In The Media

Cooper: Tory mechanics keep political machine well oiled

by Barry Cooper Calgary Herald
March 6, 2012

Everyone knows the Alberta Conservatives have been in power for the past 40 years. To see what that means, we must distinguish between the PC members of the legislative assembly and the machine.

There is some overlap, especially at the top, but members, from backbenchers to premiers, come and go fairly quickly — just ask Ed Stelmach. The turnover among those who run the machine — let’s call them mechanics — is much more gradual. For years, the mechanics have been more important than members.

When Alison Redford was elected premier, she promised regime change. That would mean if not the destruction of the machine, then at least the replacement of the mechanics. That hasn’t happened, chiefly because the mechanics wouldn’t let it. Besides, Redford is a process person, and process people make better mechanics, than political leaders.

 When Redford did try to lead, as with Bill 26, which changed the definition of legal impairment, the Herald editorial board correctly said it was a “textbook example of how not to implement a law.” If the national energy strategy ever became policy, rather than an endless process, it would invite a similar judgment.

Mechanics are good at maintaining business as usual. After all, who is going to argue with 40 years of success?

For example, the premier receives a salary top-up paid by the machine, not directly by taxpayers. It is negotiated between her and the most powerful mechanics. Discussing, let alone disclosing the amount, Redford said, would not be “based on goodwill.”

Or, take those handsome transition allowances. They are based on salaries, but also on accumulated stipends for work on committees. One backbencher told me that when he was made a committee chair, he was informed by a senior mechanic that his job was to sign off on bills. No hearings, no criticism; he didn’t have to read the bill. Just sign. Thus begins a system of incentives that enables mediocrities to depart with million-dollar severance packages.

Business as usual explains our very own sponsorship scandal. Consider someone who works for the Medicine Hat Catholic School Board. He attends a PC fundraiser such as a golf tournament. The board picks up his expenses and he gets to keep a charitable receipt. Thus, the machine gets a donation from a publicly funded body and Elections Alberta can’t trace anything to the real payment source.

Redford explains: “It’s individuals,” mechanics, who “made decisions. It wasn’t our party.” Besides, she went on, “I think we should be very pleased about the fact that we have systems in place that are discovering this information.”

Really? By that logic, Jean Chretien would have been pleased with what the Gomery commission unearthed about his sponsorship scandal.

Or there is the brief flap caused in February by Linda Sloan, president of the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association (and a former Liberal MLA), who accused the machine of allocating funds on partisan grounds. Doug Griffiths, former leadership candidate and current Municipal Affairs minister, went ballistic and demanded an apology.

Unfortunately, almost the same day, another mechanic, Hector Goudreau, told members of the Holy Family Catholic Regional Division in Grimshaw that they were “to be very diplomatic from here on out.” Non-diplomatic comments, he explained, could be “upsetting” and “this could delay the decision on a new school.” That sounds like partisan intimidation to me.

Speaking of intimidation, on Feb. 24, Redford said that allegations of doctor intimidation “had to be” central to the health-care inquiry. After consulting more experienced mechanics, investigating intimidation is gone. And yet, if there is queue jumping, somebody has to coerce the docs to treat politically connected patients preferentially. Who? The mechanics, as both Stephen Duckett and the docs agree.

After 40 years of PC success, the premier’s problem going into the election is not about policy. It’s not, as the National Post put it, that she presided over the first NDP budget in the history of the province, a budget that my colleague Jack Mintz said was “based on fantasy.” That is just a symptom. The real problem is that Alberta has been run by mechanics and process people devoted only to keeping the machine nicely oiled.

Barry Cooper is a political science professor at the University of Calgary.

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