Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Representative Independence versus Caucus Control

Behind all the Sturm und Drang engendered by Dr. Raj Sherman's letter, comments and subsequent removal from the PC caucus there are several stories. The specifics of what happened and why are known only to those involved, and I won't speculate. There is a good post at the Enlightened Savage about which line Dr. Sherman crossed: http://www.enlightenedsavage.com/2010/11/paging-dr-sherman.html
The basic outlines can be found here: http://www.calgaryherald.com/health/Sherman+suspended+from+Conservative+caucus/3867417/story.html

It is important to note that Dr. Sherman has been suspended, as opposed to Mr. Boutillier who was simply expelled. What requirements have been communicated to Dr. Sherman for his return, if any at this early stage, I certainly do not know. It is, however, clear that the PC caucus and the PC party both want Dr. Sherman as a member, something that was not the case with Mr. Boutillier.

Dr. Sherman's suspension from caucus is part of an ongoing conversation in Canada about the role and independence of our elected representatives vis a vis their parties.

Dr. Sherman was an emergency physician before he became an MLA, and continues to practice while he sits in the legislature. His sincerity and passion on the issue of emergency medicine are not questioned by anyone so far as I am aware, and he possesses a professional's knowledge of the systems strengths and faults. Dr. Sherman was entirely right to act as he did in order to bring the greatest possible profile to an issue he felt was vital. Conversely the government caucus was entirely within their rights to suspend him. This is the creative tension between the individual representative and the discipline of the group, and the latter is essential in order to make the system work.

The problem is that the individual representative has been pushed into the background by group discipline. Both Federally and here in Alberta the governing party keeps all conversations behind the closed doors of caucus far too often. Party discipline for votes on the floor is an essential element of a representative system, don't get me wrong. Without the ability to whip votes you wind up needing the kind of earmark system which has so bedeviled the American Congress in order to deliver enough votes to pass legislation and do the basic business of government. The tendency, however, to follow the logic of control past the point of necessary and into the realm of convenience.

Avoiding the presentation by your MLAs of alternative views to that of the government makes communications and messaging easier, avoids some public frictions; fundamentally it is easier to manage than diversity. The problem is that the diversity exists anyway - in a caucus of 68 members does anyone believe that the PC MLAs all agree on anything? Behind the closed doors of government caucus the debates and alternative views are guaranteed to be lively, but we the public don't get to see it. This disconnect is worsened by the lows to which question period has sunk, shortened legislative sessions and the steady reduction in the independence of committees in the legislature. As a result there are fewer and fewer arenas in which the individual MLA can be relevant outside of caucus, which we can't see, and constituency work, which is profoundly local. The latter is important, and many of our MLAs do it very well and build important and useful two-way relationships with their communities. Our public dialogue would be greatly enriched, however, if individual MLAs were more engaged and engaging on the provincial stage.

This does not require a revolution in political procedure - here in Canada we have a tradition of ministerial responsibility and representative independence. Even in this age of tight party control there are individual MLAs (and MPs) who, by force of personality or sheer competence, have carved out independent voices for themselves. Does this mean that Doug Griffiths or Jim Prentice don't vote with their party on matters of confidence? Of course not. We as citizens need to demand more from our representatives, however.

Equally important party organizations and party leaders need to examine what they lose by keeping the reins short, as well as what they gain. Simplifying the messaging has to be balanced against the separation created between party and citizens. Openness has the advantage of creating conversation and engagement, which can be harnessed and directed in positive ways. True discipline doesn't mean there is no debate on what to do, it just means that when the time comes to act everyone supports making the decision work. We need to work on a parliamentary culture that embraces the diversity of views expressed publicly for examination and debate. The biggest gainers will be the parties, in the end.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Alberta Party policy convention - Aftermath

The Alberta Party is a young, relatively small and rapidly evolving organization. In Red Deer this weekend at their first policy convention following the merger of the old Alberta Party and the Renew Alberta group. Essentially the party is building from scratch in both organizational and policy terms - a state that implies both vast opportunity and manifold risks.

This past weekend was the Alberta Party's policy convention, following up the "big listen" process that the party had undertaken over the preceding 6 months or more. Tension between diverse viewpoints was a characteristic of the weekend, as the thousands of points that had arisen from the 'big listen' were considered, debated amended etc. There were people present from a wide variety of backgrounds, including former PC, Liberal, NDP and Reform members and organizers, as well as a variety of people formerly unengaged in partisan politics. It was an impressive group, and I found myself learning something with almost every conversation I had all weekend.

What arose from the weekend should be available on the Alberta Party website (www.albertaparty.ca) later this week, as soon as the volunteers can finish with the drafting and formatting. For a party that lacks a permanent leader and is just beginning the process of constituency organizing policy will be crucial, both to define who the party is and provide people with reasons to support its growth. Among the policies I was involved in the discussions for were the following:
- Strengthening officers of the Legislature like the Ombudsman, Chief Electoral Officer, Ethics Commissioner and Auditor General by guaranteeing their funding and ensuring their third-party status. Included in this was a commitment to empowering the Auditor to undertake forensic audits at their discretion.
- All government data and reports that do not contain personal or sensitive information are to be available to the public as soon as they are complete. This includes the information on which official reports are based.
- The Alberta Party is committed to moving all natural resource revenue as investment capital, and to cease its use for directly funding programs.
Obviously these are a small sample of the total, but I was there for these conversations, and I think that these are ideas worth supporting.

In his talk to conclude the event following Sunday's plenary session Dave Cournoyer argued that our existing government has become formatted by its own success. It is organized as a top-down culture, with limited interest or acceptance of transparency. According to Cournoyer, and I agree with him, Minister Leipert's anonymous advisory group is a sign of a government that has lost its way. There is no reason for the identities of those the Minister has turned to for advice should not be public knowledge, especially since the Minister is entirely correct to seek advice wherever he feels it will be useful. The Alberta Party's commitments to transparency and a bottom-up culture are what drew Mr. Cournoyer to join the party, and provide it with some of its potentially defining characteristics. Mr. Cournoyer's address can be found here: http://daveberta.ca/2010/11/my-closing-remarks-to-the-alberta-party/

Moving forward one of the most important issues for the Alberta Party will be leadership. Mr. Erickson stepped down as interim leader this weekend, after shepherding the party through the amalgamation and subsequent rapid expansion with quiet grace, for which members of the party should be thankful. The new interim leader will, I expect, be one of the current board members and will be announced in the immediate future. The sooner the better, as the party now needs to launch its real leadership contest, with a leadership vote to come before next summer. Whoever the new interim leader is they will have the responsibility of nourishing the fledgling party's energy and culture through further rapid expansion, constituency organizing and a leadership race. No shortage of work.

There are a number of people involved in the party I would like to see throw their hats in the leadership ring. Obviously I can't speak for any of these people, and the opinion being expressed is entirely my own! Chima Nkenmdrim would have been an obvious choice, but has likely removed himself from contention by choosing to join Mr. Nenshi at Calgary city hall. I think Glenn Taylor, recently re-elected as mayor of Hinton, would be an intriguing option. He's young, electorally successful, well-spoken and familiar with the province's issues. I am also interested to see if Michael Brechtel, Edmonton ad man and community builder as well as Alberta Party board member, will put himself forward. He too is a builder of relationships who could offer a lot to the race. Also on the board is former school trustee Sue Huff, who has certainly been an active and appealing figure in Edmonton over the past several years and would be an excellent candidate. Again I cannot speak for any of these four, but I do hope that they all give the option serious thought.

Alberta politics is, and has been for several years now, in a state of change. There are two new political parties on the scene, a surprising new mayor in Calgary, and an ongoing conversation about change in every party and at every level of government. This is healthy and exciting. I think that there is a lot of room in Alberta politics for the Wild Rose and Alberta parties, and that the existing parties are all undertaking changes of their own. The tired narrative of Alberta politics as monopolistic and uninteresting no longer applies, no matter what your political views are. This is, I would argue, the most politically active and interesting province in the federation at this time and I, for one, am excited to see how it develops.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Alberta Party Policy Convention - Part 1

I am in Red Deer this morning for the Alberta Party's policy convention - my third weekend in a row out taking the pulse of Alberta's political culture. While not a morning person I have to say that a prairie sunrise is worth getting up at 0615 all by itself on a day like today - Alberta is a gorgeous place.

what interests me in this event is the intersection of of hope and ideology with political reality. Chris LaBossiere, president of the party, called it "an idea yet to be actioned" this morning; a phrase which I think admirably sums up where the Alberta Party stands. There are a lot of engaging things about this young party, but this is the point at which a lot of similar efforts have fallen flat. Political organization is an exercise in patient logistics. Logistics are hard, unglamorous and need to be kept rolling day by day. Can the enthusiasm in this room be translated into real and effective organization? I'm here to find out.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Reboot 3 - Now what?

I was only able to make time to attend the Reboot 3 gathering at the last minute, meaning that I was not prepared or engaged in the agenda-setting stage. I found it interesting to note that the blogger population at Reboot 3 was considerably smaller than the first two, with major cogs in the Alberta blogosphere like DJ Kelly, Joey Oberhoffner and Dave Cournoyer not attending. Congratulations DJ, by the way!

The morning sessions were spent discussing models of ownership and their implications for the management of the oil sands. The table I happened to be at was, to my good fortune, full of passionate, articulate and capable people – one of whom thankfully makes a living as a mediator and was able to keep the conversation moving in more or less the intended direction. While we certainly didn’t arrive at a consensus on how ownership ought to be considered in the area of natural resources we were agreed that it was important for the Government and corporations to think differently on the issue. To me there is, or ought to be, a creative tension between the profit motive of corporations and the social good that ought to underlie government decision-making. Interestingly the table was quite interested in the idea of full-cost accounting, which is hardly a simple or non-contentious topic in and of itself.

The central conversation in the afternoon revolved around the question of what it meant to be a progressive. In examining this issue four speakers gave us their thoughts: Troy Wason of the Alberta PCs, Chris LaBossiere from the Alberta Party, Phil Elder for the Democratic Renewal Project and David Swann of the Alberta Liberal Party. (Speaking in that order) Both Mr. Wason and Mr. LaBossiere talked about their reasons for being involved with their respective parties, and their thoughts on how they feel their organizations are embodying and responding to ideas that can be defined as progressive. Mr. Wason was passionate in his belief that the progressive element of the PC party is a central part of that party. He also pointed out that his qualification as a member of the provinces notional political elite consisted of “paying my $5 and putting up my hand to volunteer”. Succinct and important to bear in mind – our system is run by those who choose to show up. Mr. LaBossiere’s talk is perhaps best summarized by himself on his blog, but he too addressed the importance of engagement.

Mr. Elder and Mr. Swann took another tack entirely. Mr. Elder outlined the Democratic Renewal Project and their plans to encourage non-competition among opposition parties. My thoughts on the undesirability and futility of their project are elaborated in an earlier post http://myroundhouse.blogspot.com/2010/05/night-with-alberta-democratic-renewal.html . Mr. Swann’s presentation focused on the reasons why the people in the room for Reboot should vote for the Liberals. Interestingly his primary reason was fear – he argued that without the Liberal’s tradition, organization and financial framework none of the other parties before Albertans could advance a progressive agenda or effectively challenge the PC party. Leaving aside the assumption that replacing the PC government is inherently desirable, it is hard to see anything progressive or attractive in this inherently negative formulation. It appeared to me as an attempt by Mr. Swann to dissuade those present from considering the Alberta Party, which, while an entirely justifiable end for the leader of another party to undertake, seemed entirely at odds with the kind of dialogue Reboot exists to promote.

In my view there are two ends that the Reboot name and movement can serve here in Alberta moving forward. I need to underline that my views here reflect nothing beyond my own opinions, and have no bearing on the thoughts or intentions of the organizers in particular or the other participants in general.

To begin with I continue to find these meetings to be a good forum for people of diverse views to meet and discuss matters of common interest. There is real value in a periodic forum to exchange views outside our usual partisan or professional communities, and Reboot has contributed usefully to the political culture of Alberta in that respect. Being exposed to alternative viewpoints is essential in challenging our assumptions. That process of challenging ideas and evolving them under the pressure of new information is in turn a fundamental element of healthy public discourse. I would like to see the Reboot gatherings continue once or twice a year, focusing on acting as a common area in which people of all partisan stripes, or none, can gather to discuss issues of public interest. As a mechanism perhaps an issue or two could be selected for discussion, followed by an unconference format upon arrival to decide where and how that conversation will be focused.

Reboot can, however, be the genesis of something beyond a useful meeting place on the political commons. I would like to see a permanent non-partisan think tank develop from the Reboot community. This organization would study questions of civic engagement, civil society and public policy. The public discourse gains real value from organizations like the Manning Centre and the Pembina Institute, the research they create, the events they hold and the people they train and employ. Given the population and wealth of Alberta, and the gaps between existing bodies of similar nature, there is more than enough room in the public discourse for such a body. (That sound you hear is the pained laughter of the Reboot organizers as I volunteer their idea and efforts for an extensive and labour-intensive expansion.) If the idea is of any interest to anyone but myself I hope to hear from you!

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Reboot Alberta 3.0

I'm in Edmonton this weekend for the Reboot 3.0 conference, to see what the latest installment of these gatherings for self-selected 'progressives' has in store.

The most interesting charecteristic of the Reboot gatherings in the variety of people who attend. The first two Reboots crossed partisan lines in their attendence, and based on Friday's opening reception this one is no different. What is different, or perhaps just more noticable to me, is the presence of more declared partisans. There are members of the PC and Liberals present, though the coincidental overlap with the NDP's AGM has meant I have yet to see anyone from that party. There are also members of the Alberta Party here, though I put them in a seperate catagory since that organization is still in its infancy as an effective political organization.

what most interests me are the conversations about civic engagement. Much as wonks like myself enjoy the details of policy or the mechanics of campaigning it is important to step back form time to time and consider the wider questions of political culture. It is my opinion that the province of Alberta is in the early stages of a political transition. (Whether or not that means a change in government is another question entirely.) The shape of that transition will be an organic outgrowth of the changing political culture here, and the kind of wider engagement that preoccupies most of the attendees at Reboot can be a factor there. More to come as the weekend goes on.

Monday, November 1, 2010

PC AGM Part 3 – Final thoughts

I should begin this post about the weekend’s PC party AGM in Calgary with a pair of disclaimers. I am not, nor have I ever been, a member of the Alberta Progressive Conservative party. I am also not a reporter. I am an analyst and an academic, but those are very different things, and there were a number of ‘real’ reporters in the media room this weekend whose work you should read if the event interests you. What I am interested in, and writing about here, is more thematic and impressionistic than the “who, what, where, when and why” of traditional journalism. Such are the privileges of being your own editor.

One of the most noticeable features of this year’s PC AGM was the change in tone and attitude from a year ago. Where a year ago the PCs were visibly distracted by internal frictions and a real sense of threat the mood this year was definitely more positive and combative. The choice of ‘Team PC’ as the event slogan, and I expect as the ongoing slogan for the party and campaign, is certainly indicative of the awareness that one of the party’s first priorities had to be an emphasis on unity. As I have said before, however disoriented the PCs may have been by the initial onset of the Wild Rose in combination with the impact of the recession, they had a lot of time before the next election to pull themselves together. The party appears to have made a lot of progress on that front.

In combination with the ‘Team PC’ theme the primary message would appear to be the success of Alberta under PC management. The successes of Alberta under PC management featured prominently in the Premier’s speech on Friday night, through the Q & A sessions on Saturday and many of the speakers at policy sessions as well. Hardly surprising that this is the message that the party would want to go with as their central message and the basis of the campaign, but what is interesting is the very real feeling that, only two years into a mandate, the PC party and government are starting their next campaign. In addition almost everyone I spoke to on the issue emphasized the unity of the party, which certainly speaks to the awareness that infighting hasn’t done them any favours in the recent past.

Alberta is possessed of an active and engaged online political community. The invitation of bloggers to attend the AGM, in addition to the various ‘in-house’ PC bloggers, strikes me as the beginnings of an institutional acknowledgement that the PC party will have to go where the conversation is. Bloggers each have the ability to build an audience, and an audience self-selected based on interest at that. In addition in a world where search engines are so important to how people find information it will often be a blog entry that matches someone’s search terms most clearly, with the implications that can have for the dissemination of information on a specific case or issue.

Twitter hashtags like #pcagm, or even more so #ableg, are excellent opportunities to engage with people of varied views through a shared link. The very publicity of anything said over twitter means that no matter how hard a single partisan group might try to dominate a topic or a tag they can never keep other individuals or viewpoints out. Throughout the weekend there was a constant interaction between attendees of the AGM, observers present (including myself), interested PC members who were unable to attend and people interested in the event or the issues discussed. Thinking of it now I should have checked the total number of tweets exchanged on the #pcagm and #ableg hashtags this weekend, but a quick check of my tweetdeck shows over 600 tweets using #pcagm alone. This doesn’t include any of the untagged tweets to and from attendees, or those using other tags. A number of very lively exchanges took place on each of the relevant hashtags, and it is important for both organizers and interested citizens to realize that these events are now more public than ever before, and are playing to the world in real time!

This evolution in the information environment, and the implications it is already having on political communication, led me to spend the weekend talking to people about how they feel that PC party will change. In particular I was interested to talk to the volunteers who really make the party work at the constituency level. I talked to over 40 of these volunteers about communication, both within and without the party, party organization and their concerns and views of the prospects for change. As you would expect there were a wide variety of responses, but they grouped themselves rather neatly. I have several more people who have agreed to talk to me about these issues in the near future, so I hope to be able to build a better image of the visions of change in the PC party.

First, there were those who felt that the party would have to make substantial changes to its structure and methods. While some felt that the party needed to make immediate changes, there was little sense of urgency. Those advocating these changes rarely gave existential reasons for their concerns, rather the conversation tended to be one of competitive advantage. The greatest sense of urgency was to be found among those engaged in communications and election readiness, but even in those groups there was a general sense that the roughly two years until the next election would provide more than enough time.

Second, there were those who felt that all the talk of change was simply window dressing. The campaign messaging from the Premier about the success enjoyed by Alberta under PC management certainly resonated with these individuals. Interestingly it was also this group that evinced the most discontent with the Premier, though criticisms were inevitably followed by the disclaimer that they were committed to making things work.

Finally, and the largest group, there were those that felt that the party was structured and operating effectively, but needed some fine tuning here and there. I heard from several people that they felt very comfortable with the party’s methods for disseminating information internally, with one consistent exception. That exception was a perceived failure to make best use of the expertise of grassroots members of the party. Several health professionals in particular felt that their expertise was receiving short shrift. There was also a consensus that the party was going to have to increase and improve its utilization of non-traditional media; the Nenshi campaign’s victory here in Calgary seems to have made quite an impression in that regard.

I have to thank the AGM’s attendees for their hospitality and willingness to talk to me, and Brent Harding, Janice Harrington and Joey Oberhoffner in particular for their efforts in managing the media room and supporting its occupants. The realities of media are changing, and political commentary and analysis is immensely more open-source than it has been in the past. It is my hope that accreditation of bloggers as media to this AGM sets a precedent, and that the active online and twitter political community is embraced by all parties and organizations at their events moving forward.

Fundamentally what I saw this weekend was a prototypical establishment party, comfortable with itself and the world as it is. I mean neither that as neither an insult nor a compliment, merely a summary of the zeitgeist. There were the expected cri de couer marginal groups, and the passionate crusaders for change (in one direction or another), but the dominant feeling was one of satisfaction. I wouldn’t call it complacent, not after the last year, but there was a definite sense of returning purpose and order after a scare. The PC party remains unchallenged in fundraising, as the recently released numbers for last year demonstrate, and there is no other provincial political entity capable of bringing together over a thousand members for a weekend. The human capital and intellectual resources of the party remain formidable, and if they ‘team PC’ meme catches on with the party’s membership those resources may be deployed much more effectively in the year to come than they have been over the last few. We shall see, as there are more than a few factions within the party that have in the past struggled to cooperate effectively.

For further comment see:
Dave Cournoyer - http://daveberta.ca/2010/11/dont-write-an-obituary-yet/