Independent Alberta Senator Paula Simons joins the Daveberta Podcast to discuss what it is like to represent Albertans in the Canadian Senate during the COVID-19 pandemic and the launch of the second season of her podcast series, Alberta Unbound. She also shares her thoughts on the role of the Senate in light of Alberta’s upcoming Senate Nominee elections.
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He was never Premier of Alberta or even Leader of the Official Opposition, but Nick Taylor was a giant in Alberta politics nonetheless. The quick-witted oilman-turned-politican with swept-back silver hair and a droopy moustache was a fixture on the political scene for more than three decades and was probably one of the most persistent and determined politicians in our province’s recent history.
Taylor jumped into provincial politics in 1974, defeating Edmontonian John Borger to win the leadership of the seatless Alberta Liberal Party. The party had been without an MLA in the Legislature since MLA Bill Dickie crossed the floor to join the Lougheed PC’s in 1969 (Taylor was Dickie’s campaign manager when he was first elected to the Assembly in 1963).
Appreciating some of the frustration expressed by some Albertans with the federal government at the time, Taylor told the Globe & Mail that Robert Stanfield‘s Tories might win the 1974 election. “Then,” he said, “I’m rid of the albatross of having to explain every asinine move Ottawa makes.”
But despite this comment, Taylor remained a Liberal Party stalwart and a fiercely pro-Canadian voice during the height of the separatist fervour that hit the Prairies in the 1970s and 1980s.
The new leader ran unsuccessfully in Dickie’s former Calgary-Glenmore riding in 1975 and 1979 before heading north of Edmonton to run in a by-election in the Barrhead stronghold of retiring Deputy Premier Hugh Horner. To the surprised of almost everyone, he finished just 350 votes behind rookie PC candidate Ken Kowalski.
Similar to his near-win in 1968, Taylor’s second attempt in Barrhead in 1982 was not as successful. Asked what he would have done if he had emerged victorious from beneath the Lougheed juggernaut, Taylor is quoted as saying he would “have demanded a recount.”
His rivalry with Kowalski became legendary in Alberta politics.
One story, whether it is true or not, took place at the grand opening of the Swan Hills Waste Treatment Centre. The local PC MLA proudly sat on the hood of the first truck as it rolled in to the facility. Taylor was in the crowd watching and yelled “here comes the first load!” leading to the crowd to burst into laughter.
His next attempt at elected office four years later in the newly redrawn neighbouring Westlock-Sturgeon riding paid off. Taylor was elected by 474 votes in 1986 and became the rarest of Alberta political species – a Liberal MLA from rural Alberta.
He led the Liberals to reenter the Legislative Assembly in that election, forming a caucus of four with Calgary-Buffalo MLA Sheldon Chumir, Edmonton-Gold Bar MLA Bettie Hewes, and Edmonton-Meadowlark MLA Grant Mitchell. The Liberal Party’s reappearance in the Assembly came just a few years after the National Energy Program mythically destroyed the province’s oil industry.
As an opposition MLA, Taylor brought his quick-witted and clever retorts to the floor of the Assembly.
As columnist Don Martin wrote in 2002, “[h]is most endearing incarnation was as a feisty Alberta MLA whose decade of deadly zingers triggered a no-laugh order from two premiers, forcing many a Conservative MLA to guffaw below their desk to avoid detection from ministers reeling under his verbal fire.”
After describing then-Forestry minister Ty Lund as “one of the finest examples of a Victorian environment minister I’ve ever met,” Taylor stung him with a nickname that stuck for years: Forest Stump.
He also legendarily got the word “cowbell” banned from being used in the Assembly after describing a group of PC backbenchers as having the “longest tongues and emptiest heads” in the building.
“His wit made him very engaging and a great deal of fun to work with, but he was so much more than that. The nature of his wit was an indicator of his intelligence,” Mitchell, who served as party leader from 1994 to 1998, told Postmedia this week.
But 29 months after he became the first Liberal leader elected to the Assembly since 1968, he faced a leadership challenge that ended in 1989 with Edmonton mayor Laurence Decore becoming leader.
While trying to fight off his challengers during the bitter leadership race, Taylor described Decore as “Don Getty with glasses,” a clever quip and a gift to Decore’s political opponents that would periodically surface over the coming years.
When the leadership votes were counted, Decore captured 801 votes of the 1,444 cast, eclipsing Mitchell, who placed second with 385. Taylor, who led the party for the previous 14 years, finished a distant third with 259 votes.
Taylor had been usurped from the leadership but he remained an MLA for the next eight years, being re-elected by a similar margin of victory in Westlock-Sturgeon in 1989.
But though he was no longer leader, the PC’s still desperately wanted to rid themselves of his quick-witted criticism and uncanny ability to embarrass the government in the Assembly.
Getty kicked off the PC Party’s provincial election campaign in Westlock in 1989, and a committee of PC MLAs drastically redrew his riding in 1993 so that he would have to run for re-election against incumbent PC MLA Steve Zarusky.
Taylor beat Zarusky by more than 1,500 votes in the new Redwater riding and joined by 31 other Liberals in the Assembly as the party formed Official Opposition for the first time since the 1960s.
As the mid-1990s approached, it was rumoured that Prime Minister Jean Chretien would appoint Taylor to the Lieutenant Governor’s post, but in the end it was a seat in Canada’s Senate that awaited him – a reward for his decades of public service and steadfast loyalty to the Liberal Party in the face of insurmountable opposition.
He served as a Senator for Alberta from 1996 to 2002, choosing Bon Accord and Sturgeon as his Senatorial constituency.
Taylor remained a generous donor to the Alberta Liberal Party and was frequently seen at party fundraising events in Calgary. In his endorsement of current Liberal Party leader David Khan in 2017, he wrote “As a past leader of the Alberta Liberal Party, I learned how important it was to tackle the issue facing Albertans with integrity and compassion. The people of this province depend on you to stand up for their best interests.”
Since he left to take up his Senate seat in Ottawa in 1996 there has not been anyone able to match his quick-witted humour and stinging retorts in Alberta politics or in the Assembly.
When MLAs gathered for the first sitting of the new Legislature today, the first piece of business they were required to conduct was the election of a Speaker of the Legislative Assembly, who will preside over debates and ensure that the established rules of behaviour and procedure are followed.
The Speaker is elected by MLAs through a secret ballot held at the beginning of each legislative session. Candidates are nominated by their colleagues on the floor of the Assembly and voting takes place immediately afterward.
It has been fairly well known in most political circles that Olds-Didsbury-Three Hills MLA Nathan Cooper has had his eye on the Speaker’s Chair. Cooper made his intentions known shortly after the election and as former interim leader of the United Conservative Party and opposition house leader, he was well positioned to take on the role. His lack of appointment to the UCP cabinet earlier this month was a pretty definite signal that he would have the support of Premier Jason Kenney and most or all of the UCP caucus in this election.
As has become the norm in recent years, the opposition also nominated a candidate for the Speaker’s Chair. Edmonton-Mill Woods MLA Christina Gray nominated her New Democratic Caucus colleague, Edmonton-Manning MLA Heather Sweet in the election. Sweet had served as Deputy Chair of Committees during the previous Assembly.
The election of a Speaker through a secret ballot is a relatively new invention in Alberta politics. Before 1993, when the first secret ballot vote took place, the Premier’s choice for Speaker was typically acclaimed by the Assembly.
An exception that I discovered was in 1922, when a United Farmers of Alberta MLA surprised the Assembly when he nominated a Conservative opposition MLAs to challenge Premier Herbert Greenfield’s chosen candidate for Speaker. The Conservative MLA declined the nomination and Greenfield’s choice was acclaimed.
Here is a look at a few of the contested Speaker elections held since 1993:
2015: When MLAs gathered for the first sitting of the legislature following the 2015 election, Medicine Hat NDP MLA Bob Wanner was elected as Speaker. Wanner faced Calgary-Lougheed Progressive Conservative MLA Dave Rodney. The Wildrose opposition attempted to nominate others challengers in a strange attempt to disrupt the process. Wildrose MLAs Angela Pitt and Leela Aheer nominated NDP MLAs Stephanie McLean and Marie Renaud and PC MLA Sandra Jansen, all who declined their nominations.
2008 and 2012:Edmonton-Centre MLA Laurie Blakeman was nominated by her Liberal caucus colleagues in the 2008 and 2012 Speaker elections and was defeated by incumbent Speaker Ken Kowalski in the first election and Edmonton-Mill Creek Progressive Conservative MLA Gene Zwozdesky in the second election.
1997:Barrhead-Westlock PC MLA and former deputy premier Ken Kowalski was elected as Speaker on the second round of voting over Dunvegan MLA Glen Clegg after Highwood MLA Don Tannas was eliminated on the first ballot. Liberal leader Grant Mitchell nominated then-Liberal MLA Gene Zwozdesky as a candidate for Speaker, but he declined to stand.
It is believed that the 18 Liberal MLA votes in that Speaker election helped secure Kowalski’s over Clegg, who was seen as Premier Ralph Klein’s preferred choice. Kowalski’s comeback happened a short three years after he had been unceremoniously booted from Klein’s cabinet.
Speaker punches newspaper publisher over wife-swapping allegations, 1935
A glance through the history of Speakers of Alberta’s Legislative Assembly reveals some fascinating stories. One story really stuck out.
In 1935, Speaker OranMcPherson is reported to have engaged in a heated argument at the top of the rotunda’s grand staircase with Edmonton Bulletin publisher Charles Campbell, who McPherson accused of spreading lies about his divorce. McPherson punched Campbell and he hit a railing and banged his head on a pillar.
It had been reported that McPherson was arranging a “wife-swap” with the aide-de-camp to the serving Lieutenant Governor.
Known for being incredibly approachable and having the ability to lay-on the political charm in a grand way, Zwozdesky became known in the latter part of his time in elected office as the “Wizard of Zwoz” for his seeming ability to reverse unpopular decisions made by his cabinet predecessors. But while Zwozdesky is known to many Alberta political watchers from his time in the Progressive Conservative cabinet and later as Speaker of the Assembly, he started his political career in the opposition benches as a Liberal.
A teacher and champion of Alberta’s Ukrainian musical and cultural heritage, Zwozdesky was first elected to the Legislature in 1993 as Liberal in Edmonton-Avonmore.
Zwozdesky defeated five other candidates to win the Liberal Party nomination that year, taking the nomination on the fifth ballot with 660 votes out of 757 votes cast. Led by former mayor Laurence Decore, Zwozdesky easily unseated two-term New Democratic Party MLA Marie Laing as the Liberals swept the capital city.
He was easily re-elected in the renamed Edmonton-Mill Creek district in 1997, holding his vote share in an election that saw Liberal vote decline from its high-water mark in the previous election.
Respected by his opposition colleagues for his work as treasury critic, community development critic, caucus whip, and co-chair of the party’s outreach committee, Zwozdesky was seen as a contender for the party leadership to succeed Decore in 1994 and Grant Mitchell in 1998, but chose to decline the leadership on both occasions.
In 1997, Zwozdesky was briefly a candidate in the Speaker election following Stan Schumacher‘s retirement but was convinced by his caucus colleagues to withdraw from the contest. It is believed that the 18 Liberal MLA votes in that Speaker election helped secure Barrhead-Westlock MLA Ken Kowalski’s win over Premier Ralph Klein’s preferred choice, Dunvegan MLA Glen Clegg.
In 1998, he left the Liberal caucus and crossed the floor to the PC caucus less than one month later. The official reason for his departure was said to be a disagreement with new party leader Nancy MacBeth over fiscal policy, but it was widely suspected that Klein had been personally trying to recruit Zwozdesky. He was appointed tocabinet as Associate Minister of Health and Wellness in 1999, a shrewd political move to create a foil to counter opposition criticism of the PC government’s Bill 11: Health Care Protection Act, a bill that opponents argued would have increased the privatization of Alberta’s public health care system.
Zwozdesky was re-elected as a PC candidate in Edmonton-Mill Creek in 2001, 2004, 2008 and 2012. He served as Minister of Community Development from 2001 to 2004, Minister of Education from 2004 to 2006, Associate Minister of Infrastructure from 2007 to 2008, Minister of Aboriginal Relations from 2008 to 2010, and Minister of Health & Wellness from 2010 to 2011. In his roles as Minister of Education and Minster of Health, he was generally seen as a calming force appointed for the purpose of providing stability in the wake of a disruptive predecessor.
As Health & Wellness Minister, Zwozdesky was given the nickname “the Wizard of Zwoz” by the media after he entered the role with a full-court charm offensive.
“Only three weeks into the job he’s the WizardofZwoz, a minister who can reverse unpopular health-care policy with a wave of his BlackBerry,” wrote the Calgary Herald’s Don Braid in February 2010.
In this role, Zwozdesky was responsible for mending the fences smashed by his combative predecessor, Ron Liepert. While he was only in the role for a short period and largely continued to support the PC government’s ideological creep towards privatization in health care, he did oversee important labour negotiations and the swift departure of Alberta Health Services CEO Stephen Duckett following the “cookie” controversy.
He was dropped from cabinet when Alison Redford became premier in 2011 and following Kowalski’s retirement in 2012, Zwozdesky was elected Speaker of the Legislative Assembly. His only challenger in that contest was Edmonton-Centre Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman, who was a rookie in the Liberal caucus when Zwozdesky mounted his first campaign for the Speakership in 1997.
While generally seen as a fair Speaker of the Assembly, Zwozdesky had some partisan blindspots, most notably when he ruled that Redford did not mislead the Assembly over the tobacco-gate scandal. He was highly criticized for that decision.
He served as Speaker until his defeat in the 2015 general election to New Democrat Denise Woollard.
Although it had become clear by the final week of the last election that a giant NDP wave was going to splash through Edmonton, it was difficult to believe that Zwozdesky would lose re-election. But when the votes were counted in Edmonton-Mill Creek, the six-term MLA fell 5,174 votes behind Woollard, ending his 22 year career in Alberta politics.
Following the 2015 election, Zwozdesky helped the new class of NDP and Wildrose Party MLAs transition into the Assembly and then gracefully stepped away from the political spotlight following the election of Medicine Hat MLA Bob Wanner as Speaker. And while a political comeback was unlikely for Zwozdesky after 2015, he continued to stay connected to his political past, being elected as President of the Alberta Association of Former MLAs in 2018.
Photo: Gene Zwozdesky speaks to Calgary Herald columnist Don Braid in the Legislature Rotunda in 2011. MLA Dave Taylor is seen in the background. (Photo source: Dave Cournoyer)
Photo: Alberta political party leaders – Rachel Notley, Jason Kenney, Stephen Mandel, David Khan, and Derek Fildebrandt.
We are now somewhere between seven and ten months away from the next provincial general election in Alberta. For the past seven provincial elections, leaders of the main political parties have participated in televised leaders debates, and while a lot of media and political attention is focused on these events, their impact on the outcome of the election varies.
Which party leaders are invited to participate in the debates, which are typically organized by private news media companies, can sometimes be contentious. Generally, only leaders whose parties have elected MLAs in the previous general election have been invited, but this has not always been the case. Unlike our neighbours to the south, there are no official rules or commission governing who is invited, which has led to inconsistencies since the televised leaders debates began in Alberta in 1993.
Assuming one is held, let’s take a look at who might and might not be invited to participate in a televised leaders debate held in Alberta’s next provincial election, which is expected to be called between March 1 and May 31, 2019.
Rachel Notley and Jason Kenney: Notley and United Conservative Party leader Jason Kenney are shoe-ins to participate in the leaders debate. Notley is the current Premier of Alberta and Kenney leads the Official Opposition UCP. Although the UCP did not exist in the last election, the party has won three by-elections since it was formed in 2017.
David Khan: Liberal Party leader David Khan is not a sitting MLA and his party’s sole MLA, former leader David Swann, is not seeking re-election. This is the first election since 1986 that the Liberals will not have an incumbent MLA running for re-election. Khan is running for election in Swann’s Calgary-Mountain View district. While the party has had one elected MLA since 2015, the party’s lack of incumbent MLAs and declining relevance in Alberta politics could lead to the Liberals not being invited to join next year’s debate.
The Derek Fildebrandt Question:Derek Fildebrandt is a sitting MLA and most likely will be leader of the Freedom Conservative Party when the next election is called. He was first elected as the Wildrose Party MLA for Strathmore-Brooks in 2015 and joined the FCP in 2018. His party did not elect any MLAs in 2015, but neither did the UCP, which was formed in 2017 by MLAs who were previously members of the PC and Wildrose parties.
Fildebrandt has said his party will not run candidates in all districts, only focusing on districts where the NDP is not considered to be competitive. This means that most viewers tuning in to the televised debate will not have the option of voting for a Freedom Conservative Party candidate on Election Day, but a lack of a full-slate has not stopped leaders from being invited to the debates in the past.
Fildebrandt is a fiery quote-machine and his participation in the debates would undoubtably create some entertainment value for viewers. While I suspect Notley and Mandel would be supportive of Fildebrandt’s involvement in the debate, I expect that Kenney would not be eager to share a stage with Fildebrandt. As I predicted on a recent episode of the Daveberta Podcast, I suspect Kenney could threaten to withhold his participation in the debate if Fildebrandt is invited to join.
As for the format of a leaders debate, as I have written before, my preference would be to hold in front of a live audience, rather than a sterile and controlled television studio. This would allow the party leaders to demonstrate their debating skills and a live audience would add an atmosphere of unpredictability and would force the leaders to speak to both the voters in the room and those watching their television screens.
A History of Leaders Debates in Alberta Elections
Here is a quick history of leaders debates during general elections in Alberta:
1967 election – Four party leaders participated in this debate: Social Credit leader Ernest Manning, PC Party leader Peter Lougheed, NDP leader Neil Reimer and Liberal leader Michael Maccagno. Lougheed had initially challenged Manning to a televised debate, but a public debate was held instead. The meeting was sponsored by the City Centre Church Council and held in downtown Edmonton. The leaders fielded questions from the audience of the packed church.
The Calgary Herald reported that “…Manning was booed by a small contingent of hecklers while the new leader of the Conservatives reportedly “appeared to score heavily and draw the most applause.”
At the time of the debate, only Manning and Maccagno were MLAs. Reimer was not an MLA but there was one incumbent NDP MLA, Garth Turcott, who had been elected in a 1965 by-election in Pincher Creek-Crowsnest. Lougheed was not an MLA and his party had not elected an MLA since the 1959 election.
1971-1989 elections – No leaders debates were held during the 1971, 1975, 1979, 1982, 1986 and 1989 elections. Lougheed was challenged by opposition leaders, including NDP leader Grant Notley and Western Canada Concept leader Gordon Kesler, to participate in a televised debate but were turned down. Don Getty also refused to debate his opponents on television.
1993 election – Three party leaders participated in two televised debates: PC Party leader Ralph Klein, NDP leader Ray Martin, and Liberal Party leader Laurence Decore. The first debate was held in-front of a live studio audience and was broadcast on CFCN in Calgary and CFRN in Edmonton. The second debate was held without a live studio audience and broadcast on Channel 2&7 in Calgary and ITV in Edmonton.
1997 election – Four party leaders participated in this televised debate organized by the Alberta Chamber of Commerce and broadcast by CBC: PC Party leader Ralph Klein, Liberal Party leader Grant Mitchell, NDP leader Pam Barrett, and Social Credit Party leader Randy Thorsteinson.
Barrett and Thorsteinson were invited to participate despite not being MLAs at the time and neither of their parties having elected any MLAs in the previous election. The NDP and Social Credit Party did not nominate a full slate, with only 77 and 70 candidates running in 83 districts.
2001 election – Three leaders participated in this televised debate organized by Calgary Herald and Global News: PC Party leader Ralph Klein, Liberal leader Nancy MacBeth and NDP leader Raj Pannu. The three major parties nominated candidates in all 83 districts.
2004 election – Three leaders participated in this televised debate broadcast by Global Television: PC Party leader Ralph Klein, Liberal leader Kevin Taft and NDP leader Brian Mason.
Despite having been invited to join the televised debate in 1997, Alberta Alliance leader Randy Thorsteinson was not allowed to join in 2004 because he was not an MLA and his new party did not elect any members in the previous election. The party had one MLA, former Edmonton-Norwood PC MLA Gary Masyk, who crossed the floor in the months before the election was called.
The PCs, NDP and the Alberta Alliance nominated candidates in all 83 districts in this election. The Liberals nominated candidates in 82 of 83 districts.
The Wildrose Alliance nominated 61 candidates in 83 districts. Green Party leader George Read was not invited to participate in the debate, despite his party nominating candidates in 79 of 83 districts (the Greens would earn 4.5 percent of the total province-wide vote, only slightly behind the 6.7 percent earned by the Wildrose Alliance in this election).
2012 election – Four leaders participated in this debate broadcast by Global and streamed on the internet: PC Party leader Alison Redford, Wildrose Party leader Danielle Smith, Liberal Party leader Raj Sherman and NDP leader Brian Mason.
Alberta Party leader Glenn Taylor was not invited to join the leaders debate, despite his party having one MLA in the Legislature. Former Liberal MLA Dave Taylor became the Alberta Party’s first MLA in 2011. The Alberta Party nominated 38 candidates in 87 districts.
2015 election – Four leaders participated in this debate broadcast by Global: PC leader Jim Prentice, NDP leader Rachel Notley, Wildrose Party leader Brian Jean, and Liberal leader David Swann. Despite only narrowly losing a 2014 by-election in Calgary-Elbow, Alberta Party leader Greg Clark was not invited to join the debate. Clark would go on to be elected in Calgary-Elbow in this election.
The NDP and PCs nominated candidates in all 87 districts, while the Wildrose Party nominated 86 candidate and the Liberals nominated 56. The Alberta Party nominated 36 candidates in 87 districts.
The exact timing of the by-election will be determined by Premier Rachel Notley but the smart money is on it being called soon. Every day that Kenney is not tied up with Legislative duties in Edmonton, he will be campaigning across the province.
Despite being a close race in the 2015 election, with Rodney finishing 502 votes ahead of New Democrat Mihai Ion, the Orange Wave is now at low tide in Calgary. It seems likely that Kenney should have an easy time being elected in this constituency, which has elected conservative MLAs since it was first created in 1993 (but as well all know, by-elections can sometimes produce unexpected results…).
There is some irony that Kenney, who is in the midst of an ongoing feud with the Lougheed family, would become the MLA for a constituency named after Peter Lougheed. As a Member of Parliament, Kenney was quoted in 1999 describing the “neo-Stalinist make-work projects of the Lougheed and Getty years.“
Presented with the chance to directly challenge Kenney, will Liberal Party leader David Khan carry his party’s banner in the by-election? His chance of victory are slim to none, but it would give him an opportunity to campaign and potentially face Kenney in any local all-candidates debates (if Kenney participates).
The by-election also provides an opportunity for the Alberta Party to run a candidate. The party did not participate in the last Calgary by-election in Calgary-Greenway, but the recent floor-crossing of former NDP MLA Karen McPherson and potential future floor-crossings by former PC MLAs could provide some momentum for the upstart party.
The Calgary-Lougheed constituency was first created in 1993 and was represented by Provincial Treasurer Jim Dinning until 1997. PC MLA Marlene Graham then represented the constituency until 2004, when Rodney was first elected.
This would be the second time in recent history that a sitting MLA resigned in order to allow a party leader to run in a by-election. Len Webber resigned as MLA for Calgary-Foothills in 2014 to trigger a by-election for PC Party leader Jim Prentice. And in 1998, former Liberal Party leader Grant Mitchell stepped down as MLA for Edmonton-McClung to allow new party leader Nancy MacBeth to run in a by-election.
I have created a dedicated webpage to track party nominations and the candidates running in the Calgary-Lougheed by-election.
Here is a look at election results from Calgary-Lougheed for the General Elections from 1993 to 2015:
Jean told reporters that he declined to accept any critic role, and despite the ill will generated towards each other in the leadership race, it seems hard to believe Kenney would completely shut-out the former party leader.
But this move, or lack thereof, will undoubtably fuel rumours that Jean is considering leaving politics. His resignation would trigger a by-election in the Fort McMurray-Conklin constituency, which he has represented since May 2015.
Conventional wisdom would inform us that the Alberta Liberals should always do everything in their power to distance themselves from their federal cousins, who remain tainted in the province after a long-string of historical grievances and well-curated myths.
But has distancing the two parties helped either party?
Since the 1970s, the two parties have been officially independent with varying degrees of unofficial cooperation and confrontation. Both parties have achieved limited success in pockets of the province at certain points over past twenty years, but support for both parties has dwindled over the past decade. The Liberal presence shrunk to five MLAs in last year’s provincial election and the federal Liberals last successfully elected a candidate to Parliament from Alberta in the 2004 election .
Provincial Liberal support in Alberta: 2001 election: 276,854 votes, 2012 election: 127,645 votes.
Federal Liberal support in Alberta: 2000 election: 263,008 votes, 2011 election: 129,310 votes.
Sharing their limited resources, as the provincial and federal New Democratic Party do officially and the Wildrose Party and Conservative Party have done unofficially, could provide stability in membership, fundraising, and organization for the two Liberal Parties in Alberta. A merger could also cut costs on duplication of resources (the two parties currently operate separate offices located opposite each other on Edmonton’s 124th Street).
The two parties already share many members and candidates are frequently seen listed on the ballot under both party banners.
There are also no shortage of former Liberal MLAs who have tried to kickstart a career in Ottawa, though all of them unsuccessful. Liberal MLAs Ken Nicol and Debby Carlson ran as federal Liberals in the 2004 election and Sue Olsen and Frank Bruseker stood in the 2000 federal election. Former party leaders Grant Mitchell and Nick Taylorwere appointed to the Senate on the advice of federal Liberal Prime Ministers.
Perhaps the results were a fluke, but they give the federal Liberals a sign that many voters in Alberta’s urban centres are becoming more receptive to a moderate non-Conservative alternative in Ottawa.
With one week left until voting day, a new survey released by Forum Research continues to show a three-way race in the Calgary-Centre by-election between Conservative Joan Crockatt, Liberal Harvey Locke, and Green Chris Turner.
As reported by the Globe & Mail, the survey of randomly selected Calgary-Centre voters released on November 17 showed Ms. Crockatt with 35% to 30% for Mr. Locke and 25% for Mr. Turner. New Democrat Dan Meades was in fourth place with 8%.
Another survey from Forum Research released last weekshowed Ms. Crockatt with 32% to 30% for Mr. Locke and 23% for Mr. Turner. New Democrat Dan Meades was in fourth place with 12%. Margins of error for these types of surveys typically range around five percentage points.
As I wrote last week, it appears that within a matter of months, the 40% margin of victory earned by former Conservative MP Lee Richardson in the 2011 federal election and 23% margin for the Conservatives found in a September survey of Calgary-Centre voters may have completely evaporated.
It is always important to approach surveys, like this interactive voice response (IVR) survey, with a healthy dose of skepticism. Survey results are a snapshot of the opinions of a surveyed group of individuals at a given moment in time. This said, surveys like this one can be an important indicator of trends.
The drop in Conservative Party support has led political watchers to wonder if this by-election could result in the election of the first non-Conservative Member of Parliament in Calgary since 1968. The potential for an upset has certainly bolstered the resolve of Ms. Crockatt’s two main opponents, Mr. Locke and Mr. Turner.
Ms. Crockatt earnedmixedreviews after participating in her first all-candidates forum at the East Village Neighbourhood Association on Saturday afternoon. This was expected to be the only time the Conservative candidate will publicly engage with her opponents at an organized forum.
On Saturday night, Mr. Turner’s campaign hosted what might have been the biggest actual political party of this by-election. More than 500 tickets were sold to the “Turning Point” event at Scarboro United Church. The event included a performance from Jay Ingram and the Scrutineers and speeches from Green Party leader Elizabeth May and environmentalist David Suzuki. Mr. Turner also received the endorsement of local author Fred Stenson, who ran as a Liberal candidate in the recent provincial election.
Steady in second place according to two recent polls, Mr. Locke is getting some pan-Canadian support from Liberal politicians. By my count, nine of the thirty-five Liberal Members of Parliament have visited the riding, including Bob Rae, Justin Trudeau, Ralph Goodale and Senators Terry Mercer and Grant Mitchell, and leadership candidate Martha Hall Findlay. Vancouver-Quadra MP Joyce Murray made her second visit to Calgary-Centre this weekend and Mr. Trudeau is expected to return to the riding this week before attending a rally in Edmonton. Liberal MLAs Kent Hehr, Darshan Kang, and Raj Sherman have also campaigned with Mr. Locke.
A fun fact and perhaps the closest comparison we have to this federal by-election in Calgary-Centre are by-elections that have taken place on the provincial level. In the four provincial by-elections held since 1992, opposition candidates were elected in three. In 1992, Calgary-Buffalo was held by Liberal Gary Dickson after the death of two-term Liberal MLA Sheldon Chumir. In 1995, the Progressive Conservative Shiraz Shariff narrowly held on to the Calgary-McCall constituency following the death of the former PC MLA.
The two most recent provincial by-elections saw opposition candidates elected in constituencies formerly held by the governing PCs. Liberal Craig Cheffins narrowly defeated the PC candidate to win a 2007 by-election in Calgary-Elbow, the constituency formerly represented by Premier Ralph Klein (Alison Redford would narrowly defeat Mr. Cheffins in the 2008 general election). In 2009, former Wildrose MLA Paul Hinman won a hotly contested three-way race in Calgary-Glenmore, defeating high-profile Tory Alderman Diane Colley-Urquhart and Liberal Avalon Roberts.
What does this mean for Calgary-Centre? At least when it comes to provincial by-elections, Calgarians have a track-record of sending the government a message.
This area has deep Liberal roots, having first elected MLA Grant Mitchell in 1986, but since 2001 it has become a swing-riding electing both Liberals and PCs. Currently held by former PC MLA and now Liberal Party leader Raj Sherman, the next vote will be a test of his personal popularity as he runs under his new party’s banner. He will face former PC MLA Bob Maskell, who served from 2001 until 2004.
Voters in this constituency are notorious swing-voters. No incumbent has been re-elected here since 1997. Current PC MLA Doug Elniski made a last minute announcement that he would not seek re-election, leaving former school trustee and newly nominated candidate Bev Esslinger not a lot of time to catch up. Former MLA David Eggen has been campaigning in Calder for the past three years and is expected to launch a well-organized campaign. Wildrose candidate Rich Neumann may play kingmaker if he is able to attract enough past PC voters.
In 2009, outgoing Wildrose leader Paul Hinman narrowly won a hotly contested by-election that was seen as a referendum on then-Premier Ed Stelmach‘s popularity in Calgary (which was low). With new Premier Alison Redford representing the neighboring constituency, PC candidate Linda Johnson may receive a warmer reception at the doors. Throw into the mix former Mount Royal College instructor Craig Cheffins, who served as the Liberal MLA for Calgary-Elbow from 2007 to 2008, and the outcome of this race could be difficult to predict.
Represented by both PC and Liberal MLAs over the past twenty years, this constituency could be a key battleground for five opposition parties in the next election. Former Liberal MLA Bruce Miller is challenging PC cabinet minister Heather Klimchuk, who unseated him by 136 votes in 2008. Rev. Miller is not the only challenger in this election. The Alberta Party is pinning their hopes on former school trustee Sue Huff, the NDP have nominated former MLA and leader Ray Martin, and the Wildrose have chosen past Mayoral candidateDon Koziak.
With the retirement of popular two-term Liberal MLA Harry Chase, the Liberals have nominated former carpenters’ union official Bruce Payne, who ran for that party’s leadership in 2011. The PCs have chosen former Nexen vice-president Donna Kennedy-Glans. The results of this race will be a critical indicator of whether the Liberals can hold on to, and build on, important gains made in Calgary during the past two elections.
Energy Minister Ted Morton will face off against former Global Calgary news anchor and Wildrose candidate Bruce McAllister. The Wildrose attacked Minister Morton’s credentials as a “fiscal mallard” while he was Finance Minister and by nominating Mr. McAllister they are showing that they will not give him a pass in the next election.
8 ) Airdrie
When first-term PC MLA Rob Anderson joined the Wildrose in 2010, he automatically became a target of his former party, who have nominated Alderman Kelly Hegg as their candidate. The Airdrie area has typically voted for the PCs, but voters in this region have been known to elect opposition candidates in the past (Western Canadian Concept MLA Gordon Kesler was elected in 1982 and Liberal MLA Don MacDonald was elected in 1992).
9) Cardston-Taber-Warner After being unseated by Wildorse MLA Mr. Hinman in 2004, PC MLA Broyce Jacobs won a narrow victory in 2008. Fast forward to 2012, Mr. Jacobs has lost his party’s nomination to Pat Shimbashi and the Wildrose has nominated Sterling Deputy Mayor Gary Bikman. If the Wildrose are to pick up seats in the election, this will likely be one.
10) Edmonton-Rutherford In a rematch of the closest race of the 2008 election, PC MLA Fred Horne will face former Liberal MLA Rick Miller. While 2008 a two-way contest, the 2012 contest is more interesting with the presence of community organizer and Alberta Party candidate Michael Walters and Wildrose candidate Kyle McLeod.
11) Fort McMurray-Wood Buffalo After winning four elections as this constituency’s PC candidate, late-blooming Wildrose MLA Guy Boutilier will face Wood Buffalo deputy mayor Mike Allen in the upcoming vote. After decades as a municipal and provincial politician, this election may be more a test of Mr. Boutilier’s personal support than that of his new party.
12) Edmonton-Gold Bar A Liberal Party stronghold since 1986, the retirement of MLA Hugh MacDonald and the redistribution of electoral boundaries south encompassing Tory-voting neighbourhoods may give second-time PC candidate David Dorward a boost. Liberal candidate Josipa Petrunic is a well-spoken and passionate partisan who hopes to hold the constituency for her party. The NDP have nominated Marlin Schmidt and hope to capitalize on local support for NDP MP Linda Duncan.
13) Edmonton-Beverly-Clareview A close contest in 2008 saw former PC MLA Tony Vandermeer defeat NDP MLA Ray Martin. In 2012, Mr. Vandermeer will face a strong challenge from NDP candidate Deron Bilous.
14) Lethbridge-West After twenty years of close races, voters in this constituency have proven themselves to be deeply divided between the PCs and Liberals. This election, first-term PC MLA Greg Weadick and second-time Liberal candidate Bal Boora will be joined by NDP candidate Shannon Phillips, who has launched a spirited campaign, and Wildrose candidate Kevin Kinahan. Even if Mr. Weadick is re-elected, the real story may be who places second in this politically moderate southern Alberta constituency.
After more than three decades in the Assembly, the departure of PC MLA Ken Kowalski has created a large void to fill in this constituency north of Edmonton. The PCs have nominated Westlock County Councillor Maureen Kubinec, who will face off against her main opponent Wildrose candidateLink Byfield. Mr. Byfield has been campaigning for more than a year and could make gains if he is able to tap into the base of social conservative voters in this constituency.
Candidates must submit a non-refundable fee of $4000 and collects the signatures of 50 current PC Party members from Alberta’s five regions. Once they have gone through this process, they will be required to enter a special vote in February 2012, giving an indication about when then next provincial election may be called. Those participating in the vote will include constituency association presidents, nominated PC candidates, voting members of the party executive committee, and four elected delegates from each of the 87 constituency associations.
Federal Conservative Party operative Vitor Marciano has already announced his intentions to run in the Senate election under the Wildrose Party banner. It is likely that all three of these candidates would sit with the federal Conservative caucus if elected to the Senate.
Alberta’s last Senate election, held in 2004, was boycotted by the Liberals and NDP. The lack of serious opposition candidates left Albertans to choose from a cast of right-wing characters ranging from the PC candidates to the Social Credit and Alberta Alliance. When the votes were counted, three PCs and one Independent candidate were elected, but many Albertans were disenfranchised by the lack of non-conservative candidates.
According to Elections Alberta, during the 2004 Senate elections 85,937 voters declined to cast a ballot in the election (equating to 4.2% of eligible voters, or 9.7% of the voters who received ballots) and 84,643 ballots were rejected (that equates to 9.5% of the total ballots cast).
Even though four of Alberta’s six Senate seats are currently held by appointed federal Liberal Party members (including former Liberal Party leader Grant Mitchell), sources say the party is unlikely to participate in next year’s Senate election. The Liberals have only participated in one Senate election in Alberta, which feels to me like a missed opportunity for much needed publicity.
One long-time party insider suggested to me this weekend that choosing retiring Edmonton-Gold Bar MLA Hugh MacDonald to carry the Liberal Party banner in next year’s Senate election could be a fitting tribute to the long-time party stalwart. Known for his hard work and (sometimes over the top) passionate criticisms of the PC government, the opposition MLA would almost surely spark more interest in the Senate race than the generic conservative party candidates will on their own.
It would be a long-shot, but if the federal Liberal Party is interested in building a base of support Western Canada, running an even half-serious campaign in a Senate election would be a good place as any to start. Even if it is a long-shot, and it is, I am sure that I am not the only person who would enjoy the irony of watching Prime Minister Stephen Harper being forced to appoint a fiercely partisan Liberal like Hugh MacDonald to the Senate of Canada.
“This list, as it exists, is a mess,” said MacDonald, a longtime Edmonton MLA. “This is not democracy.” (Edmonton Journal, August 31, 2011)
Over the course of the Liberal Party’s leadership contest, which will come to an end on September 10, Edmonton-Gold Bar MLA Mr. MacDonald has gone to great lengths to pull the media’s attention towards the party’s new leadership selection system. The new system allows anyone to register to vote in the leadership contest without having to purchase a membership, creating a whole new class of instant-Liberals, who’s numbers now greatly outnumber the party’s loyalist membership.
Mr. MacDonald criticized the initial party voting list on August 19, after it was discovered that a number of illegitimate names were added (people’s cats, dead people, and former Conservative Members of Parliament). This is a normal occurrence during most party leadership contests, and like other parties, the Liberals combed through the lists and eliminated the obvious forgeries.
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.”
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 (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.
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.
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.
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.
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 (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 (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.
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 (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.
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 (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.