People can point to all sorts of individual things in the last provincial election and blame them for the Wildrose Party’s failure to convince Albertans to elect them to government. The conscience rights policy made many people uncomfortable and Edmonton candidate Alan Hunsperger’s candid thoughts from an old blog post were outright offensive to most people upon hearing them. Any party that has 87 candidates, tens of thousands of members and hundreds of policies will have some questionable people speaking up now and then and will have some policies that simply stink. If a party has gained the trust of the electorate in general that party can withstand hiccups caused by some individuals within it and from poor policies.
With enough digging, we can rest assured that every major party has some crackpots within it’s ranks and some policies on their books that simply do not do them any favors. The PCs had a Calgary candidate who’s comments on ethnic issues paled in comparison to Leech’s awkward musings. The NDP had a candidate who was one of the main organizers of the Olympic Plaza illegal squatting last fall. The Liberals had to rush to fill candidate vacancies and it is a safe bet that a few of those names they used on ballots were less than rational. The reason that these things did not damage the other parties as they did the Wildrose Party is that Albertans know the other parties and can feel comfortable in writing off the actions of a few individuals and ignoring some outlying policies.
People in Alberta were clearly ready for change in the last election and it showed in the first three weeks of the campaign. Albertan’s can and will embrace grassroots populism as we saw with Reform throughout the 90s. Still though, the Wildrose Party was a relative unknown to the majority of Albertans and this made the popular support from the electorate very fragile. When the oddball people and policies popped up, voters got uncomfortable and retreated back to the devil they knew in the final days of the election. Polls can’t measure floating trust and comfort levels thus they completely dropped the ball in the last election.
Unfortunately the temptation is strong to further centralize actions and decision making within a party when things like this happen. Some people feel that the nominations should be more tightly controlled by the central party and candidates gagged even further. The Wildrose Party shamelessly messed with many nominations prior to the election. That offensive meddling with constituency choice caused great strain between constituency associations and the central party. When there is mistrust between the members themselves and the central party, you can rest assured that this discomfort spreads to the electorate at campaign time.
The Wildrose needs to strengthen it’s constituency associations and empower them further rather than meddle further with their choices of candidates. Will the constituencies make some poor choices in candidates at times? Yes they sure will. We can rest assured though that the central party can pick some dogs too. If they constituencies truly choose their candidates though in an open process, it makes it clear that each candidate is simply one of 87. It is much more difficult to label the entire party based on the actions of individuals when it is clear that the individual only represents one portion. When the central party takes direct part in candidate selection, than the party indeed will wear the actions of those candidates as a whole. In building trust we need people working in communities on the ground, not further centralization.
Some quotes and attitudes that came from Danielle in that interview are somewhat disturbing. It is clear as day that the Wildrose needs to revisit and reform some of it’s policies and of course there is nothing wrong with a leader saying that. It is the tone of Smith speaking as if these policy changes are a done deal and she will essentially tell us as members what we will be choosing as a stance or policy in the future with statements like: “Now that the decision has been made I’ll leave it at that,” and then following with “I’ll indicate that to my party as well.” (in regards to the funding of elective procedures such as gender reassignment in the public health system).
Ms. Smith, I do hope that you understand that the party indicates their policy wishes to you and not the other way around. I understand that a leader has to make some tough stances on issues and can’t consult with the membership every time an issue surfaces. The tone and attitude here though suggests that some areas are simply closed to member discussion and her word is final. I do hope that I am mistaken in this.
Year after year we have seen our party AGMs focus more on video and light displays with less attention being paid to policy. At our last AGM the video screens were fantastic but only a scant few hours were dedicated to member policy discussion over the entire weekend. That AGM lost nearly $90,000 as the $250 per ticket cost discouraged grassroots members from attending something that was more akin to a rock concert than a political party deliberating on important issues such as policy. Turnout was embarrassingly dismal for a party that was seen as a growing force. Perhaps has a couple more hours been dedicated to policy discussion, the membership may have taken more time to consider whether conscience rights were a viable policy option. As it was, policy discussions were rushed through with little meditation on the part of the collected membership.
Effort has been made to centralize control within the Wildrose Party in the last few years and this has led to a growing sense of discomfort and distrust within the party membership. I saw that mistrust starkly in the campaign that I worked with as the candidate did not even want to share his polling results with the party for fear that the list would be abused for central fundraising. It is tough to build a sense of unity and optimism among a campaign team in that atmosphere and even tougher for that team to spread that to the electorate in 28 days.
Leading and managing a grassroots party is damn tough. The headaches are endless as CAs go rogue, infighting happens and mixed messages get out. Despite those challenges, the way to earn that precious trust that the party so dearly needs will be by opening up rather than introverting. We need well attended public policy meetings that are open and take time in their deliberations. We need early nominations so candidates can get to know their constituents personally in years leading to an election. We essentially need to stick to our party bylaws which clearly lay all that out anyway and speak out every time somebody wants to try and bypass the will of the members.
Leading also means standing up for the party policies when they come under fire. When a leader begins to sound like they will say or do anything for a vote and is willing to throw their founding principles to the wind, trust is lost. The Wildrose lost a great deal of trust that way in the election when the party promoted the vapid and ill-conceived royalty rebate plan. It wasn’t that voters did not like the idea of a few bucks in their pockets, it was that the policy was a clear vote-buy that was in total contradiction of a party that claims fiscal responsibility. It felt disingenous
With 17 great MLAs in opposition and a little less than four years to work on it, the Wildrose Party is very well placed to earn that much needed trust among the electorate before the next election. If the party continues to ignore and sideline the membership however, the Wildrose could turn into a flash in the pan. Alison Redford is already presenting Alberta with a top-down centralized party. Why should that be replicated?