March 3, 2008 was an optimistic day to be a Liberal supporter, at least up until 8:22 p.m.

Photo: Liberal Party leader Kevin Taft speaks to a rally of supporters on the weekend before the 2008 election. Taft, in my opinion, was one of the best premiers Alberta never had.

March 3, 2008 was an optimistic day to be a Liberal Party supporter, at least up until 8:22 p.m that night. The polls had only closed for 22 minutes when the news channels began declaring that the long in the tooth Progressive Conservatives would form another majority government in Alberta.

The front page of the Edmonton Journal on March 4, 2008 (Photo originally shared by Les Stelmach on Facebook).

The front page of the Edmonton Journal on March 4, 2008 (Photo originally shared by Les Stelmach on Facebook).

It was a heartbreaking loss for those of us who were involved in the Alberta Liberal Party campaign that year.

I had been involved with the Liberal Party since the early 2000s and played a behind the scenes role in that year’s election campaign.

While I spent a considerable amount of time knocking on doors for candidates in Edmonton, I was also working with a group of MLAs, lawyers and former PC cabinet ministers on what would have been the plan to transition the Liberals into government if the party had won that election ten years ago today.

The whole project felt like a silly effort at 8:22 p.m. that night, but there were moments in the campaign where it did feel like Albertans were looking for a change.

After a divisive PC leadership race and a surprise win in the Calgary-Elbow by-election, it looked as if the Liberals led by Edmonton MLA Kevin Taft were about to build significant gains after their Calgary breakthrough in the 2004 election.

The Liberals did make gains in Calgary that night, electing five MLAs including rookies Kent Hehr and Darshan Kang, but the party suffered huge losses in its traditional base of Edmonton. Liberal MLAs were defeated in seats the party had held since the 1980s and 1990s and gains they had made in the city in the previous election were competely erased. When the dust settled, there were only 3 Liberal MLAs left in the capital city.

It was also bittersweet night for our opponents in the New Democratic Party campaign. Star candidate Rachel Notley was elected in Edmonton-Strathcona, retaining the seat held by former party leader Raj Pannu. But the party’s caucus was reduced to two after MLAs David Eggen and Ray Martin were swept away in the PC’s Edmonton wave.

It really felt like Edmonton that night.

The Progressive Conservative Party’s new leader, Ed Stelmach, had been underestimated by just about everybody inside and outside his party. Even as he led a party that had been in power for almost 40 years, his campaign tipped their hat to an energetic campaign south of the border by using the slogan “Change that works for Albertans.”

For those involved in the PC campaign, it was a remarkable landslide. And the last big landslide of the party’s more than four consecutive decades in office.

Stelmach ended up being a fairly decent premier, who I believe history will treat kindly, but landslide victories like these can be a doubled-edged sword. The large PC caucus of 72 MLAs, which included rookie MLAs Alison Redford and Raj Sherman, proved to be too unruly to manage. And the politics of a bitter conservative establishment festered as aspiring leadership contenders jockeyed for power. It was less than four years later that Stelmach resigned from the Premier’s Office.

The 2008 election was a real formative political period for me. Despite the disappointing and depressing outcome, I learned so much from my time working with the dedicated and passionate Albertans involved that campaign. It was a real honour.

To this day, I think Albertans were looking for change on March 3, 2008. It just took them another seven years to decide that the change they were looking for wouldn’t come from inside the PC Party.

4 thoughts on “March 3, 2008 was an optimistic day to be a Liberal supporter, at least up until 8:22 p.m.

  1. William McBeath

    I had mixed emotions that night – I was glad the PCs had won, but I wasn’t thrilled with the boost in seat count because I didn’t like the message that sent the re-elected government. I was hoping for an outcome that would push them back to their more fiscally conservative path – something I never got again in that party. It was also the election after which I left both the PC Party and Alberta politics (for two years). Interesting to read your perspective on it – a little walk down memory lane here 🙂

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  2. Sam Gunsch

    Calgary’s petro-elite acted like a political mafia in giving Stelmach cement boots in their responses to Stelmach’s acceptance of his royalty review committee’s recommendation to significantly raise royalties. Donations to PCs declined by 60%. Switched $$$ to WRP with the telegenic Danielle Smith suddenly appearing to walk on water.

    I think Stelmach would have survived this: ‘And the politics of a bitter conservative establishment festered as aspiring leadership contenders jockeyed for power. It was less than four years later that Stelmach resigned from the Premier’s Office.’ The reality: PC’s decided that to survive they had acquiesce to the oil industry, including firing Stelmach. He saw that writing on the wall.

    No political party leader can survive in AB unless they kiss the ring fingers of the petro-elites in Calgary.

    Taft has argued the Notley NDP have been captured by Oil’s Deep State. The NDP royalty review stacked with oil industry conflicts-of-interest is the first evidence. Not just my argument. Taft and others have pointed to it.

    The NDP Climate Plan costs to the oil/gas/tarsands industry are pennies on the barrel. Royalties were not increased. Tax credits have been increased. Subsidies for petro-diversification increased. h-m–m-m-m.

    Mark Lisac and Trevor Harrison both wrote in the early 90s about AB’s shift to corporatist politics that became dominant in the early Klein years. Since then, all industrial sectors have jointly-governed with AB gov’t’s in the corporatist mode the choices of AB public policies since Klein took over. Taft’s book document’s how oil rep’s tried to capture the Lib’s when he was leader.

    Not much democracy for the public good in AB on the big ticket sectors.
    AB politics for the most part is corporatism: joint-venture policy making between GoA and industry.

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  3. blaircho

    When it comes to backstabbing, a former Rhodesian Prime Minister, Sir Roy Welensky, summed it up best: “With Labour, at least you get stabbed in your chest; with the Conservatives, its always in your back. He was proved tragically right time and time again. Indeed, the Best Backstabber of them all, Harold Macmillan, without warning, sacked a third of his cabinet in one night in July 1962. Called Macmillans Night of the Long Knives. Yes, the Tories are not very nice just like the Liberals here, which is why the Liberals are often called Tories in derision.

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  4. David

    Yes, I remember that time well too. I suppose one of the kindest things that could be said about Taft and his party was that they were ahead of their time. Yes, the PC’s seemed to become directionless after Ralph left (or even during his last few years there) and Stelmach was not a a great communicator. He may have had a vision, but he had a hard time getting it across and bridging the divide between the moderates and the right wing of the PC’s.

    Those PC years had a bit of the late Social Credit feeling to it. A government that sort of wanted to move forward, but was too cautious and whose best ideas and vision was in the past. Perhaps Stelmach could have been a much better premier, if his party and the oil industry let him. However, he was a compromise candidate between someone seen as too moderate and too establishment and someone seen as too right wing. He had loyalty from neither faction of his party and when trouble arose with the 2008 recession, both sides abandoned him.

    I also think history will view him favourably. He might be a sort of Alberta version of Pearson, a nice guy trying to move things forward in a tumultuous time. He was a transitional leader, from the party of Ralph to the more moderate PC party after. I think he had an idea of where they needed to go, even if it was not obvious to many others in his party at the time. In any event, after he left the PC’s won another victory, so he can’t be blamed for their demise. One wonders what would have happened if his party stuck with him instead of getting nervous when the going got tough.

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