On Experience, Vision and Leadership

As David Swann’s tenure as interim leader of the Alberta Liberal Party draws to a close, I have been talking to a number of people and thinking about what should be the qualifications of the next leader. Increasingly, people that I have talked to have said that the next leader needs to be experienced. They should have been elected or have past qualification as an MP, MLA or such. And my response is simple: why?

The basic argument that underlies most Western Liberal Democracies stems from the concept that any citizen who is able to convince enough of their compatriots to follow them should be able to take any elected office through an election. Or put differently, if experience was required Barack Obama would never have been qualified to be President of the United States because, as most Republicans were only too happy to mention, Barack Obama had “no executive experience”. Barack Obama had not served a full term as a Federal Senator and he was not fifty years of age. Unlike his Republican opponents – first, Senator McCain and then Governor Romney – Barack Obama had not done anything significant. He had not gone to war and was not a veteran as Senator McCain was. He had not served on the board of a major corporation or worked in the financial sector as Romney had. Yet, Americans voted in droves to elect Barack Obama twice to the highest political office in the land.

Or take the rise of Danielle Smith and Peter Lougheed. In 1965, Lougheed had been elected leader of the Progressive Conservatives without having had a seat in the Legislature. At that time, the Progressive Conservatives mirrored the present condition of our own party. In 1963, it captured 13% of the vote, contested just over half of the seats and lost its sole seat in the Legislature.  Lougheed’s first election was a by-election in Pincher Creek in 1966 and he lost. Lougheed came third. Yet, he persevered. He won a seat and became the Leader of the Opposition in the next election; and by 1971, Mr. Lougheed was premier.

The story of Danielle Smith is much the same. While, I met her years previous to her leadership bid when she was attending a CFIB event in Okotoks, Ms. Smith was unknown too much of the province. While, it is true that she had spent time before the camera as a pundit, her work had not made her a household name. Yet, like Preston Manning before her, between 2009 and 2012, Ms. Smith ran around the province speaking about her vision of a new province. In 2012, she became the new Leader of the Opposition.

The more one looks at this story, the more experience fades as a criteria. Stephen Harper had no private sector experience before he became Prime Minister. In fact his resume was quite thin. Before he became an MP, he was the Legislative Assistant to a Member of Parliament. After becoming an MP, he ran a think tank called the National Citizens’ Coalition which had between eight and ten employees.

Brian Mulroney was not elected to Parliament before he ran and defeated Prime Minister John Turner – a Bay Street lawyer, seasoned politician and former minister. But, it doesn’t end there. Without any personal political experience, Preston Manning formed the Reform Party in 1988. By 1989, his party had won a by-election that allowed Deborah Grey to go to Parliament. All of which culminated in the 1993 electoral sweep of Western Canada; a time when Mr. Manning was himself elected as an MP and led a caucus of 52 MPs.

Our own history underlies this truth. Elizabeth Hewes, Grant Mitchell, Nancy MacBeth Ken Nicol, Don Massey, Raj Sherman, David Swann and Kevin Taft were all MLAs when they took over leadership of the Alberta Liberal Party. One was a former Minister. Another had been a Parliamentary Assistant to a Minister. However, none of them scarred Alberta’s PC Dynasty. In fact, the last leader of the Alberta Liberal Party to shake things up was Laurence Decore: a leader who was not an MLA at the time. He won 32 seats in that victory. A feat that the Eight Leaders since tried to duplicate.

In fact to underline this point, I would like to look at Nelson Mandela. Mr. Mandela was a political prisoner for 27 years before he became President of South Africa. Like Lech Wałęsa of Poland, his only experience with the State was experiencing the brutality of the States’ Security Services. In retrospect, President Mandela didn’t do badly. While, I could theorize why he succeeded, I won’t. For what becomes clear is that in citizens’ can do more than follow.

Accordingly, it is my contention that political experience, as it comes to leadership, is a misnomer or a red herring. In a democracy, there are many sources of experience. The Bureaucracy in Canadian Provincial or Federal Government’s doesn’t change when a new government comes to power. It simply neutrally enforces the new regulations it has been asked to enforce. The Bureaucracy – symbolized by the Crown – provides advice that informs the new government but it is just that: advice. Advice in fact comes from many quarters. The Judiciary, Security Services (i.e. civilian, military and intelligence organizations), Regulators, Legislatures and their Officers are merely some of the people who give advice. But they are not alone because think tanks and interest groups also come to the fore. Consequently, political experience in a democracy is plentiful.

What is rare is vision. Sometimes, some politicians who have a long pedigree – like Jean Chretien, Jean Charest, Danny Williams or Bill Davis – can substitute one for the other. Liberals, federally and provincially, often forget this because our candidates usually have a large degree of experience. But just as Mr. Decore proved, let us in choosing a new Leader listen for the vision and not the experience because as Rachel Notley proved the electorate is looking for a vision and not a resume.

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