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The challenges of replacing a leader

Whether provincial or federal, in power or in opposition, choosing a party leader is tricky business.
Jason Kenney gets one last summer at the helm of the UCP before a new leader is elected this fall. Photo: Great West Media

One candidate for the United Conservative Party leadership promises “autonomy” for Alberta. Another promises “sovereignty.” A third briefly thought about returning from her MP’s post in Ottawa (and sometime residence in the U.S.) but withdrew over concern that she might not be able to unite the “United” members of the legislature.

The rest are MLAs and cabinet ministers who say they weren’t really onside with a lot of what Jason Kenney’s government has done. They promise they would govern with more “humility.”

So far, there hasn’t been a lot about training more nurses, or coping with drug addicts and a steady flow of homeless, or many other issues.

The first group of candidates offer more of Alberta’s perpetual reaching into the past to recycle myths, resentful self-pity, and meaningless bravado.

The promises of a fresh start and a new attitude are more interesting.

Some of those candidates were enablers for Kenney. And all would have to work with cabinet ministers and MLAs who were complicit in the Kenney way of doing things.

More fundamental is what allows the fresh-start candidates to make their claims. They argue they were subject to the whims and orders of Premier Jason Kenney.

Party leaders have been central to Alberta politics for decades.

The essential importance of the leadership has greased the way for a steady growth in the size and power of the premier’s office. That did not change during the four years that Rachel Notley ran a New Democrat government.

But identifying parties and governments mostly with their leaders also makes those leaders surprisingly disposable. When things go wrong, it’s easier to say one person was the problem.

Change the nameplate on the door, and voters can be offered a “new and improved” product. It’s almost like selling breakfast cereal and shampoo.

The main difference with the UCP is that its would-be leaders don’t completely rely on being “new and improved.” They are also saying they will have the party become truer to its essential character — “we aren’t really like that.”

This phenomenon holds for other parties as well.

Notley’s government featured firm control from the centre. That was partly a reflection of Notley’s hard-nosed approach to politics, partly as a result of her relying on veteran NDP advisers from out of province to help guide an inexperienced team, and partly the result of staff making use of any power they are given.

The New Democrats are in the process of acknowledging--with some reluctance--that their central office has often operated with a heavy hand. It has tended to doubt the competence of constituency volunteers. It has subtly or not so subtly manipulated nominations. Power tends to corrupt; more insidiously, people who have any degree of power tend to use it and, if possible, expand it.

However, Notley shows the flip side of depending on the leader. Even some of her opponents concede she is smart and competent. That means replacing her could be difficult.

A leadership change is also likely to show up soon in the federal Liberal party.

Opposition parties cynically raised a cry that the Liberal-New Democrat agreement to keep the current government in place until 2025 was a betrayal of parliamentary tradition. It was not. Their accusations only reinforced disinformation and voter apathy.

Their wailing missed the point that the agreement is transparently meant to do more than deliver certain policies. It will also provide stability while the Liberals go about replacing Justin Trudeau.

The change of nameplate on the Liberal door becomes more interesting because it will involve a choice of how much change to offer. Deputy prime minister Chrystia Freeland would be seen as more of the same. It’s an open question whether another candidate will show up who might steer the party toward filling the current gap in the middle of Canadian politics, the area generally described as belonging to “blue Liberals” and “red Tories.”

Mark Lisac watches politics for Alberta Prime Times. He writes novels too, including the recently published Red Hill Creek.