After a tumultuous two years as leader of Alberta’s Liberal Party, Calgary-Mountain View MLA David Swann announced that he will not lead his party into the next election, and that he will formally submit his resignation after the Spring Session of the Alberta Legislature.
Dr. Swann is a good person and one of the kindest souls in provincial politics. Realistically, he never stood a chance as his party’s leader despite these qualities. It would be easy to blame the dismal state of the Liberal Party on the outgoing leader, but there is a greater responsibility belonging to members of a party establishment who played a central role in creating a dysfunctional political culture.
Starting with the quick leadership contest after the party’s devastating result in the 2008 election, the party establishment opted for political expediency, rather than taking advantage of an opportunity to reflect on the party’s future and heal internal rifts. This expediency effectively eliminated any opportunity that the party had to attract potential outside candidates for leader, limiting the pool to a handful of current and former MLAs.
Dr. Swann took the leader’s chair with a mandate for change and quickly discovered that this desire for change was not shared by some MLAs and many in his party. The Party establishment’s strong connections to the federal Liberal Party and its unhealthy obsession with their party’s past successes are just two of the many psychological barriers that Dr. Swann would have immediately faced in his job.
You do not have to spend much time inside the Liberal Party to become aware of how iconized their successes in the 1993 election are. As many Albertans will remember, that election saw former Edmonton Mayor Laurence Decore lead the Liberals to their best showing in decades. The establishment 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.
Dr. Swann faced an establishment of Liberal stalwarts who could not fathom the concept of moving away from their beloved party identity (and it really is their identity). By wrapping themselves in their party identity, the party establishment always knew they were right, even when they lost. Dr. Swann challenged this identity when he tried to change the party’s name and when he offered to cooperate with other parties.
With near religious vigor, the Liberal establishment has sought the perfect leader, and when their chosen one has not succeeded in the monumental task of defeating the strongest Progressive Conservative organization in Canada, they are undermined from within or simply driven out. Nick Taylor, Mr. Decore, Grant Mitchell, Nancy MacBeth, Ken Nicol, Kevin Taft, and now Dr. Swann all faced these internal divisions and saw their leadership undermined by the party establishment and their fellow MLAs because they could not appease it.
A quick change of leader may appear to be an easy fix, but the departure of Dr. Swann will not solve the internal problems that have created this dysfunctional political culture.
After being elbowed to the sideline by the growing narrative of the Wildrose Alliance as the next government-in-waiting, and the growth of the new Alberta Party, the Liberal Party’s biggest challenge in 2011 is to be relevant. The Liberals jumped too quickly to choose a new leader a year after the last election. Now they are stuck in the polls with a resigning leader one year before the next election.
UPDATE: The Edmonton Journal’s Paula Simons is reporting that Edmonton-Centre MLA Laurie Blakeman is weighing her options at running for either the Alberta Party or Liberal Party leadership. Meanwhile, Edmonton-Gold Bar MLA Hugh MacDonald has taken the position that “The Alberta Liberal party was good enough for Laurence Decore, Bettie Hewes and Sheldon Chumir, and it’s good enough for me.”