All four main political parties will have new leaders going into the next election after today’s announcement by Liberal leader Raj Sherman that he is resigning as leader and will not seek re-election as the MLA for Edmonton-Meadowlark.
Like the Wildrose Party, who lost leader Danielle Smith and 10 other MLAs when they crossed the floor to the Progressive Conservatives in the final months of 2014, the Liberals will now need to find someone to lead them into the next election. Despite being less than three years from the last election, Premier Jim Prentice expected to trigger an election within weeks.
The Liberals will choose an interim party leader next weekend but the state of the party remains dire. Disorganization, low fundraising returns and a poor showing in four recent by-elections suggest the Liberals might have a difficult time surviving the next election. This is a scenario that likely pushed Dr Sherman to resign.
Rumour is that Dr. Sherman was facing considerable pressure from party constituency presidents and fellow MLAs to leave. Though it is not clear if the Liberal Party is in any better position without him as leader.
Elected as a PC MLA in 2008 and ejected in 2010, Dr. Sherman immediately enjoyed folk hero status as an Independent MLA for criticizing the PC Government’s record on health care. As an Independent, the former Tory toyed with joining all of the four opposition parties, but eventually used his status to help propel him to win the Liberal Party leadership in 2011, defeating party stalwarts Hugh MacDonald and Laurie Blakeman.
His political capital as Alberta’s political folk hero was quickly diminished as the PCs used a narrowly focused health care inquiry to publicly discredit his claims. Internally, a very bizarre rebranding attempt confused and alienated many long-time party supporters (see Liberalberta Green).
As a health care advocate, he was a natural fit in the opposition benches. As a former Tory MLA, he was not the right fit to lead Alberta’s Liberal Party.
With such short notice before a potential spring election, who will replace Dr. Sherman as leader?
The soft-spoken and altruistic MLA from Calgary-Mountain View, David Swann, already served as leader from 2008 to 2011 and might be unlikely to step back into that role.
Party President Shelley Wark-Martyn is a former New Democratic Party MPP with cabinet experience in Ontario. Her profile in Alberta politics is extremely limited, but one Liberal organizer has suggested to me that she could be tapped as interim leader.
As the only remaining Liberal MLA who is running for re-election and has not already been leader, Ms. Blakeman is the obvious choice, if she wants it.
Alberta’s longest serving opposition MLA, Ms. Blakeman took centre stage in the 2014 fall session with Bill 202 and Bill 10, which sparked the debate about Gay-Straight Alliances in Alberta schools. Over the course of the debate, she proved herself to be the only opposition MLA who has been able to throw Mr. Prentice off balance and exposed a huge rift between moderates and social conservatives in the PC caucus. It was a strategy that could be hard to repeat.
In the not too distant past, the popular Edmonton-Centre MLA mused about joining the Alberta Party and many political observers suspect the NDP would welcome her with open arms if she choose to run under their banner.
The vacuum in the Liberal leadership is good news for the PC Party, Rachel Notley‘s New Democrats and the Alberta Party, who will try to offer Liberal voters a new home to park their votes. A weakened Liberal presence in Edmonton is a positive for the NDP, who will now no longer have the luxury of a conservative vote split between the PCs and Wildrose.
As I am sure Dr. Sherman and Dr. Swann would attest, being leader of the Liberal Party in Alberta is probably one of the least rewarding positions in provincial politics. And with an election quickly approaching, I do not envy the challenges faced by anyone willing to step into the role.
Three more PC MLAs announced on today that they will not be seeking re-election.