They’d better cross their fingers.
#9. The future of Wildrose.
Some free advice for the short term:
a). Change the name again.
It went from Alberta Alliance, to Wildrose Alliance, to Wildrose. Change it again to reflect moving on from this mess. People who “get it” will know it’s still Wildrose, while the normals will instantly forget the baggage.
A good template to look at is Quebec’s experience with Mario Dumont’s Action démocratique du Québec. His right-of centre party won official opposition status in the 2007 Quebec election. Then they slowly began to fade away. There were by-election losses, and floor crossings and then Mario Dumont stepped down as leader.
Françios Legault formed Coalition Avenir Québec a couple of years after the implosion of the ADQ. What was left of the significantly reduced ADQ voted to merge with CAQ and in the last election they took 23% of the vote and won 19 seats. They are the only truly right-of-centre option in Quebec today and are encouraging the governing Liberals to veer right.
b). Get a new leader, sooner rather than later.
Heather Forsyth is 64 years old and doesn’t want to do this stuff anymore and I don’t blame her.
Shayne Saskiw is probably the best choice. Why? Because you don’t have time for a big leadership race before the next election, and the remaining 5 MLA’s have the best chance of keeping their seats. (In other words...the big goal for the next election should be keeping the seats you’ve got and going after the nefarious nine.)
c). Focus on being the opposition.
Enough with the whole “sweeping in a new era of politics on a populist wave”. There won’t be a new populist wave now. Focus on maintaining 4 seats and 5% of the popular vote. Without this official party status, it’s over completely. Do a good job and let the ambitions stay in the backseat. The base of supporters that stick around are likely to be more right-wing and dedicated, so take Danielle’s criticism as blueprint...become the NDP of the right. Become a party that exists for reasons beyond the lust for power. Create events, build relationships, solve problems, expand slowly, and when the time eventually comes to seriously contest the PC regime again....be ready.
#10. It ain’t over until it’s over.
After the defections, donations surged. Open PC nominations are looking to be contested in the nefarious nine ridings. Alberta is one of the most dynamic political hotbeds in the country. Political parties are like Silicon Valley start ups, they come and go, but the hustle and idea factories remain. Don’t count the Wildrose out just yet. If anything, this has been a fever break. A cleansing of the soul. A purging of the fairweather populists. Wildrose is in a position for reinvention and resurrection. Anything could happen.