Brian Singh

In Calgary’s mayor race, the old-guard right learns from the new-school left

Special to The Globe and Mail

Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi greets supporters at a Stampede breakfast on July 10, 2013. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

Monday, Oct., 21 will be an important day in Canadian politics. City councilor Don Iveson will be elected mayor of Edmonton, and Naheed Nenshi will be re-elected mayor of Calgary. These Alberta mayoral campaigns have signaled some interesting new shifts in the country’s political landscape.

Let me first disclose that I was a pollster and strategist for Naheed Nenshi in 2010, but I have not been involved in the 2013 campaign. When I was involved, Mr. Nenshi’s victory caught many of the old guard off guard. How did this youthful candidate, with few political operatives, pull off one of the biggest upsets in Canadian political history?

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This much-analyzed campaign was driven by building a foundation upon the hyper-engaged online voter. It also changed the rules of campaigning. Afterwords, Mr. Nenshi took his transparency mantra to office, and upset how business was done at City Hall. Among the changes instituted, his monthly disclosure of who he met with was likely the most drastic, especially for a host of Calgary home builders. This group was used to doing business with a call, handshake, and generally favourable access to Council.

So how did Preston Manning get involved in this matter? For starters, the former Reform Party leaders is connected to a select group wanting to disrupt City Council and Nenshi’s vision for Calgary. Secondly, this is a battle between two strategies – power and control versus representation and transparency – and this dynamic cuts to the core of Canadian party politics.

Mr. Manning is seeking ways to continue winning ways for Conservatives to explore their ideas and consolidate the power base of the traditional party system. Naheed Nenshi, and his Edmonton counterpart Don Iveson, represent the new guard breaking down those political walls, driven by a desire to challenge and indeed undermine the core of the party system.

But it cuts deeper.

Ever since his departure from federal politics in 2002, Mr. Manning has settled into the role of patriarch of the modern Canadian conservative movement – fondly called the “Calgary School.” Yes, Calgary is considered a natural home for Canadian conservative politicos. But all of a sudden, with Mr. Nenshi’s election, the city had an articulate, Harvard-educated, outspoken, centrist mayor, and he was talking about new ways of doing politics. This clearly did not align with conservatives’ perception of the city.

Mr. Manning’s new conservative think tank, the Manning Centre for Building Democracy, launched the Municipal Governance Project, squarely focused on Calgary. It is a concerted effort to reaffirm a Conservative grasp on municipal politics and their power base.

Mr. Manning is an enigma on the Canadian political scene. He is a moderate libertarian, and is generally well-liked and respected across the political spectrum (yours truly included). His ideas on policy and governance are thoughtful and supported by solid arguments. But as the Reform Party leader, he was never able to deliver a winning formula for this conservative faction. Under Stephen Harper, who melded Reform and Alliance into the Conservative Party of Canada, the movement became more disciplined, focusing on engineering victory, which was finally achieved with the 2011 majority. Conservatives found a way to win, and to win convincingly. In this, Preston Manning, after over 25 years of hard work, realized that this boiled down to a simple fact: to pursue your ideas, you need to win elections.

Mr. Manning embraced this fact with the establishment of the Manning Centre for Building Democracy. Located in downtown Calgary, it houses a think tank (the Manning Foundation) and the Manning School for Practical Politics. The School teaches little about policy and governance. It teaches students how to campaign. Clearly, Mr. Manning has taken his realization to heart. His mission has since then been dedicated to raising the next generation of conservative politicians and sustaining the winning ways for the conservative movement.

For those following Calgary municipal politics, in a now famous 18-minute leaked video, property developer Cal Wenzel stated his dissatisfaction with Mr. Nenshi and his desire to shift the balance of power back in favour of the home builders by ensuring that they had eight of 15 votes on city council. He and ten other home builders donated $100,000 each to the Manning Centre to help make this happen.

I want to emphasize that these home builders are actually pretty good guys, and are upstanding members of Calgary’s business community. They have every right to do and support whomever they please – within the bounds of election law. They are also free to donate as they please to the Manning Centre and Manning Foundation.

But the video did more than reveal these facts – it was a peek into the world of backroom politics and those obsessed with having political decisions go their way. With an estimated $33-million development fee (as some call it, a “sprawl subsidy”) at stake, the coalition of home builders, in their best interests, voted with their dollars on how to sway the balance of council.

With the leak of the video in April, the backlash in the media, especially social media, was instant. And Mr. Nenshi made political hay with the content of this video. But what occurred subsequently was equally strange. With the so-called Manning Centre/home builders’ “slate” identified, party lines were drawn – and Naheed Nenshi, in an unprecedented move, crossed party lines and endorsed all incumbents, some of whom were endorsed by Mr. Wenzel in the video.

Mr. Nenshi’s victory is practically assured if the overwhelming support identified in a recent Leger poll in the Calgary Herald comes to fruition. Getting his wish to keep Council intact is another matter.

The odd thing about this situation is that, looking at the core values of Naheed Nenshi and Preston Manning, they are surprisingly close. Mr. Nenshi is likely the type of politician that Mr. Manning would love to see more of running for office. Mr. Manning has said that a barista at Starbucks gets more training then a politician running for office. Mr. Nenshi entered office with a tremendous foundation in civic politics and citizen engagement.

So why this tension?

While this round may go to the young bucks, the old guard is observing carefully, adapting, and seeking ways to quell this movement before it infiltrates party politics. And the reality for this new breed of politicians is that they need to adopt the tools of traditional campaigning. Like Preston Manning, they will realize that you need to keep winning and have the necessary support to make your ideas count. The preferred reality seems to be somewhere between these two camps, with a lean to the new guard, to reinvigorate politics for in Canada.

Brian Singh, the president of Zinc Research, is a political consultant based in Calgary.

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