Is the Tory party glad to be here, or would they rather be somewhere else?

One of the big questions Albertans must wrestle with in the lead-up to the election is this — Did the Progressive Conservative Party enthusiastically choose Alison Redford to be its new Leader, and does she, and will the Party, welcome new attitudes, new values and policies, new ways of organizing, and new decisions? And if she does, and the party does not, will the party establishment and culture change Alison Redford, so that she conforms to well-established — but out-moded — ways of thinking, doing things, and relating to the public?

Does the party want to be the first into the future, or the last out of the past?

The evidence is clear. Ms. Redford was not the choice of the Party stalwarts. Only one sitting M.L.A. (since retired) supported her campaign. With few exceptions, the high profile party insiders were working for other candidates. Ms. Redford won because thousands of Albertans who are not committed to the P.C. Party joined and voted for her. Basically, they wanted to drag their government into the 21st century, and she was the closest representation of the 21st century that they could find among the leadership candidates. The P.C. party has not come enthusiastically into the 21st century: Albertans dragged it here, kicking and screaming. And then Albertans turned back to home and work, and community, and left the Party to its own devices.

A year ago, Ms. Redford faced three daunting tasks. 1. Win the leadership. 2. Cobble together a modern looking Cabinet from the caucus she inherited, substantially change the culture of the party, and completely rebuild the party organization, with new personnel and a new political culture. 3. Campaign and win an election.

Winning the leadership was the easiest of the three tasks. The most difficult, and the one that takes the longest, is the 2nd task — substantially changing the culture of the party and completely re-building the party organization, with new personnel and a new political culture. The third task is difficult primarily because the jury is still out on the 2nd task.

For example, making Ron Liepert Minister of Finance, likely in exchange for his promise to retire at this election, was probably a shrewd move. It may have been old school politics, but it had the redeeming value of sidelining one of the toughest examplars of the old way of doing politics.

But what about making Gary Mar Alberta’s agent in Hong Kong, without a competition? Was that a matter of sending a possible challenger 1/2 a world away, or was it a matter of providing a golden handshake, or was it something else? Mr. Mar has a lot to commend him as the province’s agent in Hong Kong. The problem is that the appointment lost its lustre when it was not done transparently, and simply fuels speculation that it is more of the old school of politics.

There are other examples: the Minister of Municipal Affairs intimidating the President of the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association; the Premier’s Chief of Staff doing the same thing; the government retreating from a public inquiry into the possible bullying of doctors; the ‘no-meet’ committee payments; (former) M.L.A. Hector Goudreau’s letter to a school board, implying intimidation; the youthful staffer Tweeting about Danielle Smith’s family; the decision to strip constitutional rights away from Protestants in St. Albert, in order to give them to Roman Catholics. Any or all of these things could happen in the life of any party. Some of them have been retracted, or apologized for. I commend Ms. Redford for this. The difficulty for Albertans is that the retractions and apologies have been specific to the event: they have not addressed the bigger — and perhaps longer lasting — matter of a substantial cultural change.

As she deals with specifics, Ms. Redford has not made clear that she recognizes and is prepared to deal with the underlying issues — the sense of entitlement and the deep attachment, within the P.C. party, to confrontational politics and intimidation. The Gary Mar situation did not conclude with Ms. Redford making an enduring commitment to open competition for future appointments. It didn’t conclude with the Premier bravely dealing with the fundraising dinner directly: the effort, instead, was to make sure “the buck stops somewhere else”. The Minister of Municipal Affairs was never publicly told that, regardless of the narrow interpretation of his words, bullying local government is unacceptable and won’t happen in the future. Mr. Goudreau may not have been bullying the school board at all; he may simply having been warning them that some of his colleagues were bullies. In shooting the messenger, Ms. Redford did not deal with the message. The young staffer was hired to work in the Premier’s southern Alberta office. What was she told about the standards for staff? What messages did she pick up from co-workers that led her to believe her Tweet was appropriate and would be “helpful”? If a Redford government will strip constitutional rights away from one minority group that has enjoyed them, should property owners and civil libertarians be concerned that the same may happen to them on another occasion?

Albertans have seen some hopeful — and tentative — direction from Ms. Redford since her election as Leader, but the trajectory is not clear. If any similar events happen after the election, will there still be powerful forces in the Tory party arguing for confrontational politics, personal attacks, and intimidation? Are Albertans going to elect candidates who have already “been there” so long, and “done that”, so often, that they will continue to resist change, and resist it fiercely? Will Ms. Redford be more prepared to say, “the buck stops here”.

Is she prepared and able to fight for a new way of doing politics? Can she, with the help of others, overcome the inertia of momentum in the Tory party as we know it today?

Finally, it is important to note that politics is complex. Very intelligent, imaginative, energetic and thoughtful people can fail at politics when the very process is poisoned by partisanship, ideology, a sense of entitlement, and arrogance. Many Americans, and more than a few Canadians had high hopes — naive hopes — about what President Obama could achieve in four years. They didn’t consider the limits of the President’s power in the face of complex systems, hidden alliances, the power of money, and vested interests.

Voters must not turn away from making a decision on election day. They need to remember that there is much more to consider than is superficially apparent. Voters are trying to be wise about the future without certain knowledge about the future.

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