The UCP leadership race is heating up. There are now eight contestants and a ninth kicking the tires. More will likely show up in the coming weeks. So far, none of them has said what he or she needs to say in order to fix the profound brokenness of this party; a party that calls itself united.
It appears that the way that elections are run in recent decades is that candidates present their positions and voters are expected to line up behind the candidate whose positions most closely resemble their own. This is precisely what needs to stop. We do not need a leader who has all the right positions. Rather, we need a leader who can unite people with differing positions.
Furthermore, we need a leader who looks to the grassroots membership of the party for a platform. The United Conservative Party has a policy declaration which, perhaps inadequately, expresses the wishes of the party membership regarding the direction of a United Conservative government. Rather than presenting to members a slate of initiatives that are true to this direction, candidates are each presenting their own competing policy declaration from which members must choose. We need a leader who has the humility to prefer the voice of the membership over his or her own. We need a leader with the ingenuity to package and sell the the masses the thoughts and the principles articulated and agreed upon by the membership.
When eventually a candidate is elected, I fear that person will expect the party to bend in accordance with his or her wishes. We have seen this most obviously demonstrated in the person of Justin Trudeau. Disagreement with the leader is not permitted in the Liberal Party of Canada. Recently, Erin O’Toole was ousted from the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada because he failed to include other voices in decision making. Both Trudeau and O’Toole are seen as egotists who seek to have their respective parties shaped in their image. That works in the Liberal Party. It does not work in a conservative party.
Members of the United Conservative Party, from the beginning, were promised a broad tent conservative party that welcomes every type of conservative. Whether you are a fiscal conservative, a social conservative, a liberal conservative, a traditionalist conservative, a progressive conservative, or a libertarian, this party was supposed to be your home. This promise has never been delivered on. The preeminent error of the first leader of the party is failing to view unity as a long and painful process as opposed to an accomplishment reached on the occasion of the unity vote. We need to replace Jason Kenney with someone who can deliver on that promise.
Will any of the candidates say in bold humility, “My positions are not the focus of my campaign?’ “The job of a leader is to bring people and ideas together. Don’t vote for me because my ideas are better than those of the other person. Vote for me because the ideas of others are important to me. They will be important to our cabinet and our caucus.” The leader we need is a team player who promises to be a team leader.
Some of the folks running for the top job have already distinguished themselves as poor team players. They revolted against Mr. Kenney and in doing so relinquished any hope of being a voice at the table on behalf of their constituents. Their lack of ability to demonstrate patience and self-control considerably damaged the party and the possibility of unity within the party.
Some of the candidates are seen as Kenney devotees who would not dare to stand up to him. It is difficult to assess how fair such an allegation might be. Should everyone in Kenney’s circle be disqualified on the assumption that the only way to remain in that circle was to compromise one’s integrity? The question is, “Was it a sign of weakness or strength to remain in Mr. Kenney's good graces? It is unclear whether or not a member of the current inner circle can unite the party. It's worth maintaining an open mind.
What we can do now is listen to what each candidate says. Listen for the use of the word ‘I’ when ‘we’ would be a better choice. Listen for a litany of position statements when an indication of a team building disposition is what we need. Listen for ideas that are not represented in the party policy declaration or even contradict it in some way. Listen for assertions that the candidate wants to take the party in a certain direction when we need someone who will guide us in finding directions together.
In all of this I am in no way contending that the political and philosophical positions of the leader are entirely unimportant. It is expected that the foundational beliefs expressed in the UCP Statement of Principles will be wholly and enthusiastically embraced. These include support for strong families, freedom of speech, school choice, freedom of worship and assembly, a market economy, property rights, small government, balanced budgets, responsible use of tax dollars, and use of natural resources for the benefit of all Albertans. These are principles to be honoured by everyone in the ‘big tent’. The right leader for our party is someone who insists that our party is the rightful political home for everyone who holds to these principles.
How do we do that? We start by selecting a leader who invites good ideas to come from all corners of the party. We need a leader who can preside over civil, respectful, and productive conversations among a group where social conservatives, progressive conservatives, and libertarians are all sitting at the table, and are all worthy of meaningful roles. And more than that, the leader presides over a table where varied ideas come together and fleurish because the leader is not dictating the direction.
As we make our way through this leadership race I will be looking for a person who can bring people together, and in doing so unites the conservative movement in Alberta so that at long last we might be true to our name. So far, no-one has said what they need to say in order to secure my vote. But I trust, perhaps naively, that someone will stand up for the big blue tent.