alberta liberals up in the air.

Even if someone were to offer me good odds, I would be hesitant to bet on who the real players will be in the next provincial election.

As David Climenhaga recently pointed out, although credible polls continue to show the Progressive Conservatives ahead in voter support, the media has continued to frame Danielle Smith’s Wildrose Alliance as the heir’s to the Legislative throne. For the most part, the free ride has continued.

Young Liberal Vincent St. Pierre has written a blog post ahead the Liberal Party’s May 14-16 policy convention disputing the Wildrose’s claims to be “ready to govern.” While I would also dispute those claims, the Liberals also have a difficult time claiming that they are “ready to govern.”

David Swann and the Liberal caucus.

The focus of the weekend convention is policy, but the big news could be financial. The Alberta Liberal Party is expected to announce shortly that their outstanding debt, much of which was accumulated during their disastrous 2001 election campaign, will finally be paid off. This is a big step for the Liberals, but it is only one of the many challenges facing their organization.

I have been accused by both MLAs and some party loyalists of having an anti-Liberal bent on this blog (one MLA even accused me of conspiring with the NDP) and while I admit to being critical of the Liberal Party, I believe that my assessments have been fair. As someone who was involved with the Liberal Party for many years, including time as a constituency vice-president and a political staffer, I am aware of the political strengths and psychological weaknesses of that organization.

The Liberal Party is in an interesting situation. They might be a beneficiary of a PC-Wildrose vote split in some Edmonton and Calgary constituencies in the next election, but their membership has not exactly been flooded by progressives afraid of the two conservative parties. The departure of MLA Dave Taylor and Kent Hehr‘s decision to run in Calgary’s Mayoral election is not a ringing endorsement of the party’s current fortunes. Can the party attract back into their ranks the sizeable group of Liberals who joined disenchanted Red Tories, moderate New Democrats, and former central Albertan Greens under the new Alberta Party banner? They have been low key, but since March, the Alberta Party has held almost 100 Big Listen meetings across the province.

You do not have to spend too much time inside the Liberal Party to become aware of how iconized the 1993 election is in the minds of party activists. As many Albertans will remember, that election saw former Edmonton Mayor Laurence Decore lead the Liberals to their best showing in decades by winning 39% of the vote and forming official opposition by electing 32 MLAs.

Much of the traditional Liberal motto against large-scale change within their party – especially a name change – has centered around the 1993 vote. “We won 32 seats under Decore and we can do it again,” is something that I have heard countless times. There is no doubt that 17 years ago the Liberals launched an impressive campaign with a slate of candidates who were “ready to govern.” It would be difficult to argue that has been the case since. The Liberals have cultivated reliable support in a handful of constituencies in Calgary, Edmonton, and Lethbridge, but they have had a very difficult time growing their base of support. In most rural areas, the Liberals have run paper candidates in the past three elections, ceding a growing number of constituencies to the PC hegemony.

The decision by the Liberal Party years ago to focus resources on urban areas has opened up the potential of rural success to the Wildrose Alliance, whose leader Ms. Smith has spent months traveling to rural communities and smaller cities meeting with any group that will have her. Her party is now reaping the benefits of gaining media attention from local weekly newspapers, organizing constituency associations, and attracting large crowds to their town hall meetings. Imagine what the political map would look like after the 2011/2012 election if Alberta had an opposition party that could elect candidates in both rural and urban constituencies.

Both the Liberals and NDP have been frustrated by their lack of traction in the polls (and in elections), but neither party appears prepared to change gears to face this reality. Liberal leader David Swann has held town hall meetings across Alberta, as has NDP leader Brian Mason, but there is little evidence that this will lead to an even mediocre rural breakthrough for either party. This is probably less the fault of the current leadership and more the fault of a tradition of political tactics focused on weekly issues and electoral strategies focused on urban enclaves (and the influence of their federal party cousins).

It is difficult to believe that these parties once had long-time MLAs who represented rural constituencies. NDP leader Grant Notley represented the sprawling Spirit River-Fairview from 1971 to 1984. Liberal leader Nick Taylor represented Westlock-Sturgeon and Redwater from 1986 to 1996. Premier Ed Stelmach defeated two-term Vegreville NDP MLA Derek Fox in 1993. The last time either of these two parties elected a candidate in rural Alberta was in 1997 when Liberal MLA Colleen Soetaert was re-elected in Spruce Grove-Sturgeon-St. Albert.

If the Liberal Party is successful in building a policy platform that appeals beyond their traditional base of supporters, will they have an organization on the ground that can translate it into electoral results? Even if they have all the best policy ideas in the world, without  feet on the ground it will be very difficult – even with a potential vote split on the right – to reach beyond their traditional base of supporters in this province.

(I will be attending parts of this weekend’s Liberal convention as a media observer, including federal Liberal strategist Warren Kinsella‘s keynote address. Look for updates on this blog and on twitter at @davecournoyer)

14 thoughts on “alberta liberals up in the air.

  1. Jason McKinnon

    Warren Kinsella, hey! The Dark Lord of Chretien castle gonna give the AB Libs some good tips. They could use someone like him to get on track. Swann and Kinsella going to strategize?

    Reply
  2. Jimmy Wales

    David Swanns Liberals could use a sharp mind like Kinsella to give them some tips. They will need to be cuthroat to survive the right wing bloodfest between Stelmach and Smith.

    Reply
  3. Brad

    You’ve nailed it Dave.The urban ridings are a dog-fight, but it’s the rural ridings that elect the government, and neither the ALP nor the NDP have any traction (that I’ve seen) outside of Edmonton or Calgary (and 1 of 2 in Lethbridge – how did that happen? Not that Bridgett isn’t a great person, and would make a great Minister.).

    I have great respect for Dr. Swann and think he would make a fine Premier, but he just hasn’t captured the attention of the electorate that I can see (especially outside of Edmonton or Calgary).

    I think the ALP needs to recruit some high profile candidates (especially in the rural ridings) and take some some serious political policy stances – like opposing the “tough on crime” policies of the Harpers (which the majority of Canadians oppose).

    Show some political guts – it can’t get much worse! And it might get a whole lot better.

    In my view, that’s what Mandel has been doing in Edmonton – and he certainly hasn’t lacked support from the electorate.

    Reply
  4. Jason

    I’ve been hearing that the party was on the verge of announcing that they had paid off their debt for more than a year now. I think frequently from you, Dave. 🙂

    Either that is one giant verge, or they have not been making much progress. I wonder if their communications strategy of telling everyone “It’s OK, we’re almost there” has actually injured their fundraising efforts. Wouldn’t surprise me.

    As for Decore, it’s like Al Bundy talking about that one game in high school where he scored three touchdowns, or whatever it was. It’s pathetic.

    Reply
  5. C.Morgan

    Brad,
    I think that suggesting that the Liberals show some political guts and take a stand on some things is very good advice. You then go and suggest that the provincial Liberals attack Harper on tough on his crime initiatives. Have a look at Harper’s support in rural Alberta. Perhaps you may want to reconsider an offensive by a provincial party against a federal party that is wildly popular in the demographic that you want to target.

    The provincial Liberals are in desperate need of some realistic strategy. The proposal above sort of reflects the type of strategy that Alberta’s Liberals have practiced so far.

    Reply
  6. Jane Morgan

    Mr. St. Pierre’s must be enjoying renewed traffic with us both mentioning him.

    Okay, I more than mentioned him. And not so much as a “thank you” or even a ‘piss off” from him. Oh well.

    Glad you are going to the weekend Liberal event. It will be good to have your feedback.

    Cheers,
    Jane

    Reply
  7. LibVin

    I second your comments, Ms. Morgan, on wanting to hear Dave’s feedback on the ALP convention.

    But on your first point, of enjoying the renewed traffic, well, I’ve /only/ received about 12 hits from your blog. Not much of a renewal if you ask me. But oh well, I’m not interested in the hits on my site as much as I am of hearing some Wildrose bloggers. Of these I can only count one–you. I was hoping I’d smoke out more.

    So if any Wildrosers a reading this you can set up a blog in under 30 seconds at wordpress.com. I highly suggest doing it. It’d be a great service to your party and improve from their weakening stance in Alberta. 🙂

    Reply
  8. Conventioneer

    So a sizeable group of Liberals left to join the Alberta Party? How many exactly other than yourself? LOL!

    And on the 100+ Big Listens, most aren’t that big if you ask me, with 4 or 5 people sitting in some guy’s kitchen sipping their favourite beverages. You need more than that to create the political tsunami necessary to unseat the tories.

    And on your recent anti-liberal bias, I don’t view it as bias at all. You’re an opportunist and you have bills to pay like all of us and there’s nothing wrong with that. If you one day go work for Danielle Smith, you’ll defend her organization and find excuses for their missteps. You leave them the next day, you’ll switch to the new flavour of the month and pretend you’re just being objective and neutral.

    Reply
  9. daveberta Post author

    Conventioneer: Thanks for the comment. There are a number of former Liberals who have joined the AB Party. I am not a member of that party (or any party), though I do believe that they may have waken up the other opposition parties to the reality that just sticking as a default opposition will not keep supporters around. The more voices and ideas, the better.

    Even if the AB Party does not get organized enough to run a province-wide campaign in the next election, perhaps this proves that even the opposition parties in Alberta need an opposition. Will it be enough though?

    Reply
  10. Rob Harvie

    Dave. I think your comments are pretty accurate. While we have struggled economically in Alberta, it has been a time where voter discomfort should have translated into pretty strong support for non-governing parties – and it has for the Wildrose – though I think that’s temporary, and most recently, their inability to successfully articulate a plan is telling for their future fortunes.

    But most glaring is the continued weakening in the Alberta Liberal Party.. and like I have told my son, when you have a problem, the first question should ALWAYS be, “what am I doing wrong?”

    David Swann refuses to do this – his course has been to feebly attack the government, and, most recently, ask to buy votes at $50.00 a pop.

    Kinsella is the last thing the party needs – what they need is a somewhat centrist leader who can lead.

    David Swann, firstly, is just the wrong guy.

    Secondly, the party cannot get traction continuing to portray itself as “NDP Lite”.

    I mean – even Bridget Pastoor in my consituency is a past hard-core right wing conservative a la Dick Johnson.

    Time for Alberta Liberals to wake up and smell the coffee.

    Reply
  11. Joe Albertan

    More importantly, what exactly makes pro-life protesters at the legislature “crazy”? Whereas daveberta.ca seems to like many other protesters? What makes their rights any different?

    Reply
  12. Pingback: ALP Convention… Going to be there. |

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