Both leaders are agents of change and face similar challenges 

Within a single year, two Alberta leaders have been elected on a wave of new ideas and new voter engagement. To be precise, it wasn’t so much that the ideas were new, but that those who embraced them voted in unprecedented numbers.

Now that Calgarians have innovative leadership at the provincial and municipal level, two intriguing questions emerge: what do these leaders share, and how will they work together?

Alison Redford and Naheed Nenshi share similar communication techniques. Reaching beyond established strategies, both leaders engaged their supporters where they lived and communicated, in public and virtual spaces.Like Redford, Nenshi favours pragmatism over ideology, and democratic renewal. Their similarities may lead to a constructive relationship between the city and the province that could benefit Calgarians. 

Photo by: Norm Sparks.  

In Nenshi’s case, the highest profile dimension of this approach involves social media. He is active on Twitter, and uses technology to enhance transparency. Nenshi has also cultivated a more pedestrian connection to voters. During his campaign, he went to coffee houses, people’s homes, and continues to converse with them on public transit, and on city streets.

Similarly, Alison Redford met prospective voters in a variety of community gatherings. However, her efforts were stretched beyond cities to an entire province. The provincial leadership campaign was less energetic, but nevertheless she was able to generate enough interest to put her in second place on the first ballot.

The strategy in both the Nenshi and Redford campaigns involved getting them into the top three. This was desirable for three reasons. Firstly, it created momentum against leading candidates and their comparatively complacent supporters.

Secondly, they became a credible choice. They shifted from appealing candidates with no real chance of winning to serious contenders. A vote for them would not be a waste. Strategic voters could now vote for the candidate they preferred, and the promise of democratic renewal.

Thirdly, and most importantly for the future, their growing public support could be channeled into innovative leadership. Those tempted to resist change sensed the power of the voters behind it.

Alison Redford built on this
foundationRedford and Nenshi hold common ground in many areas, including how they appeal to voters. Both leaders engaged voters in person, but Redford’s efforts were stretched beyond cities to an entire province. 

Photo by: Steve Waldner.   of popular support by using the same sort of outreach that had served her so well in her ascent to the leadership. She met with the entire PC caucus signaling a more inclusive, consultative approach to leadership, and in the process generated a new source of talent and support.

Both leaders are perceived as agents of change, but face a system of entrenched practices and interests that make innovation difficult, for better or worse.

While Nenshi leads a less divided city council than his predecessor, he is one vote among 15, and must negotiate with council on an issue-by-issue basis. His primary source of leverage, broad public support, is offset by the fact that his council colleagues must be re-elected by opponents of some of his policy initiatives.

By contrast, Redford is a party leader with an overwhelming majority in the Legislative Assembly. If she can build on her successes in consulting with caucus and the public in decision-making, she will wield considerable leverage.

In addition to these commonalities, our mayor and premier share an emphasis on pragmatism over ideology, and democratic renewal. Their many similarities lead some to hope for a more cooperative, constructive relationship between the city and the province.

It is promising that they share some aspirations, but perhaps more importantly, both have shown a willingness to negotiate disagreements and find compromise. They also share the Calgary tax base, an inevitable source of conflict over the best distribution of scarce resources.

Mayor Nenshi will prioritize Calgary, or perhaps cities in general, while Premier Redford must balance the interests of all Albertans. In order to maintain and build support, she must be responsive to rural as well as municipal demands, and accommodate other elements of Alberta’s diversity – left and right, north and south.

A positive relationship with Calgary’s mayor, given his national and international profile, could set a new tone for such accommodation, and for effective leadership. Similarly, Mayor Nenshi could advance his vision for enhanced municipal powers through a productive relationship with Premier Redford. 

Lori Williams is an Associate Professor of Policy Studies at Mount Royal University. Williams’ areas of expertise include women in politics, political philosophy and ideology.