Last week’s posts “Danielle Smith’s Free-ride” and “PC Policy Veep defects to the Wildrose Alliance” generated a lot of heated discussion and responses from at least three other bloggers either supporting (Alberta Altruist and Brian Dell) or criticizing (David Climenhaga) the policy positions of the Wildrose Alliance. These posts and the debate that followed in the comment sections has led me to ask the question: how much does party policy really matter?
The defection of Progressive Conservative Party Vice-President Policy and Resolution Shayne Saskiw to the Wildrose Alliance has raised questions about how much influence do PC Party members have on the actual policy that a government implements? According to Saskiw, not much.
“I was able to give their opinions on policy to the government, but the government was not acting on their advice.”
This is not a surprise, nor a new criticism of how responsive governments are to ordinary citizens – engaged or otherwise. Does anyone remember Premier Ed Stelmach campaigning on the PC Party platform of dissolving the regional health authorities and centralizing control into the largest employer in the province? It was not mentioned in the “Change that Works for Albertans” (PDF) document, nor do know of any PC candidates who campaigned on this policy position. Perhaps after nearly 40 years in government, the upper echelons of power at the Legislature feel that the election process is simply a formality. Perhaps the PC Party interpreted the 52% support they received in the election that recorded the lowest voter turnout in Alberta history equal a blank check mandate?
It would be wrong to suggest that policy does not matter, because it does. It is important to recognize that in many cases, the majority of challenges that a government will deal with during a term in office will be reactive. In these cases, it is important to recognize leadership and which elected official or officials will offer the kind of leadership that will be best suited to dealing with reactive situations. For example, mainstream business and economic forecasters were predicting smooth sailing ahead during the 2008 election when politicians were practically promising a jet-pack for every citizen. In 2010, the economic outlook is quite a bit more modest (though we are fairing better than our American neighbors).
During my time working with the Liberal Party until 2007, I remember it being normal for policies to be generated from the Official Opposition Caucus offices, rather than the party policy committees. Perhaps this is one of the problems with the traditional political parties in Alberta. They do consult with stakeholders and rely on well-educated researchers and analyst, but in the end, new policies became more about marketing and messaging instead of listening and generating a party membership driven policy apparatus.
This leads me back to Ms. Smith and a statement she made about Wildrose Alliance policy:
“Our party does not take a position on divisive social issues. We prefer to focus on those areas where we agree.”
This statement reflects a smart (and so far successful) strategy of positioning the Wildrose Alliance as the moderate conservative/conservatively moderate anti-establishment party in Alberta politics. I have been told that many of Ms. Smith’s financial backers in Calgary’s oil and gas sector would like to turn the page on the more hard social conservative views that the party has advocated in the past. Refusing to talk about divisive social issues is a smart political tactic, given the positions that her party has taken in the past.
During the 2004 election, the Alliance led by Randy Thorsteinson called for province-wide votes on abortion and same-sex marriage. There have also been questions about the influence that conservative members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have had on the development of Alliance policies.
This said, an elected official’s personal or religious views on social issues do not necessarily result in major government policy changes. During the 2001 election, Vegreville-Viking MLA Ed Stelmach responded to a questionnaire from LifeSiteNews in which he declared his opposition to abortion under any circumstances (his response to the 2004 election questionnaire is not published online). This was his position nine years ago and may continue to be his position today, but since becoming Premier three years ago, Stelmach has hardly been a champion in the fight against allowing women the choice to access abortions. Like Premier Stelmach’s, it would be extremely difficult for Ms. Smith’s party to enter a divisive debate on social issues and continue to hold their current mainstream support in the polls.
Tempering the more extreme elements in her party is going to be one of Ms. Smith’s largest challenges. In 2009, nearly 2,000 Wildrose Alliance members voted for social conservative candidate Mark Dyrholm. What happens if these “grassroots” dispute Ms. Smith’s position? Is Ms. Smith willing to cut them loose in order to avoid the damage of being labeled as the “scary conservative party?” If it reaches the point where push comes to shove, maybe policy will matter.