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Time to rebuild conservatism in Alberta
Thursday, 14 May 2015 - 11:00am
Three major challenges face Alberta after the election of the province's new NDP government.
For the premier, it's the challenge of forming and developing a cabinet capable of leading a $45-billion government and meeting the expectations of the voters who elected it.
Many years ago, when my father was Alberta's premier, he would commence a meeting with his principal advisers immediately after a general-election victory by saying: "Let us now see what the great electoral tide has washed up on the beach; and let us pray that we will find enough timber to build a cabinet." Today, it is in the interests of all Albertans that such timber be found and carefully assembled.
In putting together her cabinet team and legislative program, the new premier will also need to be careful not to draw heavily on the advice of NDP operatives from outside the province such as those offered by the federal NDP. To do so would be akin to inviting the organizers of the Toronto International Film Festival to organize the Calgary Stampede â€“ not a good idea. To do so would also be to repeat the mistake made by Alberta's first and only Liberal administration, which drew so heavily on the advice and resources of the federal Liberal Party under Wilfrid Laurier that the provincial party came to be seen as more the servant of its federal cousins than the servant of Albertans.
For conservatives of all stripes, the silver lining of the dark cloud that descended upon them on May 6 is that the election has "cleared the air" on the centre-right side of the political spectrum. The PC administration in Edmonton had increasingly departed from conservative principles on the fiscal front and failed to creatively apply conservative values to other areas of provincial responsibility, from the organization of social services to environmental conservation. It had become 'conservative' in name only, and it was too much to expect Jim Prentice (the third PC premier in five years) to reverse the trend overnight.
And while Brian Jean, the Wildrose Leader, did remarkably well for taking the helm only days before the election call, Wildrose, too, needs time and space to heal its internal divisions, to reconcile its libertarian and social-conservative elements, and strengthen its relevance to Albertans who live outside its base in southern and rural constituencies.
Conservatism in Alberta, therefore, needs to be rebuilt provincially from the bottom up; rediscovering and recommitting itself to its fundamental values and principles, developing a conservative platform that applies those values and principles to the issues of the day, and engaging in constituency rebuilding and advocacy campaigns to restore its relevance and influence with Alberta electors.
In the federal arena, this process took more than 10 years to complete after the collapse of the federal PC Party in the 1993 national election. It culminated in, but did not begin with, an effort to "unite the right" at the party level, but much ground work had to be done before that effort was even feasible, let alone advisable. Alberta is a much smaller and dynamic political arena than the national political arena, so the deconstruction and rebuilding of conservatism provincially should not be nearly as long or difficult as it was federally.
For the private sector, the provincial election results create an enormous leadership challenge; the challenge of leading efforts to sustain and improve the performance of Alberta's economy at a time of low petroleum prices and when such leadership is unlikely to be provided by the provincial government.
Many Albertans see the provincial government - with its deficits and debts, its inability to reform health care (the largest area of provincial expenditure), and its failures to address the environmental constraints on energy development - as inhibiting rather than contributing to Alberta's economic progress. This is unlikely to change under the new government since economic policy has never been an NDP strength and promises made to Alberta's public-service unions will inhibit the government's willingness and ability to balance the budget and resist increasing taxes.
In leading Alberta's economic recovery, private-sector players might take a leaf from the playbook of Calgary Flames coach Bob Hartley. When his team captain and star defenceman Marc Giordano went down with a season-ending injury, most pundits predicted that the Flames would never make the playoffs. But they did because Coach Hartley successfully called upon all other team members to "raise their game."
With falling oil prices, Alberta's star economic player is still in the game but playing hurt. Now is the time for other sectors - agriculture and forestry, the service and knowledge sectors, whose growth and export potential is not limited by pipeline capacity, exporters with a strong focus on Asia - to accept the challenge, "up their game" and provide more of the leadership Alberta's economy urgently requires.
Preston Manning is the founder of the Manning Centre for Building Democracy.
This column was published by the Globe and Mail on May 14, 2015