Even if someone were to offer me good odds, I would be hesitant to bet on who the real players will be in the next provincial election.
As David Climenhaga recently pointed out, although credible polls continue to show the Progressive Conservatives ahead in voter support, the media has continued to frame Danielle Smith’s Wildrose Alliance as the heir’s to the Legislative throne. For the most part, the free ride has continued.
Young Liberal Vincent St. Pierre has written a blog post ahead the Liberal Party’s May 14-16 policy convention disputing the Wildrose’s claims to be “ready to govern.” While I would also dispute those claims, the Liberals also have a difficult time claiming that they are “ready to govern.”
The focus of the weekend convention is policy, but the big news could be financial. The Alberta Liberal Party is expected to announce shortly that their outstanding debt, much of which was accumulated during their disastrous 2001 election campaign, will finally be paid off. This is a big step for the Liberals, but it is only one of the many challenges facing their organization.
I have been accused by both MLAs and some party loyalists of having an anti-Liberal bent on this blog (one MLA even accused me of conspiring with the NDP) and while I admit to being critical of the Liberal Party, I believe that my assessments have been fair. As someone who was involved with the Liberal Party for many years, including time as a constituency vice-president and a political staffer, I am aware of the political strengths and psychological weaknesses of that organization.
The Liberal Party is in an interesting situation. They might be a beneficiary of a PC-Wildrose vote split in some Edmonton and Calgary constituencies in the next election, but their membership has not exactly been flooded by progressives afraid of the two conservative parties. The departure of MLA Dave Taylor and Kent Hehr‘s decision to run in Calgary’s Mayoral election is not a ringing endorsement of the party’s current fortunes. Can the party attract back into their ranks the sizeable group of Liberals who joined disenchanted Red Tories, moderate New Democrats, and former central Albertan Greens under the new Alberta Party banner? They have been low key, but since March, the Alberta Party has held almost 100 Big Listen meetings across the province.
You do not have to spend too much time inside the Liberal Party to become aware of how iconized the 1993 election is in the minds of party activists. As many Albertans will remember, that election saw former Edmonton Mayor Laurence Decore lead the Liberals to their best showing in decades by winning 39% of the vote and forming official opposition by electing 32 MLAs.
Much of the traditional 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. There is no doubt that 17 years ago the Liberals launched an impressive campaign with a slate of candidates who were “ready to govern.” It would be difficult to argue that has been the case since. The Liberals have cultivated reliable support in a handful of constituencies in Calgary, Edmonton, and Lethbridge, but they have had a very difficult time growing their base of support. In most rural areas, the Liberals have run paper candidates in the past three elections, ceding a growing number of constituencies to the PC hegemony.
The decision by the Liberal Party years ago to focus resources on urban areas has opened up the potential of rural success to the Wildrose Alliance, whose leader Ms. Smith has spent months traveling to rural communities and smaller cities meeting with any group that will have her. Her party is now reaping the benefits of gaining media attention from local weekly newspapers, organizing constituency associations, and attracting large crowds to their town hall meetings. Imagine what the political map would look like after the 2011/2012 election if Alberta had an opposition party that could elect candidates in both rural and urban constituencies.
Both the Liberals and NDP have been frustrated by their lack of traction in the polls (and in elections), but neither party appears prepared to change gears to face this reality. Liberal leader David Swann has held town hall meetings across Alberta, as has NDP leader Brian Mason, but there is little evidence that this will lead to an even mediocre rural breakthrough for either party. This is probably less the fault of the current leadership and more the fault of a tradition of political tactics focused on weekly issues and electoral strategies focused on urban enclaves (and the influence of their federal party cousins).
It is difficult to believe that these parties once had long-time MLAs who represented rural constituencies. NDP leader Grant Notley represented the sprawling Spirit River-Fairview from 1971 to 1984. Liberal leader Nick Taylor represented Westlock-Sturgeon and Redwater from 1986 to 1996. Premier Ed Stelmach defeated two-term Vegreville NDP MLA Derek Fox in 1993. The last time either of these two parties elected a candidate in rural Alberta was in 1997 when Liberal MLA Colleen Soetaert was re-elected in Spruce Grove-Sturgeon-St. Albert.
If the Liberal Party is successful in building a policy platform that appeals beyond their traditional base of supporters, will they have an organization on the ground that can translate it into electoral results? Even if they have all the best policy ideas in the world, without feet on the ground it will be very difficult – even with a potential vote split on the right – to reach beyond their traditional base of supporters in this province.
(I will be attending parts of this weekend’s Liberal convention as a media observer, including federal Liberal strategist Warren Kinsella‘s keynote address. Look for updates on this blog and on twitter at @davecournoyer)