victims of alberta’s opposition meat-grinder

Since Peter Lougheed catapulted from official opposition leader to Premier in 1971, Alberta’s opposition leadership have become a political graveyard for many well-intentioned and ambitious politicians. There are many reasons for this: Alberta’s tradition of electing large government majorities, the ability of the PC party to create a big-tent party, the unpopularity of opposition parties federal counterparts, and the trap of falling into an opposition mentality.

Dr. David Swann is one of many Albertans who have stepped up to the daunting task and challenge of leading a party in the divisive and dysfunctional world of opposition politics in Alberta. Calgary MLA Dave Taylor gave Dr. Swann a verbal lashing when he left the Liberal caucus earlier this past year and last week Tony Sansotta resigned as President after co-signing a letter with Dr. Swann appealing for cooperation with other opposition parties. To the untrained eye, it may look like the Liberal Party is on the verge of internal collapse and maybe it is, but I struggle to think of a time when Alberta has had an opposition party not rife with internal division.

Taking a quick look back at Alberta politics over the past twenty-five years, you will find opposition leaders that made positive contributions to Alberta politics, but could not withstand the meat-grinder of opposition politics in Alberta. A quick read of the list of individuals below could easily lead most Albertans to determine some of the most thankless jobs in our province indeed belong to leaders of provincial opposition parties.

Nick Taylor was the Liberal leader from 1974 to 1988.

Nick Taylor (Liberal leader, 1974 to 1988): He bravely led the Liberals through the darkness and proved that even in the height of the National Energy Program that Liberals had hope to win in Alberta. In 1979, Mr. Taylor placed only 355 votes behind PC candidate Ken Kowalski in a by-election in Barrhead. After six attempts at elected office since 1968, he was elected as MLA for Westlock-Sturgeon in 1986 and was only Leader of the Liberal Opposition in the Assembly for less than two years before his position was challenged by Edmonton Mayor Laurence Decore and Edmonton MLA Grant Mitchell. He continued to serve as an MLA until 1996, when he was appointed to the Senate.

Former Calgary Mayor Rod Sykes briefly led the Social Credit Party from 1980 to 1982.

Rod Sykes (Social Credit leader, 1980 to 1982): After serving two terms as the Mayor of Calgary (1969-1977), Mayor Sykes took over the leadership of the Social Credit Party. After nine years in opposition, the party was mired with internal and financial problems which led him to resign in 1982. He later ran as a federal Liberal candidate in the 1984 election.

Former NDP leader Ray Martin introduces Jack Layton at a 2008 federal election rally.

Ray Martin (NDP leader, 1984 to 1994): He led the New Democrats to its height as Official Opposition with 16 MLAs in 1986 and 1989, but that did not stop the internal bickering. Mr. Martin’s faced calls to resign from Calgary candidate Barry Bristman in 1989 and fought a leadership challenge by St. Paul veterinarian Don Ronaghan in 1991. In 1992, Stony Plain MLA Stan Woloshyn abandoned the NDP for the PCs. Mr. Martin resigned after his party lost all their seats to the Liberals and PCs in the Assembly in the 1993 election. He returned to the Assembly when he was elected as MLA for Edmonton-Beverly-Clareview from 2004 to 2008.

Former Edmonton Mayor Laurence Decore led the Liberals from 1989 to 1994.

Laurence Decore (Liberal leader, 1988 to 1994): The former Edmonton Mayor built the best political machine an opposition party had seen since the 1970s, but that was not enough for some of the MLAs in his caucus-mates. In 1993, after the Liberals won their largest vote share with 39.7% and 32 seats, a group of MLAs and party members were not satisfied with official opposition status called for his resignation. Calgary-North West MLA Frank Bruseker was stripped of his major critic portfolios after telling reporters he was worried the party could not win enough seats in Calgary to secure an election win due to Mr. Decore’s leadership. Mr. Decore gracefully resigned in 1994.

Former MP Ross Harvey briefly led the NDP from 1994 to 1996.

Ross Harvey (NDP leader, 1994 to 1996): The former NDP Member of Parliament was selected as leader of the seatless party shortly after he was unseated in the 1993 federal election. He was unable to satisfactorily rebuild his party after it was wiped out in 1993 and quit in 1996. He was soon replaced by Pam Barrett.

Grant Mitchell led the Liberals from 1994 to 1998.

Grant Mitchell (Liberal leader, 1994 to 1998): After a brutal and divisive leadership race in 1994, Mr. Mitchell faced opposition from within his own party and caucus. Three MLAs crossed to the PCs during his time as leader and his leadership opponent MLA Sine Chadi waged a constant campaign to undermine his leadership. Shortly after the 1997 election, former Calgary MLA Danny Dalla-Longa called for his resignation. He resigned in 1998 and in 2005 was appointed to the Senate.

Pam Barrett led the NDP from 1996 to 2000.

Pam Barrett (NDP leader, 1996 to 2000): After serving as MLA for Edmonton-Highlands from 1986 to 1993, Ms. Barrett returned in 1996. She led her party to elect two MLAs in the 1997 election and later resigned after a near-death experience in a dentist’s chair.

Former PC cabinet minister Nancy MacBeth led the Liberals from 1998 to 2001.

Nancy MacBeth (Liberal leader, 1998 to 2001): After losing to Ralph Klein in the 1992 PC leadership race, Ms. MacBeth (then Ms. Betkowski) left politics until 1998 when she swept into the Liberal leadership. The former PC cabinet minister faced some tough opposition from MLAs within her party’s caucus, including two who crossed the floor (Gene Zwozdesky joined the PCs and Pamela Paul sat as an Independent). She resigned almost immediately after she was unseated in the 2001 election.

Randy Thorsteinson led the Social Credit Party from 1992 to 1999 and the Alberta Alliance from 2003 to 2005.

Randy Thorsteinson (Social Credit leader, 1992 to 1999, Alberta Alliance leader, 2003 to 2005). Even after leading the long-dormant Social Credit Party to win 6.8% of the vote in 1997, Mr. Thorsteinson was at odds with his party after a movement within the party to limit the involvement of members of the Church of Latter-day Saints. Thorsteinson quit the party in April 1999 and was a founder of the Alberta First Party. In 2003, he re-emerged as leader of the Alberta Alliance – the Wildrose Alliance‘s predecessor – and led that party to earn 8.7% of the vote in 2004. He resigned after failing to win a seat in the 2004 election.

Lethbridge MLA Ken Nicol led the Liberals from 2001 to 2004.

Ken Nicol (Liberal leader, 2001 to 2004): Quiet, respected, and more conservative than most of his caucus colleagues, Dr. Nicol reluctantly accepted the leadership from the unseated Ms. MacBeth in 2001. He briefly led the Liberals until internal conflict from within his party and caucus convinced him that running as a federal Liberal candidate might be a better career option. He resigned as MLA in 2004 and was defeated in his bid represent Lethbridge in the House of Commons later that year.

Kevin Taft led the Liberal Party from 2004 to 2008.

Kevin Taft (Liberal leader, 2004 to 2008): The first Liberal leader to increase the party’s seat total since Mr. Decore, Dr. Taft led the Liberals through two elections. He tried to distance the provincial party from its unpopular federal counterparts and while he did not face as much internal dissent from his party and caucus as did his predecessors, he did have the unfortunate task of having to remove MLA Dan Backs from the Liberal caucus. He stepped down as leader after the 2008 election and is currently the opposition Health & Wellness critic.

25 thoughts on “victims of alberta’s opposition meat-grinder

  1. C.J.

    Political parties with serious internal divisions stand no real chance of government. David Swann is better off with a smaller, more loyal party that’s able to move forward than a larger, internally divided party that is perpetually in stalemate with itself.

    If a purge is needed, so be it. Others might go, but maybe the Liberals will be able to stand for something at the end of it.

    Reply
  2. David J. Climenhaga

    Excellent observations, Dave, although I suppose the “meat grinder” faced by opposition leaders isn’t all that different in many jurisdictions where there’s a strong natural governing party. Look at the behaviour of the federal Tories throughout the years of Liberal dominance. What’s really interesting here, though, is how a leadership role in the Alberta Liberals enhances one’s chances of being elevated to a seat in the Canadian Senate.

    Reply
  3. Alvin Finkel

    As long as a party seems to have little chance of forming government, the threat to those who openly criticize the leader is minimal. When a party looks like it is in striking distance of winning, the natural desire on the part of MLAs of that party to be considered for Cabinet posts tends to shut them up.

    Reply
  4. Jeff S.

    Hey Dave, nice post – don’t think that Nick Taylor was ever leader of the official opposition though.

    Reply
  5. jerrymacgp

    Your profile of Nancy MacBeth was incomplete. You should probably have mentioned that as a Tory (she was using the surname Betkowski at the time), she was Ralph Klein’s principal opponent in the 1992 leadership convention that made him King Ralph. Her rep at the time was as a “Red Tory”, which may explain her later transformation into a Liberal.

    Reply
  6. daveberta Post author

    David J C: That’s a pretty good statistical average. Don’t forget Harper Prowse, who was the Liberal leader in the 1950s and appointed to the Senate in the 1960s.

    Also, Grant MacEwan was appointed LG after a short tenure as Lib Leader and Mayor of Calgary.

    Reply
  7. Darren

    I don’t remember MacBeth/Betkowski being portrayed as a Red Tory during the leadership campaign. I voted during the campaign and what I remember most was that she was portrayed as being part of the Getty “Old Boys Club” while Klein’s campaign portrayed him as the outsider. This was extremely successful for many Tories who were not huge fans of how Getty was running things at the time.

    Reply
  8. Marko

    I don’t think Pannu or Notley would have really fit with the theme of the post.
    Both were popular leaders. Pannu left on his own accord and Notley of course died suddenly. The rest of the leaders in this post were pretty much forced out or just had a really horrible time as leader.

    Reply
  9. The Truth

    Other AB prov Lib Senators include

    Wesley Stambaugh Liberal President and defacto leader in the 40’s also made it to the Senate.

    Plus Arthur Sifton who was given a cabmin post to bail out along with Charles Stewart who was given a cabinet post and a safe seat in Quebec, plus a whole slew of Alberta Liberal MLAs.

    Reply
  10. Chris LaBossiere

    Dave:

    You have changed my entire perspective on Alberta Politics. To get to the real gravy (The Senate), as D.C. has pointed out, one must work hard towards the Liberal Leadership.

    I must drop what I was doing and get some buttons printed.

    Good post!

    Reply
  11. Lawrence

    Hey Dave,
    just one more thing to add to the reason why alberta political oppositional leaders fail is the first past the post system!

    Reply
  12. AB-Baby

    Yes. Grant Notley. If you read Hansards from 1983/84, it’s clear he was a force to be reckoned with. Sad day for Alberta politics when we lost him. The Hansards are in the process of being uploaded to the Internet, hopefully up before summer’s end.

    I can’t help but wonder how different the face of AB politics would be if Nick Taylor would have beat out that paragon of partisanship, the most ultimate biased partisan Speaker of all time, Mr. Kowalski. I think he singlehandedly has done more to destroy democracy in this province than anyone else under the guise of an “impartial” speaker.

    Reply
  13. Malasande

    Conrad Volk and Ernie, you are basing your assumption on what? All of the politicians here were elected MLA’s. Danielle hasn’t been elected yet but her time is coming. After she is elected and demonstrates her strong capabilities then perhaps you can comment as to whether she would make this list. Besides which, none of these people were leaders of the governing party. There is a possibility that, after the next election, she will be the leader of the political party governing Alberta so then, for sure, she would not make this list.

    Reply
  14. ernie

    A possibility in a pipe dream there’d ever be a Premier Smith. The mass exodus from the province would already have begun if this was even a remote possibility.

    Reply
  15. Darren

    Ah yes, I remember well the last time this province was bursting at the seams as people flocked to Alberta drawn by its child care services, social safety net and wide range of public services.
    Jobs brought the last population boom to the province and if the government, whether it be PC or WRA, maintains a business-friendly approach there will be post-election mass exodus.

    Reply
  16. Darren L

    More like if the government does NOT havec a business-friendly focus there will be a mass exodus. People move here for jobs and low taxes. Nobody moves here for social services. What a farse.

    Reply
  17. Pingback: forty years of political hegemony in alberta. | daveberta.ca - Alberta politics blog

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