My expectations were low on Saturday heading to Red Deer for the annual PC Alberta Convention. One year and two days ago, the fourty-four-year-old Tory Dynasty suffered a crushing defeat and is a now the third party in the Alberta Legislature. With Albertans’ hearts and minds with the 80,000+ evacuees from Ft. McMurray and the flames still raging, I was expecting a somber mood and light attendance.
My difficulty in finding a parking spot, however, would be the first of the day’s many surprises look what i found. Over 1,000 delegates paid to attend this convention; the registration desk was overwhelmed. Yet the delegates were patient and cheerful. It was more of a reunion than a wake.
One of the first Orders of Business was a general discussion about the future of the party; this was a euphemism for a debate over unification with the Wildrose. Speaker after speaker went to the mike prefacing their comments with: “I am proud to be a PROGRESSIVE Conservative”. There was some, but comparatively little, appetite to unite the right and very little positive commentary about the Wildrose as a potential dance partner.
In fact, convention organizers were persuading delegates to tweet using the hashtag #pcproud.
A motion to “rebuild the PC Party of Alberta” passed almost unanimously putting unification talks on ice at least for now.
But there are problems with going it alone. The party is broke and you cannot take the hashtag #pcproud to the bank. They have cut operations to a bare bone, with only one paid staffer, as they pay off a $770,000 bank loan.
The party, while in government, was plush with cash. Corporate donations flowed especially during boom times, as donators wanted to be seen favourably by the perpetual government. But the combination of losing power and the subsequent ban on corporate and union donations in Alberta has hit the PC coffers particularly hard. They never learned how to fundraise; while in government, they didn’t have to.
Undoubtedly, the most interesting part of the day was in the early afternoon when leadership selection was hotly debated. I have not been to a delegated leadership convention since Toronto in 2003 when Peter McKay beat Jim Prentice and Scott Brison, among others, to become the last leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada. However, it looks like I will be able to attend one in Alberta next year.
I admit to being surprised by the decision to return to delegates, selected by the local riding associations, exclusively getting to determine who becomes the leader of the party. Every PC Leader, since Ralph Klein, who was chosen in 1992, has been selected by some version of “One Member One Vote”.
Seen as being democratic and inclusive, the OMOV system is not without its detractors. The Alberta PC Party version was especially suspect. Initially, if no candidate received a clear majority, the top three candidates ran in a preferential runoff vote weeks later. Memberships could be sold right up until the time of the second vote, creating lots of problems, not the least of which was Johnny Come Lately members deciding the future of the party.
In 2006, there was such animosity between the Jim Dinning and Ted Morton camps that most voters’ second choice was Ed Stelmach, who barely survived the top three cut-off, but then vaulted into the premier’s chair.
Then in 2011, Allyson Redford sold thousands of memberships in the two week interim to teachers and public sector unions, promising salary increases and then vaulted over heavily favoured Gary Mar, whose lead over her was more than 2:1 on the first ballot.
Over time, neither Stelmach nor Redford were particularly popular leaders and both were seen as compromise choices. But worse, it was clear that “temporary Tories” were determining the outcome. To add insult to injury, some were photographed ripping up their membership cards outside the polling stations, verifying that they were not PC supporters and their mischief was now complete.
In response, in 2014, only the top two finalists would have competed in the runoff; but Jim Prentice won on the first ballot.
There was no apparent need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Yes, the old system could be, and likely was, hijacked by outside forces and a good argument can be made that the leader ought to be chosen by those with the most skin in the game. Volunteers who have worked for years, pounding lawn signs and stuffing envelopes are the most likely to be chosen at local delegate selection meetings. And they have a legitimate complaint that they, and a person who buys a membership at the door, should not have equal say in who becomes leader of “their” party.
But the delegate selection process is prone to manipulation, backroom deals and control by the old guard. Lesser cures could include increasing the price of membership or preferably cutting off membership sales weeks before the first and certainly not allowing them prior to the runoff vote.
In fact, the delegates had decided that if OMOV were to be maintained, there would only be one vote on one day, with a preferential ranked ballot determining the victor.
Abandoning OMOV will be seen as anti-democratic, where anybody with $10 in their jeans gets to participate. It will push the Wildrose even further away; with its Reform roots, it fancies itself a grassroots movement.
Those who favour the unification of the right in Alberta will be disappointed with the delegates’ resolve to rebuild. The PCs’ spirit is strong but its finances are weak. They are not yet on life support but the patient is far from healthy. They are not going anywhere.