A Premier on probation

Alison Redford and the future of Alberta

EDMONTON, AB, Mar 19, 2014/ Troy Media/ – Let’s begin by acknowledging that Alberta Premier Alison Redford is a very intelligent woman. She is able to understand complex issues and simplify them; she is able to analyze a lot of information and ask appropriate and insightful questions; she can develop and sustain a complex argument as befits a lawyer; she can examine and challenge evidence; she can lay out a “model, frame or theory” and defend it. These are fine qualities very much needed in a leader.

She has also managed a very successful career – a solid legal reputation in the field of human rights, policy advisor and think-tank contributor in Canada and abroad and a true professional. She also respects professionals as her peers – something at least two previous Premiers of Alberta did not.

But these qualities are not enough to lead a province through a time of rapid growth and the rethinking of its social institutions. What is missing is an ability to relate and connect to people as well as to ideas; an ability to build trust and an acceptance of the foibles of others; an ability to accept that others will not share her view or idea sand that this is not only acceptable, but also to be welcomed. She needs to connect, engage, develop trust and inspire confidence. She does none of these things.

She also needs to communicate with the people in Alberta in a way that does not leave them seeing her as arrogant, imperious and “entitled”. This is how many see her now. She is so distanced from the Albertans she is so fond of referring to that they no longer regard her as one of their own.

She needs to inspire confidence and show passion for a vision of Alberta and be able to lead a team of competent people who can demonstrate their effective ability to deliver and execute change related to this vision. She does not inspire confidence, has not communicated a vision, is too abstract to show passion and conviction and has not surrounded herself with people who appear skilled and confident. Witness the hapless Minister of Education reeling at criticisms of needed changes to the Alberta school curriculum or the dazed Minister of Health or . . .we could go on.

She has been accused of being a bully and of being subject to temper tantrums. More than one person has shared this view of her and it is such a common story across Ministers and senior public servants, as well as amongst her security detail, that the evidence appears strong (but circumstantial). One former colleague of the lawyer Redford told me “she has always been a screamer!” Not good.

It has been suggested by eminent Progressive Conservative veterans that the party cannot possibly win the next election with Redford as its leader. This seems to me, on the basis of polling data and known disaffection amongst rank and file party organizers (as well as being reflected in falling donations to the party), to be a correct analysis at this time. As Harold Wilson, onetime Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland said, however, “a week is a long time in politics” and there is some time to go before the next Alberta election. But the signs are not good.

Given all this, it is therefore very surprising that the PC executive put the Premier on probation at a meeting over this last weekend rather than asking her to resign. She is to be given “a work plan” and she has agreed in principle to follow it.

Imagine Stephen Harper, or the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland, or the German Chancellor, or the President of the United States or even the Governor of Massachusetts being “on probation”? Difficult isn’t it. In fact, it makes no sense. Redford is now and will in the future be the Redford we can see and have experience of. She will not change. Such change requires significant intervention by effective psychologists and experts in organizational change. No one in the inner circle has these skills. What we see is what we will get.

The Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta is in denial. It will lose the next election unless significant change occurs. This change requires:

  • a clear and compelling vision for what Alberta needs to become;
  • a clear plan of action for the next Alberta;
  • a genuine attempt to engage and involve Albertans in the work of building the next Alberta; and
  • new leadership and several new faces in that leadership, including a new Premier.

It’s a big task. But if it doesn’t start now, the Wildrose Party – Alberta’s official opposition – will deliver on all of these things.

Part of the problem within the Progressive Conservative party is the absence of a clear new leader and appropriate team to support that person within it. The view is that there is no “obvious” candidate. While there are various rumours of interest from Jim Dinning (not yesterdays man, but last decades man) and Gary Mar (clearly disengaged), neither of these “fit the bill” for a new face for the Party.

Two other people could do exactly what is required – Stephen Mandel (former Mayor of Edmonton) or Rona Ambrose (an Edmonton MP and very successful federal cabinet MP) – but the party would have to be ready for change and become energetic in recruiting one of these individuals. The sad fact, as demonstrated by the actions taking by the executive of the party this last weekend, is that they are not. In these circumstances, no one in their right mind would step forward and offer an agenda for change and the future at the present time.

The consequences for Alberta are serious. Senior government officials know that they are working in an atmosphere of high uncertainty which could change at any moment and that their political masters are often distracted and disengaged from the real work of government – governing. They also know that some of the decisions that are being made are about positioning for the future ambitions of their Minister. Decisions have always been slow under this administration – they are slower now.

They also know that we are effectively in a permanent “red zone”, where controversial decisions which need to be made will not be. The general advice is to “keep your head down”, otherwise you will see the consequences. This is all made worse by an unwarranted attack on public sector employees in various Bills introduced in 2013 and on public sector pensions. Some of our most talented public servants are looking to leave or have left. Alberta needs high quality, independent thinking public servants who are respected across government and by the public who give independent advice to Ministers. We are gradually losing our independent public service.

Alberta cannot tolerate the ambiguity and uncertainty within its government. It leads to poor decisions, delay and compromise. If ever there was a time for bold, inspiring action it is now. A Premier on Probation will not deliver this.

Stephen Murgatroyd is a consultant in innovative business and education practices with a PHd in psychology.

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