Ken Boessenkool: Dear Kenney, purge the disloyal

Free advice for an Alberta premier under serious and mounting pressure


Date:   Monday May 13, 2021
To:       Chief of Staff to the Premier of Alberta
From:  Ken Boessenkool
Re:      Free advice… worth what you paid 

Me again

So your caucus is revolting. Not good. 

On the upside, very few caucus insurrections are well planned. Even fewer are well executed. And even fewer than that are successful. Of course, some are. 

Your leader’s next move will be critical. Because while my last memo gave you an elixir for dealing with your external environment, this one is about your internal environment. And the elixir this time is: “if you can’t govern yourself, no one is going to let you govern anything else.”  

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Politics is a team sport and I don’t need to tell you that your team is behind a few goals. That’s bad, but fixable. What’s not fixable is having members of your team openly and repeatedly scoring on your own net. 

Every party is a coalition of diverse interests. Party politics is about those interests being willing to lose some, and win some, but win and lose together. Done in the right way at the right time, coalition fights make parties stronger. Leaderless or merging parties do this publicly. Well led parties – particularly those in government – do this privately behind caucus and cabinet doors. 

Parties that govern themselves well have vigorous debates in cabinet and caucus. They come to a decision that the team stands behind. Collectively they run the play. Members who publicly and vigorously oppose that agenda are just scoring on their own net.  

Take vaccinations. The Premier has set a goal of 70 percent of Albertans to be vaccinated by June. But Alberta has high rates of vaccine hesitancy – double that of B.C. It seems pretty critical, therefore, that the government needs to speak with one voice on the importance of Albertans getting vaccinated. Members of the government who vigorously and publicly promote vaccine hesitancy are scoring on your own net. 

Own-net scorers shouldn’t be part of your team. Especially if it is clear that it has become habit forming. And it goes without say that openly calling for your boss’ resignation is a huge own net goal. He, and other like him, have got to go. 

But how? The first and most tempting is to just do it. Have the the Premier announce internally that if caucus members want to encourage vaccine hesitancy (not to mention previous efforts of opposing the government’s agenda), they are free to do so outside the government caucus. I’m generally skeptical of vaccine passports, but maybe it’s time to require them to sit in a government caucus.  

But with 18 MLAs having a recent taste of own-nettery, it’s probably better to encourage caucus to, er, police itself. Alberta is joining other western provinces in becoming a two-team competition between free enterprise parties and the NDP. And the NDP currently holds a strong lead in Alberta. If Alberta remains in this pandemic longer because too few Albertans are vaccinated — and if members of the government carry the slightest responsibility for that — many members of your caucus will be at risk of losing not only the government, but their jobs. 

Of course there’s no job loss risk for — to pick ridings totally at random — MLAs from Airdrie East or Cyprus - Medicine Hat or Central Peace – Notley. Most of the academic literature as well as practical experience says local candidates make a difference of between five to seven percent. (Every elected official I know disputes this. None of the evidence does.) 

Even if you double or triple those estimates to assuage egos, if the current holders of those two ridings had ran as independents against a reasonable UCP candidate in the last election, that reasonable UCP candidate would still have gotten over half of the votes — over sixty percent for Central Peace – Notley. Those ridings are not going to the NDP. 

Getting back to governing yourself will require serious leadership and a caucus willing to back the removal of own-netters. This will take some serious political skill. Losing a couple MLAs is one thing, losing 18 quite another, even when you have a majority gap twice that size.  

But when you’re behind a few goals you simply can’t afford having your own team repeatedly scoring on your own net... And ultimately, If you can’t govern yourselves, Albertans won’t let you govern the province. 

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