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Six lessons to draw from Alison Redford's Alberta victory

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Alison Redford, moments after her victory

Alison Redford's victory this morning in the race to lead the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party and become the province's premier was surprising, but it was hardly astonishing.

Gary Mar, after all, was considered to be the front-runner almost from Day 1 of the race, and was backed by all the major figures of the party's establishment plus the usual suspects from the province's extensive network of symbiotic political relationships. Only a handful of low-profile MLAs backed Redford. So surprise is appropriate.

But Redford is an intelligent and focused politician who ran a disciplined and smart campaign. She made no blunders, great or small. She may have challenged the party's most powerful figures, but that was clearly the shrewd thing to do. And she had good advisors with a track record of success.

Moreover, when tragedy struck in her personal life late in the campaign, she showed she had the mettle that people everywhere look for in their leaders. This was no sympathy vote, but an acknowledgement of character.

So victory was always within Redford's grasp, and that is why we ought not to be astonished.

However, Redford's success in the wee hours of this morning does lead us to six inescapable conclusions:

1 – Gary Mar blundered badly

Whatever Mar thought he was doing when he started yakking publicly about privatizing health care, he was committing a major blunder. How many times is this going to have to happen before it penetrates the skulls of Alberta's most "conservative" politicians that ordinary Albertans support public health care?

This is a lesson Wildrose Party Leader Danielle Smith ought to pay attention to as she prepares for the next general election!

2 – Public health care matters to Albertans

Not only do ordinary Albertans support public health care, but they have a sophisticated understanding of what makes a public system work -- and not work. They get it that true universally accessible "public health care" can't function with two tiers. They're not fooled by market fundamentalist snake-oil salesmen peddling claptrap about how adding a second, cash-only stream to the health-care system will shorten lineups when there aren't enough health-care professionals around to make it work. Moreover, when they conclude the health-care system is in danger, they're prepared to do something about it.

This is a lesson for any political leader who wants to fool voters by promising to support a "publicly-funded" system that allows private care for the elite, or who depends on voter apathy to sneak harmful privatization into the system.

3 – Toto, we're not in Ralph Klein's Alberta any more

Alberta has changed, and for the better, since the days Ralph Klein could score political points by talking about "bums and creeps" from Eastern Canada. It's more politically sophisticated, too.

Too many of those bums and creeps stuck around to become voters! It was bound to happen, with so many immigrants from Canadian places where voting for a progressive conservative, or even a member of another party, is not unthinkable. It's not the sort of thing that happens in the middle of a boom, when new immigrants see the existing government as the reason for their new home's economic success. It happens once the boom, and the immigrants, have settled down. Like now.

Albertans are growing up. They're pushing their mainstream political parties toward the centre. Those that don't get it, as the Conservatives got it this morning, will suffer a different fate. There's a lesson here for the radical neo-Cons in Prime Minister Stephen Harper's federal Conservatives, who rely on Alberta voters to behave like electoral automatons.

4 – The Love Machine is broken

Can anyone take the coterie of political advisors and advertising salesmen associated with the Gary Mar campaign and the PC establishment seriously any more? The name most commonly associated with this group is that of Rod Love. Love became known by journalists as "Ralph's Brain" when he was Klein's eminence grise at Calgary City Hall. Since Klein's famous successes, Love has been involved in campaigns for federal Conservative leadership candidate Belinda Stronach, Alberta Conservative leadership candidate Jim Dinning, Calgary mayoral candidate Barb Higgins, and -- so they say -- Mar.

Of course, Love may have political success stories that don't get told about clients who pay him to keep quiet. But the lesson here is that if you're looking for a campaign guru, you should consider Stephen Carter, the mastermind behind Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi's 2010 campaign and Redford's success this morning.

5 – Labour votes matter

It's an Alberta stereotype that unions are weak and "the labour vote" doesn't matter. This notion has just enough truth to make it dangerous. But while it's a fact Alberta labour leaders can't usually deliver their members' votes to anyone, union members are paying attention and labour votes matter anyway. In other words, you can't tell union members what to do, but they'll figure it out for themselves.

Significant numbers of union members -- especially members of education and health-care unions -- held their noses and signed Tory cards so they could vote for Redford. They did that because she pledged clearly and unequivocally to put funding back into public education and to protect the public health care system from creeping two-tier privatization. In a close vote like this one, you can argue the labor vote swung it Redford's way.

The lesson here is that any sensible politician should think twice about directly or indirectly attacking the rights of union members.

6 – Democracy is dangerous to undemocratic elites

The PC establishment clearly thought they could game the system and ensure both that their man won the race while persuading huge numbers of Albertans to donate money and think of themselves as Conservative voters. They tried to persuade credible candidates to drop out of the race based on the inevitability of Mar's victory -- Alberta Health Services Chair Ken Hughes, who briefly floated a leadership balloon, must have been wondering "what if" last night.

And it worked -- sort of. The trouble is, when they convinced lots of Albertans that the PC leadership election was the only true expression of Alberta democracy, plenty of Albertans took them at their word and acted on it.

By doing so, they may just have driven a stake through the heart of the insiders who backed Jim Dinning in 2006 and Gary Mar in 2011. They lost control to Ed Stelmach in 2006, and failed to win it back in 2011.

The lesson for all politicians is that bringing open democracy to an internal party process can have unexpected results for powerful insiders.

Next: Lessons that CAN’T be drawn from Ms. Redford's election -- but will be anyway.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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