Alberta election has story deficit, says master of political theatre

Politicians need a story people can relate to, Stephen Carter suggests, but neither the Notley nor Smith characters resonate with most Albertans

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This is a conversation series by Donna Kennedy-Glans, a writer and former Alberta cabinet minister, featuring newsmakers and intriguing personalities. This week: political strategist Stephen Carter.

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With the NDP and incumbent United Conservative Party in a dead heat for votes in Alberta, I decided to talk to someone who is masterful in the dark art of political theatre and how the provincial election might play out this month.

Stephen Carter, 53, is the strategist who guided Danielle Smith for a short spell, when she was leader of the Wildrose Alliance Party; got Alison Redford elected as Alberta’s first female premier;  and masterminded the election of Naheed Nenshi and then Jyoti Gondek as Calgary’s mayor.

Stephen is controversial. When I was an MLA in Redford’s Progressive Conservative government, some caucus colleagues despised him, resenting his influence. Like Dominic Cummings, the oracle behind British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Brexit strategy, Stephen is frequently the brains behind bold victories only to be cast aside by candidates once the election is won.

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Love him or loathe him, it’s Stephen’s early experience in Calgary’s theatre scene that gives him the unique perspective that I’m keen to understand right now. He can size up partisan actors; knows how to set the political stage; recognizes even the most subtle cues; and has very deliberately taken on a role as director of it all.

“Politics is theatre for ugly people,” Stephen quips, when we meet at a coffee roaster of his choice, Sought and Found, on Centre Street North in Calgary.

I’ve just come from a business lunch — listening to a pollster deliver predictions for the Alberta election — and sipping jasmine tea out of a tiny cup in my pink suit and heels, I look seriously out of place in a coffee shop occupied by millennials. Stephen lopes through the front door, in jeans, a short-sleeved green shirt and wide-brimmed Tilley hat gripped tight to his skull. After ordering a lemonade, he pulls off his hat and joins me at a table in the far back corner of the shop where the background jazz music is a little more subtle.

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Stephen’s quite happy to interpret the political stage in Alberta, and begins with Smith. “If she played the right character, she could be anything,” he declares. “So when I put her in play, I pitched to her the pragmatic conservative. I still believe quite strongly in the pragmatic conservative. Arguably Doug Ford is a pragmatic conservative.

“When we recruited you to run as a candidate (in the 2012 election),” Stephen nods to me, “that’s what attracted you to run.” He’s right; I could see myself in the pragmatic conservative brand.

But things start to fall apart when people can’t see themselves in the story. Character, brand, story, all these different things knit together, Stephen explains. “That’s where Danielle is struggling. People don’t see themselves in that story.”

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Stephen’s advice to the premier? She should go back to her experience as a talk show host. If Smith listened to all her callers, and then summed them up in a rational statement, everyone feels like they’re included. Calgary Flames’ radio host Pat Steinberg does this well, says Stephen; Pat listens to everyone, including the crazy takes, and then sums it all up with a statement along the lines of: “Well, I’m not sure we should get rid of all the defencemen and replace them with forwards but to your point, we certainly could use more offence.”

A young waiter sidles up to our table with a tall glass of lemonade balanced on a silver tray, and timidly places Stephen’s beverage on the table. I’m startled by the fact that this waiter — and all the others in this coffee shop — are wearing pandemic-era face masks.

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Back to our conversation: What does Stephen see in the character of Rachel Notley? He sees the leader of the official opposition as someone moving into the political centre but refusing to abandon her old brand. “The costume that she’s wearing is still the orange but now they have layered it in blue. It’s like she’s taken an orange costume and tried to put centrism over top of it.” And that’s a problem; she’s not creating a new story.

Alberta’s political stage is wobbly, reports Stephen, because the character of Notley does not resonate with more than 45 per cent of the population and the character of Smith resonates with 30 per cent of Albertans, while the conservative brand resonates with 65 per cent of the people.

For those of us who do follow political theatre, what should we be watching for? Stephen’s advice: Pay attention to what’s happening on the ground in the 10 to 11 constituencies — most in Calgary — that could go either way, NDP or UCP. That’s what matters.

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Come election day, most voters will choose to vote for the winner, Stephen continues. “No one is going to vote for issues; they are going to vote for the halo around the candidate. Do I feel like this person can win? I don’t want to waste my vote.” That’s why it’s so important to lead polls and appear to have momentum.

What about trust? I’ve heard experts frame the ballot question as: “Who do I trust to run Alberta?” Stephen’s response makes me grimace: “It doesn’t strike me that trust actually matters that much. A lack of trust is already factored into politics.”

I can’t resist pressing him for a prediction. “It’s a coin toss now, maybe less than a coin toss,” Stephen shrugs. “Danielle is still the most likely to win this election. And Pierre (Poilievre) can win the federal election too.”

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What — if anything — does the Alberta election portend for the federal political stage? Poilievre is really good and Trudeau is not, Stephen concludes. “Trudeau had a few moments of authenticity but for the most part, all we see is drama. If it looks like you’re doing your Grade 8 play, you’re not going to be the prime minister.”

Donna Kennedy-Glans is active in the energy business and a multi-generational family farm. Her latest book is Teaching the Dinosaur to Dance: Moving Beyond Business as Usual (2022).

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