I’ve been debating writing on the next steps for the PC party for quite some time. I expect I’ll continue to rewrite it, but thought at the very least putting it on paper would force the necessary refinement. In the meantime, I regret that this is a rather lengthy stream of consciousness. Readers beware.
There are three points that come to mind repeatedly when assessing the next few years of PC politics.
1) The destiny of the party is up to the membership. A decision about direction, policy, purpose and vision must be made internally. It cannot be imposed by the party brass, and it cannot be imposed from outside.
2) The success of the PC Party, as well as the PC governments has come when the organization opens its doors to the province and builds the widest coalition. As the party rebuilds, there will be a temptation to look inward and entrench. Efforts like the policy consultations are a great step forward, but internal fights – especially over issues like mergers – often lead to division and discord.
3) While the introspection is necessary, no party can avoid the three fundamental limitations facing political organizations. You will never have enough time, you will never have enough treasure, and you will never have enough talent. A political party exists to elect MLAs of the party to serve in the legislature. While the thoughtful deliberation is important, some merger and cooperation scenarios face deadlines to be successful before the 2019 election. Time isn’t always on your side.
The Necessary Introspection
This post was sparked by James Wood’s piece in the Herald discussing a series of meetings held in Calgary by PC riding associations. Wood quotes a mix of PC party activists, but one quote from Fish Creek president Philip Schuman caught my eye. Phil stated that “You can’t decide that you want to marry somebody until you understand what you want from life. So we need to do a really deep reflection on what we are”. A valuable insight, and one that should be taken to heart beyond just the PCs.
It is up to the PC Party to determine where it stands, and the values and policies it will represent. These conversations are never easy, as divergent opinions mean that members of an organization will lose fights on matters they hold near and dear to their heart. Many of those who join political parties are there because of closely held beliefs that push them to act. The next year of the PC Party will be contentious and hard fought, but needed, and valuable. The party will fight for its soul, and not all will choose to stay, even if the membership decides to continue with the party in its current form. But above all, it will be up to those present to shape that destiny. Decisions are made by those who show up.
To quote a friend; Political organizations evolve with the people who join them. John Locke rightly said: Political & religious organizations are FREE associations. You can join freely and you can leave freely. If you want to change an organization, you do it from the inside. If you don’t want change, you can choose to stay, leave, join another or start your own association. Political institutions are highly fluid and dynamic. They take on the personality of those who wish to participate. So, either you change or the organization changes without you. Either way, associations don’t leave people, people leave associations.
The PC Party controls its fate, and the decisions made by members in the coming weeks and months are made by dedicated volunteers seeking what they believe to be the best course of action. To quote Reagan, the 11th law of conservatism is that you never attack a fellow conservative. The party succeeded because of its dedicated volunteers. Trust them to do what they believe is the right thing. A lasting process of introspection and hard fought assessment of conservative policy and values benefits everyone. A refining fire means things get heated, but the outcome is worth the challenge.
Towards a More Perfect Union – The Necessity of a Broad Tent
I could fill this post with quotes from Alberta’s first PC premier. As a premier and as a politician, Lougheed left a legacy that really was larger than life. Lougheed retired from party politics before I was born, but his legacy can be found in every corner of the province. Most noticeably, in the mark he left on those who have remained engaged in politics. Even those that disagreed with his politics offer a begrudging respect for his life and legacy.
I wanted to highlight two quotes from Lougheed, offered at the start and the end of his political career. You’d be hard pressed to find a better set of bookends for a political career. The first comes from a 1967 speech discussing the success of the party in electing 6 members and forming the official opposition. Lougheed emphasized that he wanted it to be truly a people’s party. They want to feel they are welcome — That their views will be listened to — that there is a place for people of all ages — A place for people from every part of Alberta — from every walk of life — A place for people with a common philosophy. But prepared to accept different views as to how to apply such a philosophy — A party where there is leadership – executive responsibility – organizational procedure — But a party which is democratic — and welcomes new members – new ideas – has open meetings – open nominations – an absence of mystery or intrigue. That’s the kind of party my colleagues and I want — It’s the kind of a party the people of Alberta want us to be — I hope — better than that — I’m confident — it’s the kind of party you want.”
17 years later, and four consequetive majority governments later, Lougheed offered the same emphasis. The first fundamental of the Provincial Progressive Conservative Party is that it be an open democratic Party in the fullest sense of the word. Open in its nominating meetings, open in its request for people to come and join – continually inviting new people to come in. Never closing the door. That in itself is very meaningful. If we had ever taken the position that you have to show some credentials or some Conservative background or something, to come and be part of this Party, we would still be meeting down in the basement. We invited people to come in from other Parties. We invited them to come in and be a part of our team. If they had never been involved in the political process before there was a special invitation. That was important. So, that is the first fundamental. An open, democratic Party.
The legacy of the party, the catalyst of its early success, and like its future are built on the grassroots. This means the widest possible outreach, and engaging beyond just the core of members. Even with the trials and tribulations faced in his time as Premier, Lougheed understood a big part of his success came from his work in building the type of organization people wanted to embrace. The next year is critical, as the party needs to define its values and its vision. Lougheed had it right in that an open door will ultimately be key to success. I want to see 5 or 6 great candidates battling each other on matters of policy, and articulating their vision for Alberta. I want to see sacred cows gored, and heated debate. A clean slate means an opportunity too important to waste.
If you want a great history of the unification process at the federal level, I’d highly recommend Bob Plomadon’s ‘Full Circle’. I had a prof comment that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme. The patterns and themes that pop up in history are always offer insight in shaping our understanding of current events. No comparison is perfect, and drawing bad connections can often be as dangerous as drawing no connections at all. Those that fail to know history will be doomed to repeat it. Those that do know history will often be doomed to watch other people repeat it. A happy thought for a Saturday night… On that note, I thought I’d ask a few questions. Are the the centre-right parties in Alberta simply repeating a narrative that played out federally 20 years earlier? If so, where exactly are we on that timeline? Most importantly, if we wanted to learn from the successes and failures of that process, what constraints do we need to acknowledge and allow to guide our understand of the coming years?
So where are we on that timeline? I’ve had this argument with a few different people. I’ve had some say 1993, with an upstart opposition party making major gains, and the incumbent long standing establishment party reduced to ruins. I’m not buying that. The PC Party is far stronger now than the federal PCs were in 93. I’ve had some say 1997 – and I’m actually increasingly convinced this may be the case, but I’m not fully sold.
The most common comment, and the one I thought I’d assess is the timelines surrounding the 2000 election. We are ~290 days past the May 5th election. At this point in the 2000 cycle, the CA caucus was in what could best be described as open revolt. Yet 3 short years later, the parties merged, and were preparing a non-confidence motion against a Liberal minority. Amazing what can happen in a few short years.
So here are the relevant dates:
November 27th, 2000. Federal Election
September 2001 – Members of the CA caucus leave in protest of Stockwell Day.
April 2002 – Stephen Harper becomes leader of the Canadian Alliance
May 2003 – Peter McKay becomes leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada
October 2003 – Announcement of a plan to merge the parties. A vote is held by both parties nation wide, requiring 2/3 support.
December 2003 – Parties agree to formal merger
March, 2004 – Harper is elected as leader of the united Conservative Party
June 2004 – Federal Election
This would allow:
6 months from new leader to merger agreement
3 months from agreement to ratification vote
3 months from formal merger to new leader
2 months from leadership to election
May 2017 – New PC leader elected
October 2017 – Agreement to merge the parties
December 2017 – Parties vote to approve a merger
May 2018 – Completion of joint leadership race
May 2019 – The next provincial election which results in a merged party forming government.
The timelines aren’t impossible. They wouldn’t be easy, but they certainly aren’t impossible. If a merged party doesn’t occur in 2016, it isn’t the end of the process. It is actually better for all involved, as that process of introspection may occur without unneccesary haste. As Phil said, not point rushing into a marriage without knowing who will be on the other side of the altar. If in December 2017, there hasn’t been progress, at that point I’ll start seriously believing that it won’t occur before 2019. In the meantime, I look forward to seeing both parties offer effective opposition to our government.
The waters are rough now, but the best days for Alberta our still to come. We will come through this stronger than ever, assuming we use this period to seriously reflect on the type of politics and the type of governance we want to see in Alberta.