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Here's why the UPC is desperate to win

Candidates for the leadership of the new United Conservative Party always leave out one important thing when they talk. Would-be leaders of any other party would not talk about that thing either.

Candidates for the leadership of the new United Conservative Party always leave out one important thing when they talk. Would-be leaders of any other party would not talk about that thing either.

It has to do with a phenomenon encountered by anyone who buys a cellphone or a computer.

The Internet world includes concepts like “walled garden” and “ecosystem” and “network effects.”

Those are all fancy ways of saying that giant California-based companies want to become monopolies as far as each computer user is concerned.

They make sure that, as much as possible, their hardware and operating systems will not work those of other companies. If you buy one firm's software and hardware you're going to keep buying from that firm unless you start from scratch with a different firm, which then also becomes your only supplier.

Alberta politics operate in a somewhat similar way.

Parties build their own networks of people with all kinds of useful experience and skills. A governing party usually builds up a bigger network of useful people.

Some of those people are good at campaigning. Many others know the ins and outs of how to run cabinet ministers' offices and communications. And then there is the pool of people with the experience and community connections that would make them credible candidates for the legislature.

Having a large network of people like this gives a party a competitive advantage.

The Progressive Conservatives had that advantage for decades. It was a different sort of “Alberta Advantage” for them.

Now opposition parties have to worry about the New Democrats building up similar assets. They want to stop the NDP's network growth as soon as possible.

That's what Jason Kenney and Brian Jean and Doug Schweitzer (and anyone who may join them) leave out when they talk to voters about what they want to do as United Conservative leader.

Offer vague ideas about balancing the budget? Talk about educational reform? Oppose a carbon tax? Sure, all these are relevant ideas.

But behind them all is also a determination not to let the New Democrats have a second straight term in office. A second term for the New Democrats might ruin the decades of party infrastructure development that the Progressive Conservatives (like Social Credit before them) enjoyed and let an NDP infrastructure be put in place.

A lot of what goes on inside government depends on knowledge that gets built up with experience. This knowledge rarely gets written down so it's hard to replace.

The New Democrats' first couple of years in government showed signs that they lacked such experience.

They won election in May 2015. By the start of this year there were still a few hundred unfilled positions in cabinet-appointed agencies, boards and commissions. The ordinary machinery was working slowly, even more slowly than might have been expected because the new government was really worried about inadvertently appointing Conservative supporters to these positions.

Leadership in cabinet was so new that Premier Rachel Notley was said to be spending a few to several hours a week setting the agenda for cabinet meetings. That was a job traditionally handled by a cabinet committee.

Decisions were also centralized in the premier's office even more than under the last three Conservative premiers, who had been stepping up the centralization. Asked about how things were going with the new government, a longtime lobbyist told me, “It's different.”

Some of this is already changing. By now it is obvious that the Conservatives did not have the only supply of plausible cabinet ministers. People can complain about the choices being made by individuals like Finance Minister Joe Ceci and Health Minister Sarah Hoffman. It's hard to see how anyone can say that their PC predecessors were all more competent or memorable. (Quick, how many former finance and health ministers can you name?)

Less obvious is the development of knowledge at lower levels in the political establishment.

When the government changed a little over two years ago, a wave of Progressive Conservative press secretaries and executive assistants flooded into the private sector — some to jobs in corporations, some to non-government organizations. The more adventurous or less fortunate set up their own small communication and lobbying businesses.

If they stay in those worlds for another six years, the United Conservative Party will have to replace many of them with a generation of new recruits while the New Democrats develop an experienced generation of political staff. Avoiding that flip in expertise is a big reason why the would-be UCP leaders want to win the next election.

Mark Lisac

About the Author: Mark Lisac

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