Tuesday, February 01, 2011

How identity and leadership will factor on the future of Alberta politics

The two biggest factors that will determine the political future, coming out of this incredible state of flux, will be identity and leadership.

I have often said that Alberta politics is all about identity. More specifically, the common piece of identity related to being a conservative (or a Conservative). For many Albertans (in particular, those over 50), being Albertan meant being conservative. This has a lot to do with the political rhetoric coming out of the 70s and 80s where divisive politics pitted the Lougheed Conservatives in Alberta against the Trudeau Liberals federally on a number of issues, including the Charter, the NEP and multiculturalism. The story went that Liberals were infringing on provincial issues and that their policies were killing Alberta prosperity and the Alberta way of life. The Progressive Conservatives in Alberta were seen as the ones who would stand up for Alberta and protect our interests. Coming out of that era, Albertans have been inextricably identified as conservatives and that label has passed on to many younger people who hadn't even been born when the construct was created.

This identity has lead to the relative constant state of the Progressive Conservative party. The brand has been absolutely invulnerable and the party has been the destination for anyone who is seriously interested in participating in governing the province. Needless to say, the party includes a large number of people with significantly diverse political viewpoints who from time to time struggle over control of the party that controls the province. We saw it in 1992, we saw it in 2006 and we are seeing it now.

The interesting thing about identity is how hard it is to shake off. For many Albertans, they have identified as Progressive Conservative and won't turn their backs on the brand. The 2006 leadership campaign drove a deep wedge into the concept of PC brand identity. The camp became significantly divided between Morton supporters and Dinning supporters and eventually Stelmach was chosen in an effort to conserve the brand (identity).

PC supporters have been so entrenched that they had difficulty dropping their identity, even if they disagreed with some of the policies or some of the leaders. But, Stelmach has been unable to heal the rifts and a global recession pushed the divisive issues to the forefront. Danielle Smith, as leader of the Wildrose Alliance Party, has subsequently been effective enough to get people to reconsider their identity. Similarly, moves by the PC party to prevent leakage on the right has caused some on the left to reconsider their identity.

Much has been said that the label of "Liberal" is a political liability in Alberta. This concept has largely contributed to the rise of the Alberta Party. Many 'progressives' shy away from the Alberta Liberals because of the liability and where they once would have had a home in the PC party, they are now cautious of the increasing power of the right wing of that caucus.

So here's where we are at: the extremes of the political spectrum, represented by the NDP and WAP are solid on both identity and leadership factors. Most supporters of each camp are content and ready to fight the next election. The vast middle however features three parties that are all dealing with leadership questions, while the Albertans who support them are dealing with identity questions.

How strong is the PC identity today? Is it strong enough to keep the followers even if their choice for leader is not selected? Will those who identify as Liberals move to the Alberta or PC Party if the right leader is selected? Will they move if the wrong leader is selected - for either their party or the PC party? Will the Alberta Party be able to identify with progressives from both the PC party and the Liberal party? Will they be able to create an identity that is more than the new Liberal party? Which leader will help them to create that identity?

The Alberta political landscape is like an electric football table, where the ground is shaking and bodies are shifting around. Each person came in wearing a uniform, but that uniform may not determine which pile they will end up in. People in all three parties will watch and participate in the leadership votes, then determine whether the selected leaders will have enough impact to change their political identities.

We are in unprecedented times - the most volatile political environment Alberta has ever seen.


UPTAG said...

Great article. The volatile situation we are facing in Alberta like you said is unlike any other we have ever seen. I think now is the time more than ever for people to get involved, and realize that particularly now in this political market their voice and their opinion is going to make the biggest difference. Good stuff, keep up the good work.

Atypical Albertan said...

Thanks for the feedback UPTAG!