The Roundhouse: PC AGM Part 3 – Final thoughts

I should begin this post about the weekend’s PC party AGM in Calgary with a pair of disclaimers. I am not, nor have I ever been, a member of the Alberta Progressive Conservative party. I am also not a reporter. I am an analyst and an academic, but those are very different things, and there were a number of ‘real’ reporters in the media room this weekend whose work you should read if the event interests you. What I am interested in, and writing about here, is more thematic and impressionistic than the “who, what, where, when and why” of traditional journalism. Such are the privileges of being your own editor.

One of the most noticeable features of this year’s PC AGM was the change in tone and attitude from a year ago. Where a year ago the PCs were visibly distracted by internal frictions and a real sense of threat the mood this year was definitely more positive and combative. The choice of ‘Team PC’ as the event slogan, and I expect as the ongoing slogan for the party and campaign, is certainly indicative of the awareness that one of the party’s first priorities had to be an emphasis on unity. As I have said before, however disoriented the PCs may have been by the initial onset of the Wild Rose in combination with the impact of the recession, they had a lot of time before the next election to pull themselves together. The party appears to have made a lot of progress on that front.

In combination with the ‘Team PC’ theme the primary message would appear to be the success of Alberta under PC management. The successes of Alberta under PC management featured prominently in the Premier’s speech on Friday night, through the Q & A sessions on Saturday and many of the speakers at policy sessions as well. Hardly surprising that this is the message that the party would want to go with as their central message and the basis of the campaign, but what is interesting is the very real feeling that, only two years into a mandate, the PC party and government are starting their next campaign. In addition almost everyone I spoke to on the issue emphasized the unity of the party, which certainly speaks to the awareness that infighting hasn’t done them any favours in the recent past.

Alberta is possessed of an active and engaged online political community. The invitation of bloggers to attend the AGM, in addition to the various ‘in-house’ PC bloggers, strikes me as the beginnings of an institutional acknowledgement that the PC party will have to go where the conversation is. Bloggers each have the ability to build an audience, and an audience self-selected based on interest at that. In addition in a world where search engines are so important to how people find information it will often be a blog entry that matches someone’s search terms most clearly, with the implications that can have for the dissemination of information on a specific case or issue.

Twitter hashtags like #pcagm, or even more so #ableg, are excellent opportunities to engage with people of varied views through a shared link. The very publicity of anything said over twitter means that no matter how hard a single partisan group might try to dominate a topic or a tag they can never keep other individuals or viewpoints out. Throughout the weekend there was a constant interaction between attendees of the AGM, observers present (including myself), interested PC members who were unable to attend and people interested in the event or the issues discussed. Thinking of it now I should have checked the total number of tweets exchanged on the #pcagm and #ableg hashtags this weekend, but a quick check of my tweetdeck shows over 600 tweets using #pcagm alone. This doesn’t include any of the untagged tweets to and from attendees, or those using other tags. A number of very lively exchanges took place on each of the relevant hashtags, and it is important for both organizers and interested citizens to realize that these events are now more public than ever before, and are playing to the world in real time!

This evolution in the information environment, and the implications it is already having on political communication, led me to spend the weekend talking to people about how they feel that PC party will change. In particular I was interested to talk to the volunteers who really make the party work at the constituency level. I talked to over 40 of these volunteers about communication, both within and without the party, party organization and their concerns and views of the prospects for change. As you would expect there were a wide variety of responses, but they grouped themselves rather neatly. I have several more people who have agreed to talk to me about these issues in the near future, so I hope to be able to build a better image of the visions of change in the PC party.

First, there were those who felt that the party would have to make substantial changes to its structure and methods. While some felt that the party needed to make immediate changes, there was little sense of urgency. Those advocating these changes rarely gave existential reasons for their concerns, rather the conversation tended to be one of competitive advantage. The greatest sense of urgency was to be found among those engaged in communications and election readiness, but even in those groups there was a general sense that the roughly two years until the next election would provide more than enough time.

Second, there were those who felt that all the talk of change was simply window dressing. The campaign messaging from the Premier about the success enjoyed by Alberta under PC management certainly resonated with these individuals. Interestingly it was also this group that evinced the most discontent with the Premier, though criticisms were inevitably followed by the disclaimer that they were committed to making things work.

Finally, and the largest group, there were those that felt that the party was structured and operating effectively, but needed some fine tuning here and there. I heard from several people that they felt very comfortable with the party’s methods for disseminating information internally, with one consistent exception. That exception was a perceived failure to make best use of the expertise of grassroots members of the party. Several health professionals in particular felt that their expertise was receiving short shrift. There was also a consensus that the party was going to have to increase and improve its utilization of non-traditional media; the Nenshi campaign’s victory here in Calgary seems to have made quite an impression in that regard.

I have to thank the AGM’s attendees for their hospitality and willingness to talk to me, and Brent Harding, Janice Harrington and Joey Oberhoffner in particular for their efforts in managing the media room and supporting its occupants. The realities of media are changing, and political commentary and analysis is immensely more open-source than it has been in the past. It is my hope that accreditation of bloggers as media to this AGM sets a precedent, and that the active online and twitter political community is embraced by all parties and organizations at their events moving forward.

Fundamentally what I saw this weekend was a prototypical establishment party, comfortable with itself and the world as it is. I mean neither that as neither an insult nor a compliment, merely a summary of the zeitgeist. There were the expected cri de couer marginal groups, and the passionate crusaders for change (in one direction or another), but the dominant feeling was one of satisfaction. I wouldn’t call it complacent, not after the last year, but there was a definite sense of returning purpose and order after a scare. The PC party remains unchallenged in fundraising, as the recently released numbers for last year demonstrate, and there is no other provincial political entity capable of bringing together over a thousand members for a weekend. The human capital and intellectual resources of the party remain formidable, and if they ‘team PC’ meme catches on with the party’s membership those resources may be deployed much more effectively in the year to come than they have been over the last few. We shall see, as there are more than a few factions within the party that have in the past struggled to cooperate effectively.

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