Saturday, October 30, 2010

PC AGM Part 2

While this morning's closed session on election readiness is taking place it is time to put some thoughts together on the opening night of the PC AGM . (the research being presented in the closed session has been distributed in PowerPoint form here in the media room) I also have to say that the variety show put on by many of the PC caucus this morning was actually worth getting up for - watching Ted Morton and Dave Hancock singing Kumbaya hand in hand was well worth the (free) admission.

The central element of opening night was, of course, the Premier's speech. Mr. Stelmach, not noted as a speaker, has definitely improved the writing and delivery, however, and there were several moments of real warmth and humour. The speech itself was a classic stump speech, with elements to rally the base, clips for the news and some positioning for future negotiating. It included a strong emphasis on Alberta's relative insulation from the recession, and the strengths of the PC record. Interestingly there was also a commitment to complete the nomination process for candidates, including the four new ridings, by the end of spring 2011. Particularly interesting to me was the announcement that the party would be undertaking a very wide-ranging and open policy development process, which the Premier said would be the most open and interactive in Alberta history. I am interested to see how it will compare to the Alberta Party's 'Big Listen' idea, given that the PCs have to deal with a vastly larger structure and certain concerns, like getting elected and raising money, that the Alberta Party is only in the natal stages of considering.

The part most striking to me was the positioning for future negotiations with the Federal government, as the Premier opposed a national securities regulator and insisted that Alberta needed to be "treated fairly" in terms of the net tax burden. To me the fact that Alberta and Albertans pay more than less affluent provinces is hardly surprising, nor is it an issue. The Premier, on the other hand, was clearly staking out a position for a future negotiation about transfer payments and natural resource revenue distribution. How helpful the combative language is, as opposed to the dangers of creating a negative feedback loop in the conversation, is not clear to me. That said, given the Harper government's usual negotiating style, it is hard to see how anything the provincial government could say would substantively change the tone of the conversation.

As far as my ongoing project for the weekend, namely talking to as many constituency organizers and riding presidents as possible about their perceptions of and involvement in change within the organization, I have had a number of very interesting conversations. The responses have so far fallen into three broad categories. First, those who are genuinely concerned with and engaged in change, variously defined, and acutely aware of potential risks and opportunities for the PC party here in Alberta. Second, those who feel that change is coming, but either aren't clear on what it should be or why it is necessary. Finally, there are those who talk about change without any seriousness - either because they feel they need to say something about it for form's sake or because they don't really see any need for it. I'll have a real breakdown on the details after the event ends.

I do need to thank the organizers and participants for their warm welcome and, for the overwhelming majority, their willingness to take time to talk to an outsider freely and openly.

Friday, October 29, 2010

PC AGM, Part 1

I have been offered the opportunity to attend the PC AGM here in Calgary this weekend as a 'new media' observer. Leaving aside the simple curiosity of a political nerd I accepted for a number of reasons. First, I think it is important that our parties continue evolving to reflect the new information environment and changing the traditional notions of what constitutes political press is a part of that. Secondly, I am curious about the atmosphere of the gathering - how do the delegates feel about the party and its situation? Finally, how is the party dealing with the challenges it is publicly perceived to be facing, including complacency and fading popular support.

In looking at these issues I am not interested in talking to the elected party representatives, whether MLAs or party executives, but rather the volunteer rank and file that actually make a political party function. In particular I will be targeting the constituency presidents and organizers. (Organizers have conveniently tagged the presidents with orange ribbons - thanks!) So far several have taken the time to speak with me, so we'll see how this plan works out.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Some Pictures Are Worth a Thousand Words

From today's Toronto Star:

Funny and on target! I have to say that I'm very happy with the real contest of visions we had in our municipal election, especially compared to the dismal partisanship of the Toronto campaign.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Nenshi Wins - Now What?

And so it is Nenshi for Mayor - but what looks like a very conservative council. Should be an interesting few years, Calgary.

Ironically, for all the talk about technology and change, the Nenshi campaign won because they ran the best old-fashioned political campaign. They presented the best-developed message, and did a great job of layering it from the sound bite all the way through to clear policy plans. Mr. Nenshi showed good groundwork as a candidate, building profile the old-fashioned way by appearing everywhere, all the time. The campaign made good use of volunteers, and got their best work out of them by building a really energized team environment. They also figured out how to identify and motivate their supporters, a process complicated by the fact that they didn't have any (or at least not many) a year ago, and there was no obvious political constituency of support. I found it encouraging that I know people supporting Mr. Nenshi who in provincial politics support the Greens, the NDP, the Liberals, the PCs and the Wild Rose. An advantage yes, but one that greatly complicates the process of getting out your vote!

As for Mr. Nenshi's competitors; Ms. Higgins found her rhythm too late in the campaign to carry it to a successful conclusion, but looking at the process in retrospect I am sure she will be proud that she received over 91,000 votes. I would be very surprised at this point if we have seen the last of Ms. Higgins. Mr. McIvor, the prohibitive front runner at the beginning of the race, made the mistake of running too conservative a campaign. (I assure you that the pun wasn't deliberate!) In spending most of the campaign running not to lose he missed out on the opportunity to define the process, and Ms. Higgins' entry and Mr. Nenshi's rise defined it for him. In the new dialogue Mr. McIvor found himself with multiple threats, and while this appears to have galvanized his campaign he was unable to make up for earlier complacency.

With regard to council, and the potential dynamics thereon, I recommend reading DJ Kelly's post here: Mr. Nenshi and the Aldermen will have to develop a modus vivendi that enables them to develop into a team. Calgarians turned out in record numbers, over 53% of eligible voters casting ballots, which shatters the previous record of 48.6% in 1989. Also remember that the last provincial election saw a turnout of a little over 40%. In short Calgarians took this election very seriously, and I think it is fair to say that we, as a city, are expecting results from out representatives. They in turn will now have to figure out how to deliver.

Personally I would like to thank all of the people who sacrificed their time, privacy, peace and quiet and energies to run for office. You all deserve recognition for stepping forward - our system relies on people doing what you did. For those whose hopes were disappointed last night, it is important to remember that not only the winner is important. Stepping forward to advance the issues that are important to you helps shape the conversation, and you all did that. Thank you all.

Going forward the question is whether the scale of Calgarians' involvement with this election, whether in the number and variety of candidates, the voter turnout, the volunteerism or the number of conversations it engendered, indicates that people are going to be more engaged after the election. It is my belief that it does, and that Calgarians, and Albertans more generally, are once again becoming energized about their beliefs and concerns in the public arena. I look forward to what promises to be a most interesting few years!

Friday, October 15, 2010

What's in a Name?

The negative tone of much contemporary politics in Canada, and even more the case in the United States, is an issue of concern to people from all sides of any given issue. It seems to me, based on prolonged observation, that there is a simple remedy that would go a long way to address the concerns of those lamenting the balkanization of our political discourse: use people's names.

Even if you don't like someone, or their views, show them some respect and use their name. As someone who has trained as an academic I'd be interested to see a correlative study linking the use of derogatory nicknames with the appreciation of complexity in politics. Painting issues in black and white is rarely a good way to accommodate the complexity of the world we live in. Painting policy alternatives, like a given airport tunnel project or piece of legislation, in black and white is even more unlikely to reflect anything resembling their true relationship with reality.

The fundamental point I always aspire to bear in mind is that people of good will can, and will, disagree on any given issue. Our system of Westminster-style democracy is not only designed to accommodate such disagreements, it is dependant on the adversarial contest between diverging views to develop a working consensus. This is perhaps even more the case in our pluralist parliamentary model, as opposed to the unique duopoly the Americans have developed. A substantial majority of our fellow-citizens are good people, so those engaged in our political discourse, whether they be politicians, civil servants, journalists, commentators or concerned citizens, deserve the same assumption.

The use of nicknames, whether simply shorthands or the actively derogatory, is obviously a continuum. However, in order to avoid slipping into the derogatory, or the grey area in which one could be perceived that way, use the simple alternative of the proper noun. So instead of 'Slitherman' or 'Harpo' I try to use Mr. Smitherman or Mr. Harper. In the latter case why not acknowledge his earned title, and call him the Prime Minister? He is, after all, whether I like it or not, and he deserves to be.

In short, I have resolved to combat trolls on the internet and incivility in my speech by aspiring to use the simplest of formal courtesies - the proper name.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Christopher Hitchens on Dealing with Mortality

I found this piece enormously powerful, and thought it was worth sharing.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Calgary's Municipal Election, version 2010

As the Municipal Election begins to loom here in Calgary I have regularly been asked for my thoughts on the race for Mayor. Having repeated them so many times I may as well post them publicly....

Both of the current front-runners in the polls will not be receiving my support. Ms. Higgins, running an exceedingly cautious campaign based on her name recognition, has yet to provide any reason for me to actually support her. In fact it is difficult for me to recall any serious campaign in the last 15 years in which the candidate offered less insight to their views or policy outlook. Mr. McIvor, whose record as an Alderman was indifferent, has also run a very cautious campaign based on his name recognition and the 'Dr. No' image he cultivated on council. Unfortunately the flip side of the 'Dr. No' reputation is the friction created on council, which certainly doesn't bode well for a Mayor, especially in a city where the mayoralty is a chairman of the board without much inherent power and thus in need of consensus support. The policy framework advanced by Mr. McIvor is also vague and unimpressive, which I suppose is part and parcel with the decision not to risk controversy.

The candidate I would most like to support would be Wayne Stewart, whose resume is impressive and comes very highly recommended by several people I trust. unfortunately I can't see any way for Mr. Stewart to break out of pack of also-rans and actually have a chance to win the race. I believe the same fate awaits Craig Burrows, whom I have been surprisingly impressed with in his attempt to recover from losing his last Aldermanic contest to Joe Connelly.

In the end I think this will leave me supporting Naheed Nenshi for Mayor. Mr. Nenshi's background in business and thinking about municipal issues is impressive, and his policy platform is the most complete and best elucidated. I do worry about his ability to manage a council, since a disconcerting number of his sentences start with "I" and he will need to command the support of seven Aldermen. Several people I know who have worked with him assure me that this won't be a problem, however, and in light of the balance of the race it is a risk I am willing to take.

On a more local level the Aldermanic race here in Ward 7 has caused me more trouble. I had hoped that I would be able to support a replacement for Alderman Farrell, but that is looking unlikely now. The Ward 7 Aldermanic candidate forum put on in the Triwoods Community Centre by Civiccamp was a very useful event. My thanks to all the volunteers who made it happen, and to Civiccamp as a whole for undertaking to put on one of these in every Ward. We as citizens need to have these, and I certainly appreciate having had the opportunity to attend one.

The five candidates attending were the current Alderman, Druh Farrell, James Taylor, Jim Pilling, Elizabeth Cook and Michael Krisko. For a detailed summary of the meeting see The event certainly helped me familiarize myself with the options, and there is no substitute for seeing candidates live and in person, talking to them and listening to them answer questions. The result, for me, was that the options to Ms. Farrell underwhelmed me. The only serious challenger appears to be Mr. Taylor, but I have no real idea where he stands on the issues. His presentation, like Ms. Farrell's, is polished, but there is little in what he says to get a hold of. Hence, at the Aldermanic level, I am uncertain and unhappy with my options but leaning toward the incumbent. Inertia certainly isn't the best reason for casting a vote, but in the absence of a compelling alternative....