It's January 2022 and Alberta is in trouble with premier Jason Kenney facing a rebellion from conservatives because he's unable to stand against his own red tories, the media, and the federal left. As a result Kenney is probably going to face a leadership vote in which everybody loses because neither he nor any of the insider contenders for his job have sufficient credibility with Albertans to overcome media support for their invisible but beloved NDP.
To me the candidates queuing up for a run look like such a dismal bunch that Kenney would easily defeat the effort to challenge his leadership if he could bring himself to hitch up his big boy pants, eschew the secrecy and media distrust he learned in the federal conservatives, tell his caucus karens to undertake anatomically improbable feats alongside their media and bureaucrat buddies, and bring this covid nonsense to a screeching halt. Doing it would win him another majority next time out too, but I don't see it happening - instead I expect he'll let himself be pushed off stage and bequeath us another disastrous Notley government.
Some people are touting Danielle Smith as a candidate who could come out of left field to win the UCP leadership - and I think that's probably right, but once you get past the obvious plus that she is neither Notley nor Jean the question for Albertans is whether she would be better than Kenney.
When Ms. Smith ran for leadership of what was then the wildrose-alliance party I supported Mark Dyrholm because I saw her as someone who could take over the premier's office and succeed, but not as what the party needed: someone who would build a solid grass roots organization. Her side won, largely because she's a natural campaigner whose people pushed members into voting for her over Mark by claiming that a provincial election was imminent - which it wasn't - but their success then left her surrounded by people who wanted to centralize power for themselves and ultimately destroyed the party from within.
In 2011 and again in 2013 I suggested that she could do a kind of reverse take-over of the PCs by by asking wildrose-alliance members to support her in a PC leadership bid, but saw no response until almost a year later when (for more proximate reasons I am not privy to) she led eight of her MLAs across the floor to join the Prentice government.
That was widely seen as a political betrayal - in reality, I suspect, of her rather than by her - but certainly a bit of personal history which now constitutes her most serious barrier to success if she chooses to run for the UCP leadership.
Since negatives can sometimes be turned into positives if handled properly I believe she would win both the leadership and the next election if she adopted a three part strategy:
- strengthen those pushing to hold a leadership race while grabbing an insurmountable lead by campaigning strongly and loudly against continued lockdowns, masking, and vaccine passports.
Note that this does not require formally announcing a leadership challenge but does create immediate and compelling media and constituency level opportunities to demonstrate leadership and competence by arguing on the facts; forces Jason Kenney to defend the status quo; leaves Brian Jean choosing between me-too and extremist positions; and leverages the vicious media attacks this will trigger to quickly capture the attention and probable support of about half of caucus and most UCP constituency associations.
An aside: it is only arguably obvious what "the covid facts" are - but it is obvious that masks, lockdowns, boosters, and socially enforced vaccinations do not work; that the child welfare, education, health care, and economic effects resulting from current policy are far worse than those caused by the disease; that the senior virologists behind The Great Barrington Declaration were right; that people in Sweden and Florida are better off in this context than Albertans; and, that the main impediment to getting past covid-19 is the feedback loop between the media and the public health bureaucracy, not caucus and not covid-19.
- adopt a personal all day, every day, elevator pitch presenting the poison from the past as catalyzed to iron in the soul.
Thus where Margaret Thatcher said "This lady is not for turning", Ms. Smith would make the kind of clear, hard edged, statements characteristic of talk radio hosts building an audience - personal things like: "when you bet on the other guy's integrity, and he doesn't have it, you lose" and, political things like "what I've learnt from covid is to really internalize the lesson that if something doesn't work, you stop doing it".
Notice that the elevator pitch should never be negative about another candidate - always pithy, personal, and reflective but segueing whenever the time available is extended into an ad hoc discussion that always has the same three part structure: generic commitments to openness and good grey government (socially liberal, fiscally conservative), specific commitments to some goal for Alberta, and open ended discussion of options and unknowns incident on achieving that goal.
- choose, advocate, and commit to implementing a general policy vision that earns strong support from conservatives, promises to benefit all Albertans, and is both contentious enough to generate press and sensible enough to be saleable to the average politically disinterested Albertan.
The specifics of what that general policy should be are, of course, open to debate - I'm about to suggest one below, but the point is not that my ideas represent the best or only choice, but that the strategy requires the candidate to pick something which would benefit Alberta if implemented, is both rationally and emotionally acceptable to most Albertans, and is likely to leave the haters in the media, NDP, and civil service looking stupid and dishonest to the average Albertan every time they try to explain how horrible and hateful it is.
My suggested policy vision imagines that government's role in the economy (and so the ratios of government debt and spending to the gross provincial product) will decrease with individual empowerment and matching reductions in the government's parental and supervisory roles in society.
The short form slogan for this policy would be something like "Grow Alberta, not Government."
The longer form would argue that holding government constant while rapidly growing the economy is fair to those who would otherwise face the consequences of short term cuts (e.g. teachers, nurses) as we work through the debt and spending hangover from the profligate Stelmach and Notley eras.
This is a difficult idea that goes against the general ethos of government but even trying to explain that government can reduce its role in society by treating Albertans, including is own employees, as competent adults making their own decisions will attract broad spectrum conservative support while leaving the opposition to rely on ad hominem attacks, liberal platitudes, misrepresentation, and/or arguments for continued regulatory growth and short term coping mechanisms like higher taxes and/or the unfair burdening of groups like educators and health care workers.
Healthcare offers both the simplest and the most contentious opportunity to demonstrate the policy consequences of this idea because implementation requires "only" that government continue and even expand its single payer role while getting out of the business of managing health care delivery.
An aside: This implements the insurance model for public health care with Albertans collectively paying the piper, but Albertans individually calling the tune.
The policy will produce some one time cash injections from asset divestiture and slow longer term growth in health care costs to below the rate of inflation, but the key benefit comes from freeing Adam Smith (in the person of those asked to take over ownership and management of health care infrastructure) to bring dramatic improvements in the quality and accessibility of care.
See Explaining the Disaster in Canadian Health Care for a related discussion on healthcare issues.
The most obvious consequence of a commitment to empowering the individual over government is deregulation. Thus, although efforts to deregulate in large part by accelerating decision making while slanting those decisions to favor applicants will not be easy to explain to nanny staters, the longer term effect of this policy idea will be to expand the tax base beyond what would otherwise occur and so reduce government's relative share of social income and spending.
Less obvious consequences occur across the main non health cost drivers in provincial government - in education, social services, and justice.
Each of these has pieces that work and pieces that don't. In general the pieces that do not have three things in common: a culture of secrecy; extensive and often indirect (e.g through agencies and boards) administrative staffing; and, the inflexible application of rules and schedules. Thus the two key principles for reform should be first that information must be public by default and secret by exception, and second that decision making should devolve to the lowest level possible and generally favor the individual's interests over the government's.
- in many cases the purpose of the rules and/or organizational structures that now so obstruct people working in or with government is to avoid either making or revealing the kind of mistake that lends itself to hostile media coverage and questions in the house.
So if we make treating people as competent adults a key policy driver we have to recognize is that some of those people will make mistakes -and that those mistakes will be theirs, not the minister's and not the government's.
- See Alberta Safe Speed Zones for some discussion on a very small, but highly visible, part of the problems in the administration of justice.
Generic policy statements and good intentions do not, of course, make effective campaign rhetoric - so here are some sample "I think that" talking points fitting the policy idea that reducing the role of government in favor of greater individual responsibility produces better results for fewer tax dollars.
- [I think that] police officers should have far more scope to use their own judgment during encounters with the public than they have now.
"By the book" often means forcing square pegs into round holes with consequent costs to everyone involved. Officers are trained and motivated to deal with people, not rulebooks - let them do their jobs without regard to the offender's race and we can expect to see both closures and convictions go up in the short term but system wide costs for policing, "corrections", and courts coming down in the longer term.
- [I think that] one positive consequence of our adaptation to the government response to covid-19 has been the rapid development of non classroom education. As that moves to full VR programming we expect to work with educators at all levels to see how those technologies can be used to add value or reduce costs.
One thing you hear all the time, for example, is that studying the humanities is a waste of time and money - that education is about jobs training, economic value, and the 3Rs. For the most part that's wrong: an over-wrought response first to things like gender studies that don't amount to a rounding error in University budgets; and second to a failure to understand that what kids need to learn today isn't the same as what grandpa had to learn in the 1950s.
In a more general sense it's also not true: you can build a bridge, install a toilet, or design a better valve without knowing John Locke or the Magna Carta, but you can't be a fully rounded member of western society without some idea of who we are and where we came from. So what can we do? at this point I don't know, but maybe stuff like adding some monies to STEM and Trades programs so they can incorporate post-graduation courseware requirements for continued certification in areas like Literature, History, or Music without adding much to student stress, workloads, and costs?
See The Future of Education for some discussion on the role of emerging technology in education.
- [I think that] social workers should have much greater freedom to truly act "in loco parentis" for their clients -advocating for them over longer terms and across the whole of government.
I've never met a social worker who didn't care, who didn't develop emotional calluses and coping mechanisms for dealing with the collision between the stupid, the uncaring, and the restrictions characterizing that job. Talk to any social worker and you'll see the frustration: they want to help this person or that, but can't for reasons that are either largely organizational or unaddressible because their client won't or can't co-operate to help themselves. As a result the people who work in the system often distance themselves from their clients by treating them as files instead of as individuals.
Bureaucratized support sort of works but produces an escalating series of costs where we see the same people again and again and even where we have long term support programs we carry people forward, but we hardly ever succeed in doing what the system is supposed to do: give those in need a leg up and send them on their way. Talk to front line workers and those who aren't burnt out and just putting in time have ideas, ideas that are usually frustrated either by our rules or the client's resistance to change. I want to find ways to improve on what we do so when Grandma needs a wheelchair, we make her life better; or when we write checks to parents so the kids can get to school they not only go to school, but do their home work.
- [I think that] there are far too many cases in which government deals with people who are beyond our ability to help - but maybe just getting out of the way will let community organizations help some of these people in the short term while we try some longer term things.
We could, for example, put more support behind options like replacing fixed term incarceration for many offenders with indefinite incarceration pending the achievement of some educational or behavioral goal. That may not give joe, the 30+ career thug and ne'er do well, a new life; but maybe the job skills training we waste on him provides the backdrop enabling his family or his church to give hope and direction to children who might otherwise drift into replicating his life.
- [I think that] Lawfare is unfair.
Whether you want a building permit or a fair trial on something like a weapons charge government sets the schedule, makes the rules, operates in its own comfort zone, and has effectively infinite legal resources - you don't. Let's change that - if somebody sics a human rights commission on you, that person and the commission itself should bear the costs of your defense; if you're waiting for a regulatory response that agency should face a time limit after which you automatically get what you asked for.
- [I think that] there will be another Alberta boom next year pretty much whatever we do, but we've blown the last two and need to figure out how to make this one work for all of us.
So how did we do that? One thing we did was spending billions building infrastructure at the same time that industry needed those resources, thereby driving up the cost of labor and materials for both government and industry and causing the supply of both to increase beyond the point we could sustain during down times. Let's not do that again - lets build government stuff like roads during the crashes and work around the limitations during the boom times.
Another thing we did was try to use government to push industrial diversification while letting the planning and regulatory processes expand to the point that many smaller businesses stopped even trying while every major development got nickel and dimed into failure and cancellation. Now people and smaller companies looking to invest here see regulatory cost and delay at every step, and big players are responding to political opposition everywhere by requiring large government investments to hold hostage against regulatory excess - that's why Kenney had to put taxpayer money into Keystone.
Lets stop doing that - It doesn't take six months to approve a zoning variance so a guy in Turner Valley can raise a garage roof enough to get his truck in - sometimes there really is a public interest at stake in these decisions, but no matter what it shouldn't take layers of government years to approve a parking lot, a trout farm, or a new fertilizer plant.
- [I think that] we need to find ways around the blockages imposed on us by people like Biden in the United States and Trudeau in Ottawa who want to shut our energy industry down.
Over the last year and a half these people managed to kill the keystone pipeline and a 36 billion dollar liquified natural gas port on the B.C. coast. So instead of transferring safe, environmentally clean, gas to Asia we're making them burn tens of millions of tons of dirty coal instead - and instead of using a cheap and safe method for transporting oil we're shipping it in expensive and high risk trains.
And it's worse than it looks - the energy crunch in Europe as they run their natural gas plants full out to compensate for ineffective wind and solar means the poor are energy starved -and because urea/ammonia fertilizers are made from natural gas many of the world's poorest will face literal starvation next year.
- [I think that] Alberta has the products the world needs and the people who can deliver them - so we will see another boom but this time let's not blow it. Let's use the time and money this gives us to get spending under control and get government out of the way so individual Albertans can make their own decisions on what works for them. That will result in what we need: economic diversification and long term prosperity.