Saturday, March 31, 2012

180 degrees.

180 degrees. About face.

Alison Redford may have been called a flip flopper before, but this time it was a complete polar turn around. To be fair, I see nothing wrong with flip flopping. We all make mistakes and we all make decisions without necessarily considering the complete information. Reversing a decision simply means that a person has given an issue further consideration and deemed that a different decision would be more appropriate. Policy development should be about getting things right and it shouldn't matter if someone thought wrong before and has since changed their mind - as long as they get it right.

Redford has now gotten it right (sort of). I am talking of course about the announcement made on Thursday that PC MLAs will return their no-meet-committee pay. Clearly, this issue was being heard on the doorsteps as MLAs were canvassing for votes. This issue, it was deemed, was driving down PC poll numbers. A flip was necessary.

And the PCs messaged this one perfectly - in a way very few politicians have had the courage to do so before.

"Growing up I was always taught that the only thing worse than making a mistake was not admitting it and fixing it. I made a mistake on these issues and now I am fixing them," she said. "Leadership is about making decisions; sometimes difficult decisions and sometimes, admitting you were wrong."

So, how did they get it so wrong? How did PC MLAs - smart, politically savvy people, with their ear to the ground - not know that Albertans would be so upset about this? I suspect they knew that there  would be backlash, but they felt that the issue had been managed appropriately. Maybe they have a point.

First off, MLA compensation is broken. There is a dominant narrative that suggests politicians are a bunch of pigs at a trough and we pay them too much money. This narrative is particularly strong in Alberta. So, for the past two decades, MLAs have attempted to hide the real amount of compensation that they get. They got rid of the pension plan and replaced it with severance packages. They slashed base pay and implemented tax free allowances. They implemented pay for committee and portfolio work and boosted it by 30 per cent. All of this is done in an effort to make MLA remuneration appear lower than it actually is. Ultimately, it is dishonest and unfair to both MLAs and taxpayers.

MLAs saw the committee pay, not as pay specifically for the work of the committee, but rather just as a part of their actual total compensation. I think that is why Ray Prins was so insulted by this being phrased as an integrity question. For MLAs, being named to a committee meant they were being recognized for good work and the compensation that came with that was part and parcel of MLA pay. That concept that committee pay is about boosting total compensation for backbenchers as opposed to pay for extra work is echoed in statements made by former MLA Richard Marz.

The real problem is that MLA base compensation is too low. A number of MLAs are doctors, or lawyers or business executives and in many cases they now work harder and longer, under closer scrutiny and for less pay than they did before. Our premier, chairman of the board for an organization that manages a $40 billion per year operation - takes in a bit over $200,000 per year. I wonder how that would compare to the chairman of a similar sized organization in the private sector? The average MLA pay depending on the source you ask, is between $125,000 and $160,000. I'm not going to suggest that that is a small amount of money, but if we want the best decisions made, then we need to attract the best and brightest to public office. We have to give them an incentive for taking the risk, making the sacrifices and managing the time and stress associated with the role.

At the end of the day, a review is necessary and Redford has appropriately appointed former Supreme Court justice John Major to lead that review. Policy-wise it was the right decision to make - unfortunately it didn't work out well for her politically. Hopefully this honest reversal will.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Liberals release poll, continue with bold moves

The Alberta Liberals carried on day two of the provincial election campaign with another bold move. After suggesting that they had the best day one of the parties, I risk coming across as partisan when I suggest that they take the cake again for day two. The big bang came from releasing internal poll results on public opinion of their policy platform. This move wasn't a complete win for the Liberals but it was the boldest move of the day.

(Honourable mention goes to the Conservative "Compare" press releases, but I am sure I will be able to write about those on a future day.)

It is common for parties to engage in all sorts of public polling (and even push polling, if you are Stephen Carter) but it is most uncommon for those parties to release the results publicly. Furthermore, the Alberta Liberals need to be given full points for releasing the entire results - warts and all.

The poll results show that the public might be comfortable with adopting some of the Liberal positions, perhaps even more so if they don't come from the Liberals:
  • 57% of Albertans support doubling the seniors home care budget,
  • 50% support elimination school fees,
  • 53% support post secondary debt forgiveness for grads who stay in Alberta,
  • 50% support tuition elimination,
  • 64% support free votes in the legislature,
  • 54% support income tax hikes on the wealthy, and
  • 66% support higher corporate taxes.
 I should mention that all of the poll questions were phrased in the positive and people are more likely to poll in favour of things as opposed to being against things and that may speak to some of the support. But what is interesting is question C3: Having heard these ideas from the Alberta Liberal Party platform do they make you more or less likely to vote for them?

Almost as many people said they were less likely to vote for the Liberals as said they were more likely to vote for them (around a third of respondents each). 28% of people said they wouldn't change their voting intention at all. And given that only 13% of respondents expressed support for the Liberals, this result should not be completely comforting for the grits. The question not asked was would you be more likely to vote for the NDP or Wildrose party after hearing their policy.

Unfortunately, ideas matter less in elections than how effective you are at messaging them or how popular your leader is.  The Liberals have a big branding issue in Alberta that probably can't be solved by simply expressing good ideas.

Two days of bold announcements might help fix the brand, but they must have some big tricks left to pull out later in the campaign too.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Hotel stunt wins day one for Sherman

An election campaign is upon us and that means that each day will be filled with announcements, attacks, ideas, stunts and mistakes. It makes for an interesting time as Albertans spend 4 weeks discussing a wide variety of public policy issues (in theory). With so little surprise as to the day the campaign would start each party had a good opportunity to plan for it and ensure that they started with their best foot forward. For me, the strategies and the tactics are the most compelling thing to watch. There were no flubs, but which party and which happening was most notable on Day One?

My vote has to go to the Alberta Liberal party.

While the other parties held news conferences from the legislature with their leader surrounded by candidates attempting to set a narrative in motion, it was Raj Sherman who decided to do things a little differently. He launched his campaign from the Fairmont Hotel MacDonald of all places.

Dr Sherman started out with a stunt that reinforced the issue on which he is most knowledgeable and for which most Albertans describe as their top priority: healthcare. The message being delivered: a night in acute care is more costly than a night in the most expensive hotel in Edmonton. Point well delivered and well punctuated.

Albertans are finally starting to realise and accept generally that the biggest problem with our healthcare system is the waiting times for extended care beds for seniors. Unfortunately, these people who do not require acute care treatment (what most of us consider to be a general hospital bed), are stuck in acute care beds until the longterm care spaces open up. The log jam here is clogging the hallways down to and out the emergency room doors.

Emergency wards are full of people who are ready to be moved to acute care, but have to wait and the waiting rooms are full of people waiting to see a doctor in the emergency ward. Unfortunately, a good number of the people waiting to be seen in Emergency are being attended to by paramedics and the stress gets passed on to our ambulatory system.

Dr Sherman delivered a solid blow on day one by effectively showing that a little bit of money spent on seniors long term care will save money in all other parts of the system while simultaneously fixing some of the biggest problems.

Election 2012 Begins - A real race is expected.

As expected Premier Alison Redford visited the Lieutenant-Governor's office today and started Alberta's 2012 general election. She waited until the Alberta legislature passed the budget to get the campaign started in an effort to reinforce the party image as stable competent managers. The strategy seemed sound: pass a fair and prudent budget, move forward on key legislation and keep Danielle Smith on the sidelines. The risk, of course, is that you provide a forum for the opposition parties to air their grievances on a daily basis. If a narrative emerges and gains traction, then you are stuck in the house responding to an agenda advanced by the opposition parties. Unfortunately a narrative emerged: the Tories are bullies and have abused the reins of power for too long. This narrative was largely advanced by the Liberals and will serve the Wildrose party well.

Recent polls bear witness to this critical mistake on election timing. Prior to the spring session the PCs had a comfortable 10-15 point lead, but two polls released on the day the election started show the race is much closer.

A CTV-Forum research poll puts the PCs ahead only three points over the Wildrose province wide (36-33) amongst decided voters. Even worse, a Global-Ipsos poll puts the parties in a complete tie (38-38). With a strong Tory lead in Edmonton, both polls demonstrate that Wildrose is ahead in Calgary and rural Alberta.

Now I am watching the polls closely and have developed a little seat projection tool that I hope will serve me well throughout the campaign. According to my projections, a vote held today would yield 51 seats for the PCs, 27 for the Wildrose, 6 seats for the NDP and 3 seats for the Liberals. (My pre-session projections were 65-12-5-5, and a few commentators said I was giving too much credit to the opposition).

Polls aside, 28 days can be an eternity in politics and a vigorous campaign will undoubtedly emerge. Redford strategist Stephen Carter is known to use the full length of the campaign period quite effectively, so the story on April 22nd will be quite different from the story today. I hope to write to you dear reader on a daily basis until then. I hope you will enjoy it and share your thoughts.