We are in a pretty unusual political time in Alberta as the leadership race for the United Conservative Party leadership race develops. We have a brand new spanking entity that is well poised to form the next government of Alberta, yet they do not yet have a single official policy or principle.
A large poll has indicated the vast majority of Albertans would still choose this new party that has no leader and no policies over the Notley NDP if an election were held today. This of course has sent the NDP into abject terror and desperation as they try their hardest to attack the character of the interim leader of the party and even their nascent board of directors in trying to paint them as extreme on the most slim of evidence.
An odd outcome of having no policies has meant that the NDP has no simple target to fire at with the new party that has surpassed them in provincial popularity. The party can’t use a lack of policies to their advantage forever of course. Eventually an AGM will be held where members can choose their official policy and principle set. Until then though, it appears that Albertans are already pretty happy with where they sit politically.
The lack of policies has put the leadership contenders into awkward positions as well. True grassroots conservative principles generally tend to support having member driven policy rather than a top down method where policy is imposed by the leadership. Leadership contenders have the tricky balancing act of trying to define themselves with policy while not crossing the line and stepping on member’s jurisdiction. It is members, not hysteric, indignant NDP supporters on social media who will be choosing the next leader and candidates would be well served to remember that.
Jason Kenney has taken an odd strategy in refusing to take specific policy stances and insisting that he will wait until members define those policies. Doug Schweitzer has taken some very specific economic policy stands and Brian Jean is sort of sitting between the two. Time will tell which approach may be the most successful.
Getting back to the subject at hand, just how important are member driven policies? As a person who served on the provincial executive as VP of Policy with the Wildrose Party for multiple terms I have to admit that they are not nearly as important as we like to think they are.
It is critical that members drive the policy engine in general. Members need not only to feel that their input matters in party direction, they need to see it. In having members build, debate upon and select policies the party can ensure that its actions reflect the majority of the membership.
All the above being said, the leadership of the party and the caucus are not bound by the party membership in any way nor should they be.
There is an ironic contradiction in the principle of conservative member driven policy. Grassroots style ideology always stands in strong support of free voting by MLAs in the legislature. At the same time, many feel that MLAs must act in accordance with the member driven policies. What happens if an MLAs constituents want the member to vote in the legislature in a way that contradicts the policies of the membership? The leader can’t or shouldn’t whip the member to vote one way or the other. That contradicts the principle of free votes as well.
What happens if a piece of legislation hits the floor of the legislature where there is no party policy to guide the reaction of the MLAs and leadership? What happens if issues hit the news that demand that the party take a stance but again there is no specific policy on the books to deal with it?
The party and it’s caucus can’t sit handcuffed on issues while awaiting member input on every issue. This is where leadership takes place and a stance is taken. This may happen with membership consultation, or with caucus consultation or perhaps with none if time does not present itself.
Here is something that members don’t want to hear but its true. Sometimes the membership despite their best intentions simply comes up with some really shitty policies that simply will never be broadly accepted by the electorate. This is a risk with member driven policy as people with specific agendas can at times be very well spoken and very well organized in getting a policy through. Remember, one doesn’t need to sway the entire membership in order to get a policy through. A person needs only to convince the majority of the members attending an AGM and if it is getting near coffee break time, the members will often vote to accept damn near anything in order to get a break from what can be tedious policy discussions.
So what is the point of member driven policies if the party won’t always act upon them?
Policies need to be viewed from something of a higher level. The policies and principles as a whole reflect the direction and flavor of the party and while they will never cover every possible event or instance, they will give a good indication of where the party will move on those issues when they arise. The members truly are the boss and the policy set will draw people to seek nominations who share those sorts of principles. The policy set will always be there to remind the leadership just where the members want to go even if they cant follow it to the letter.
Policy development can be a minefield. It is very unlikely that any specific policy that comes from members will win an election but it is very damned possible that a stinker of a policy could lose an election. Members have to balance ideals with realism when choosing policies and that is a difficult task for any of us.
Hopefully the maiden set of UCP policies is concise yet broad. Prescriptive little policies that try to address every issue on the planet serve little purpose and only add to policy bloat. It is usually easier to add policies than it is to get rid of them and having an encyclopedia of policies only gives opponents ammunition to shoot at you with while leaving you crippled in your potential responses.
The Wildrose Party always kept their policies front and center while it was a long running joke about whether a policy book for the Progressive Conservative Party even existed as they always kept it so well hidden. With the marriage of these two groups lets hope we find a happy medium.
Policies are important but we cant let the specifics become a hill to die on. Albertans are already ready to accept the UCP even without specific policies. We need to fill that void but to remember that broad principles will do the trick. We cant ignore policies nor can we put too much emphasis on them. We will only get one kick at the cat with our founding meeting.