Goodbye? The future looks bleak for the Alberta Liberals

Raj Sherman (right) accepts the Alberta Liberal Party leadership in 2011. To the left: Leadership chairperson Josipa Petrunic, MLA Laurie Blakeman, MLA Hugh MacDonald and candidate Bruce Payne.
Raj Sherman (right) accepts the Alberta Liberal Party leadership in 2011. To the left: Leadership race chairperson Josipa Petrunic, and leadership candidates Laurie Blakeman, Hugh MacDonald and Bruce Payne.

It has been a long time since things have looked good for the Alberta Liberals. The provincial party has been teetering on the verge of the political abyss for years but lately the future looks especially bleak.

Kent Hehr Calgary Centre MLA Liberals
Kent Hehr

Recent announcements that popular Calgary Liberal MLAs Kent Hehr and Darshan Kang are moving to greener pastures in federal politics with Justin Trudeau’s Liberals will shrink the provincial Liberal caucus to just three MLAs, leaving the party with its smallest caucus in nearly thirty years. The two departures also mean the party may be forced to play defence in two by-elections before the next general election, a feat not aided by continuously low fundraising returns.

In the 2012 provincial election, Liberal support dropped to its lowest level since the 1980s, with only five candidates incumbent MLAs re-elected and the party losing its hold on formerly reliably Liberal-voting ridings like Edmonton-Gold Bar, Edmonton-Riverview, Calgary-Currie and Calgary-Varsity.

But the biggest blow to the Liberals in that year’s election was losing Official Opposition status to the Wildrose Party, a title the Liberals had held in Alberta since 1993. Since losing its place as the default opposition to the Tories, the party has struggled to define its identity in a new political environment dominated by two conservative parties.

Kevin Taft Liberal Party MLA Alberta
Kevin Taft

With the departure of Mr. Hehr and Mr. Kang, the party will soon have less MLAs than the New Democratic Party, which, in the midst of its own leadership race, is showing signs of positive growth in Edmonton. The NDP, the Liberal Party’s long-time rivals, seem to be paying less attention to that party, focusing instead on the new Progressive Conservative-Wildrose dominance of Alberta’s political environment. And the recent defection of a senior Liberal Party official to the tiny Alberta Party also raised eyebrows.

It would be unfair to assign the blame on one person, especially considering the Liberal Party has been a slow state of decline since 1993 (with the exception of the 2004 election, where the party, led by Kevin Taft, increased its MLAs).

The party’s current leader, Raj Sherman, is the definition of a wildcard. The former PC MLA and junior cabinet minister has been an odd fit in the Liberal benches. Those who work close to him describe him as kind and well-meaning, but his scattered and erratic behaviour make him difficult to anticipate. The Liberals took a risk in choosing an outsider as their leader and, at least today, there does not appear to be a reward in sight.

MLAs like Edmonton-Centre‘s Laurie Blakeman and Calgary-Mountain View‘s David Swann are hard-working representatives, but as a caucus, the Liberals tend to act more like Independent MLAs who share office space.

Despite the bleak view on the horizon, I would never count the Liberals out. They have been constant underdogs and they have a highly committed base of activists who are extremely loyal to their party’s traditional brand.

It is too soon to tell whether the provincial Liberals will benefit from a new wave of Trudeaumania in federal politics. A big question is whether the Liberals will follow the trend of their provincial prairie cousins in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, who have become become non-existent or irrelevant in recent decades.

12 thoughts on “Goodbye? The future looks bleak for the Alberta Liberals”

  1. Great column, Dave. Bang on in my estimation, and very fair to the Alberta Liberals. I’m betting you will receive some bitter comments from the shrinking base of committed AbLib supporters, but this group is in deep denial of the facts, which are pretty obvious. What a strange thing it will be to have an Alberta Legislature in which both the perpetual Progressive Conservative government and the almost-as perpetual Alberta Liberal Opposition will have disappeared, possibly forever!

  2. Dave you forgot to mention one thing. Liberal fortunes in Alberta are inversely related to the price of oil and the resulting hot economy. Way back then Liberal Leader Decore was successful or nearly successful, the economy was in the dumps and many voters flocked from the PCs to the Liberals. This political migration is a phenomenon that fundamentally is a sign that during hard times, voters will blame the ruling party and switch allegiances. The question is how long is the oil bubble going to last? When the economy contracts, and it is a definite certainty that this boom wlil contract, voters WILL dump the Tories. Once this cycle completes, the Liberals fortunes will vastly improve. Albertans need a party to fall back on once they dump the Tories if hard times come and the common Progressive Albertans voters have historically shown that to be true. In the mean time I think the Liberals will hold their bedrock base of voters, irregardless of which future MLA’s represent them. But during the hard times, when political sentiments change, incumbent parties get blamed at that point you can expect the Liberals to naturally rise again. This is the cycle of politics, federally as well. The artificial doom and gloom negative message you are trying to convey, doesn’t really hold true.

  3. @Jackson – Thanks for the comment. What poll are you referring to. The last poll I saw in June, from Leger Marketing, had the Liberals polling at 14% across the province (behind the Wildrose, PCs and NDP).

  4. It is going to be a very interesting next few years in Alberta politics for sure, David. I just hope there is enough of an opposition to hold whoever forms government to account. We don’t need another lopsided legislature in this province.

  5. You are so correct. It is a combination of party and leader. The Alberta Liberals are a party that forget this. No offense to Raj, he is a great MLA but does not have leader qualities. David Swann is one of the most passionate and intelligent MLA’s as well but again he just does not possess that “it” quality to be elected a leader that voters will flock to. If the Liberals continue this ongoing circle then yes they will dwindle. If they get their head out of the sand and elect a leader that people look to then who knows. If someone like Chima Nkemdirim was to come along I bet a lot more people might be looking to vote Liberal in Alberta ;-)

  6. DaveBerta said “I just hope there is enough of an opposition to hold whoever forms government to account”.

    Well the two Dave’s, both have a funny way of showing a commitment to wanting to improve democracy. On one hand complaing about Tory Largesse…on the other hand bashing Liberals, full well knowing that this bashing benefits the Tories. Its funny watching you two suck and blow at the same time…and that is purely a political term. Its also funny how Dave uses the provincial avg. poll to show Liberal standing, full well knowing that ruralites are not going to vote Liberal and actively ignores the urban rise of Liberal popularity in Calgary and Edm and some other areas. Both of you ex Liberals have already made up your mind and will never be impressible. Haters will be hatersand that is you choice. For us Liberal voters, though we will NEVER vote DiPper and never vote for the vote splitting sideshow AP. Lib voters in AB that are there from last election are dieharders and will never vote Dip or AP next election. Maybe AP and ND’s should merge. The Liberal brand is a known and familiar tag that has been around a very long time, never under estimate the voters. There are no more Lakes of fire this time.

  7. The one poll from Leger that was in the Edmonton Journal on June 29th.

    Second place in Calgary isn’t bad. I honestly don’t think people are painting a fair picture of either Raj or the Liberals.

  8. Dave, I think with the ragtag coalition put together by Redford’s team attracting many-a-liberal (read: ATA, AUPE) to her flock, they’ll return. With the PCs completely turning their back on them, they won’t return, so where will they go? Wildrose? Unlikely. NDP? I think they’re waiting to see who the leader is (Notley). Alberta Party? Just not legit enough to hold enough influence (yet?). I think they are looking back at the Liberals though and cringing at their wildcard leader. Don’t get me wrong, I like Raj, but I think there are a lot of lost liberals/centre-progressives out there looking for a home. The NDP could be that home if they play their cards right with good messaging and engagement.

  9. Liberalism is great, only if the party was really Liberal maybe all of us Liberals wouldn’t leave. The Alberta Party can be the future of this province. We must work together and bring people together. People power in politics is everything.

  10. Dave, you are spot on I’m afraid.

    Is there a certain number of MLA’s a party needs to be recognized with official status in the legislature? If so, any idea what that is? If the Libs are below said number after resignations what would it mean for day to day operations in the leg?

  11. Good post, Dave. I think you really hit the mark on the current state of the provincial Liberals.

    I believe that to have official status in the Legislature, a party has to have a minimum of four seats. This will mean the new Liberal Caucus will have less resources with which to do their opposition work than any other party.

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