Exiting Alberta PC president Bill Smith has this advice: Listen to your members, fix mistakes quickly

Friday, November 9, 2012

By Kelly Cryderman, Calgary Herald
CALGARY — Bill Smith has been president of Alberta’s Progressive Conservative party through three tumultuous years that saw former premier Ed Stelmach resign, an underdog candidate win an exhausting eight-month leadership race, and no end of daily political controversies.

Smith also helped lead the long-governing party through this year’s wild provincial election, where the Tories trailed the Wildrose in polls through most of the campaign but managed to keep a 41-year political dynasty alive.

The lawyer and former city firefighter will bow out of the volunteer job this weekend following the party’s annual general meeting in Calgary, where members will select his replacement.

But the 49-year-old Calgarian won’t depart without giving the new president a few lessons he’s learned from the battlefield: listen to your members, recognize your mistakes and fix them quickly.

Smith said there’s no doubt voters were angry in the early days of the spring campaign, especially over an initial decision that Tory MLAs wouldn’t give back all of the money earned for sitting on a legislature committee that hadn’t met for almost four years.

Falling in the polls, Premier Alison Redford reversed the decision the first week of the campaign.

“I think as we neared the end of the election, Albertans said, ‘yeah, we’ve delivered the message. We’ve heard from Premier Redford and the rest of the MLAs that … they’re going to do better,’ ” Smith said.

Opposition parties say the Tory election win came because the Redford Tories made billions in spending promises. But the contentious, socially conservative views of two Wildrose candidates also surfaced near the end of the campaign and gave the Tories new momentum.

“Did they make some mistakes? My opinion is yeah, they did. And I’m grateful for it,” Smith said of his opponents.

“Could they have played a couple of things differently and would that have changed the outcome? It could have.”

Still, Smith said he spoke to the Conservative caucus one week after election day and told MLAs, “OK, we’re going to give you four more years. Don’t screw it up.’”

At this weekend’s convention, MLAs and party members will debate another thorny issue, motions to delete the automatic inclusion and voting rights for federal Conservative MPs and officials at Alberta PC conventions.

“The Progressive Conservative Association of Alberta should be a distinct entity from the Conservative Party of Canada,” states a motion from the Calgary-Glenmore riding association.

“During the last election we saw several federal cabinet ministers and their staffs actively support ‘other party’ candidates. This does not bode well for the future of Alberta.”

Speaking to reporters Thursday, the premier called it a “really interesting” resolution. Redford said just because she’s a member of the PC Alberta party, that doesn’t entitle her to attend and vote in federal Conservative conventions.

“I don’t think there should ever be any assumption that there will always be that sort of crossover,” Redford said.

“We see that politics in Alberta has been getting quite interesting and we know that during the provincial election, that there were people who had all sorts of memberships in all sorts of parties working on different campaigns.”

On Saturday, party members will also choose one of two longtime Tories battling to succeed Smith — one hailing from Calgary and another from a rural area northwest of Edmonton.

Candidate Jim McCormick said he has the time to devote to the job after selling his Calgary-based oil and gas company earlier this year.

He wants to strengthen constituency associations and modernize the party’s operations.

“We have to make the break between government and party,” he said.

Lorne Olsvik, a former Alberta Urban Municipalities Association president, said he’s running for president because he believes the party needs to confront its “vulnerabilities.”

“When you look at the party, we have orphan constituencies when we’ve never had orphan constituencies before,” Olsvik said. “We’ve experienced close races where we’ve never experienced close races before.”

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