Alberta Politics

guest post: decision time for the alberta liberals.


Alberta Liberal Party Leadership Candidates
Alberta Liberal Party leadership candidates (left to right) Bill Harvey, Bruce Payne, Raj Sherman, Laurie Blakeman, and Hugh MacDonald

By Justin Archer

On Saturday September 10, the Alberta Liberals will select their next leader following current leader David Swann’s resignation from the post, announced this past January.

An understanding of the dynamics that lead to the initiation of this leadership race is helpful in interpreting the parry and thrust that has played out among the candidates running to be Swann’s successor. It’s probably not quite accurate to say that Swann was forced out—he left of his own volition, but he certainly didn’t have an easy time of it throughout most of his tenure as leader. Job one for the new leader will be to unite the caucus and inspire the membership as Alberta moves ever closer to the next election.

Don Braid’s piece in the Calgary Herald last weekend was a bang-on analysis of the recent and not so recent dynamic within the Party.

I found this section particularly apropos:

“There was another flicker of losing mentality recently when MLAs and leadership candidates suddenly discovered the party has 25,000 members.

The reaction was not joy, or even a touch of pride, but claims of duplicity from candidates who thought Raj Sherman was pushing the rules.”

It has been written elsewhere that this election will be a defining moment in the history of the Party, and I don’t disagree. When Daveberta left the ALP a few years ago he explained to me how his decision was motivated by the Party’s culture that put fealty to the Liberal brand above all else. At the time I didn’t know what he meant. Perhaps I hadn’t spent enough time in the trenches to see it up close. Now, a few years later, I see that Dave was absolutely right: there are elements within the Liberal Party that would take “being a Liberal” over “being in a progressive government that shares my values and does things the way I think it ought to” ten times out of ten. It’s weird, and kind of hard to explain until you’ve seen it. But it’s there.

This leadership election is an opportunity for the Liberal Party to decide what it wants to be: a band of true believers who will always be safe in the knowledge that they remained loyal to the Liberal brand through thick and thin; or a pragmatic, progressive group of people who are willing to stretch their boundaries and open up the organization to new people, new thinking, and ultimately a shot at real relevance again.

The various potential paths for the Liberal Party have been foreshadowed during this leadership campaign. I’ve been to a few of the debates and watched the campaign closely. By my best estimation, the candidates have offered visions as such:

Laurie Blakeman: Solid traditional Liberal credentials as well as an eye towards pragmatism. A Laurie Blakeman Liberal Party would not close itself off to outsiders, and would likely make some attempt to establish consensus with the Alberta Party and the NDP.

Bill Harvey: Move the Party far to the right of its traditional space on the political spectrum, to the point where many members would no longer feel comfortable with policy positions. Harvey has a very small natural constituency within the Party. If he were to win it would be in large part due to his organizational skills.

Hugh MacDonald: A die-hard Liberal if ever there was one. MacDonald has staked out the traditional Liberal territory with a vengeance during this campaign. He is an unapologetic devotee of the brand, and has played up his Party renewal strategy of empowering constituency associations.

Bruce Payne: A kind and decent human being who doesn’t quite have the backstory that explains why he should be the Liberal Leader. If he can hold Calgary-Varsity when incumbent Harry Chase retires at the start of the next election he would make a strong Alberta Liberal MLA.

Raj Sherman: His policy strength is in health care, but he speaks frequently about the social determinants of health and the correlative relationship between government actions and social outcomes across many policy areas. Sherman’s participation is the story of this campaign. He brings strong name recognition and folk hero status to this race. However his history as a Conservative MLA makes him an unknown and perhaps unsettling quantity in some Liberal circles.

I could certainly be wrong, and in fact I usually am (just ask Premier Jim Dinning and LPC Leader Gerard Kennedy), but I think this race is essentially between Hugh MacDonald and Raj Sherman.

MacDonald represents the true believers; the ones with a Liberal tattoo. Those people who look at traditional Liberal policies like the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, multiculturalism, the right to marry who you love, environmentalism, non-violence, fiscal responsibility, and at a host of other Liberal policy positions and say “yes, I am a Liberal.” MacDonald’s supporters come from the noblest of places within the human spirit. They see a set of values that they call “Liberal”, and they won’t be pushed off that brand come hell or high water. However, the dedication to Liberalism exemplified by MacDonald supporters is myopic: though they have the best outcomes in mind, their inflexibility and inability to understand the bigger picture have trapped them in a perpetual state of being “right”, while being marginalized. And what’s the good in that?

On the other hand, Raj Sherman brings a whole new dynamic to the Liberal Party. He’s famous. He’s smart. He’s brash. He stood up to the government and lived to tell the tale. I’ve spent a fair amount of time with Raj this summer and I can attest to the fact that he is an incredibly hard worker and the most pure retail politician I’ve ever seen. He is totally comfortable in his own skin and loves being with people. During the leadership race Sherman has signed up a large number of new Party supporters, giving the ALP a big new list of people to build its constituency and campaign teams with for the next election.

Over the past several years the Liberal Party has been pulling in two different directions. On the one hand there are the traditional loyalists who think the Party must do the same things, but better. On the other hand there are the younger, more pragmatic activists who wish to reshape the Party in a way that will allow it to continue to be relevant in the 21st Century. MacDonald and Sherman are two nearly perfect proxy candidates for this debate.

When the Party selects a new Leader on September 10, a Raj Sherman victory will indicate a willingness to work outside the Party’s traditional comfort zone with the aim of greater electoral success, while maintaining its commitment to Liberal values and philosophy; a Hugh MacDonald victory will represent a decision to redouble efforts to build the traditional Liberal Party along the same lines that have failed for so long.

This is an important conversation for the Party to have, and I’m genuinely interested in seeing which way the Party decides to go. If nothing else, the Liberal Party leadership contest has been passionate, surprising and interesting. The Party feels exciting again, which is a step in the right direction.

Justin Archer is an Edmonton-based public relations consultant and political watcher.

16 replies on “guest post: decision time for the alberta liberals.”

Justin, bang on. The Liberals missed a huge opp when they didn’t put Dave Taylor at the helm. They’ll miss another one if they don’t put Raj there. It’ll be good for our lagging democracy to have someone who’ll simply draw attention to the mismanagement of the tired old PC party without their stupid internal party retribution. If Hugh wins, the Alberta Party wins.

Justin, good article. The problem with some Liberals is that they feel Albertan voters should mold to the party. And this is the mantra that the older Liberal candidates are following as well. They have made the ALP so ideologically rigid, that its inflexible to absorb movements of voters from the left and right and hence failed to grow and attract membership. With Dr. Sherman, however, that will change. Party of the PC’s success is NOT being so rigidly self-defined. The Tories always morphed and adapted dynamically to the times. Its time for a boost to the Liberals to evolve. Without evolution, you never get growth. The vote on saturday, will be a vote to Evolve the Alberta Liberal Party, to make it appeal to almost every Albertan and to finally start the basis for providing a strengthened and credible political opposition in the Legislature. So, it is time for that establishment Liberals begin to accept and learn to be morphic, accepting of change, evolution and growth and at the same time keep much of what they hold dear to their hearts. The more people that vote this week and saturday, the more people are enabling a healthier democracy in Alberta. I think the ALP has been in a stagnating rut for the last decade. THe ALP is full of very good people who want a better Alberta. Every vote counts, vote today!

Yes, there is a staunch liberal-or-bust attitude in the party. But giving failed PC caucus members a second chance hasn’t worked very well for them, either. What was her name? Nancy?

She brought a very PC brand of fiscal responsibility to the Liberals. I understand the party has only recently recovered from the debt she left them with.

They need a leader who can give voters something to cheer for, not only something to cheer against. I don’t see any of them able to do that.

This liberal or bust attitude is exactly what is keeping the PC’s in power. Either that is what some insiders actually want or they are unaware that their unclenched fist is enabling Tory rule for 40 yrs. Either, it does not look good for insiders. Their inflexibility and unwilling attitude is their own undoing. Its their choice, because democracy is suffering here, massively, its almost non existent. First Taft, the Swann, then Taylor, all these guys probably have few choice words for divisive partyers.

I don’t have a feel for what Albertans think about the Liberal Party anymore (as though they ever really have), but with the large number of non-member supporters that are signed up to vote, I think I have to give the advantage to Raj Sherman.

“When the Party selects a new Leader on September 10, a Raj Sherman victory will indicate a willingness to work outside the Party’s traditional comfort zone with the aim of greater electoral success, while maintaining its commitment to Liberal values and philosophy; a Hugh MacDonald victory will represent a decision to redouble efforts to build the traditional Liberal Party along the same lines that have failed for so long.”

That is why every Liberal supporter should back Raj, the future growth of the Liberals depends on it. Albertans want a place to put their vote. Old time party’ers have got to put aside their obsessions and pre-conceived notions. Their actions have failed to capture the imagination of Albertans thus far.

I think it is a very weak dichotomy Justin and I think you should have revealed more than spending time with Raj but that you are a key player on his team.
Raj is an ok retail politician, not as good as Hugh actually. Raj is a hard worker but he is a little, shall we say erratic. I imagine the media is drooling at the idea of a Raj win as it gives them a real loose cannon who will say anything to get in the press. Not a good bet. It is only a matter of time until he blows up. He may be the nicest guy in the race but that is not enough.

Hugh is of course, angry, hostile and frankly paranoid. As leader he will drive away far more people then he will bring in. Sure he will make the hardcore old folk feel morally pure but he will alienate every outside group that is needed for growth.
Laurie is hard working smart and dedicated….to herself. She will not stick around for more then one election, she has said this is her last election. She will just focus on Edmonton as she despises Calgary and the party will blow up with how she treats volunteers and supporters.

Bill Harvey well, Craig Chandler supports him, what else to say.

Payne is interesting. He represents a complete break with the past and the culture of defeat. He is someone who can speak to people outside the party and is far and away the most experianced as far as being a leader. Can he get people excited, no idea. He is a little low key and may not be able to carry the party yet but if anyone is the future of the ALP it is Payne.

By the way Justin, Swann was absolutly forced out and you know it. Hugh told him to step down once a month for the last 12 months and Blakeman called all the other MLAs while he was on holidays to see if anyone wanted him to stay. It was a putsch plain and simple.

As far as the `Liberal Disease` yep, I think that is not exactly right but it is close enough.

Lot of airing of Liberal laundry here. I’m pretty disappointed to find out Daveberta is letting someone write guest columns if the author is in fact a member of one candidate’s campaign team, and yet said author isn’t disclosing that fact. I’d encourage Dave to pull this whole post if that’s true.

Whatever else happens, it’s pretty clear that Laurie and Hugh have done more harm than good to their party. Hopefully neither of them wins, for their part in ousting Swann, and for their general behaviour over time. Ideally the new leader politely shows both of those tired old hacks the door.

Oh, one more thing…

Hugh McDonald should really get his act together. After claiming that Raj filled the supporters list with inaccuracies, Hugh’s team was the only one to get my personal info completely wrong. The other candidate mailings came out to me correctly, but Hugh’s had someone else’s name (an Indian name of some sort) come to my address.

Way to demonstrate your team’s incompetence right off the bat Hugh.

The Liberals are dealing with the same internal tensions that plague the Alberta NDP, and have in the past plagued the Federal NDP: do you stick to your principles no matter what, or do you soften them just a bit in order to become more electable in the hope that you might once day have a chance to actually implement them?

In terms of being “open to outsiders”, the Liberals do not need to continue debating any merger with the NDP; the NDP would not be interested anyway. Most New Democrats feel the best way to “merge” the two parties is for Liberals to tear up their party cards and join the NDP. That said, I for one would be interested in forming a temporary alliance with the Libs, and even the Alberta Party, with a view to bringing in electoral reform that would make it easier for the voter to have their vote actually count. Once that goal is accomplished, so-called “vote-splitting” would be a thing of the past, and there would be room for a centrist Liberal party, a leftist NDP, as well as a right-wing PC and more right-wing Wildrose (I haven’t really figured out where the AP sits on that spectrum).

Justin….I essentially agree with your analysis…it has long been my belief that there is a group of people in whose best interests it is for the party not to be successful…because success would mean that the sandbox within which they play would be of interest to many more people, who might just tamper with the toys and sand piles…

It was extremely disappointing to see Hugh acting this way and taking the low road, the entire leadership campaign and to some extent Laurie and so has been Bill Harvey. Sherman has been by far the classiest. As far as some people claiming he is erratic, I don’t that’s true. He is actually an extremely fast rising star. He ran in 2008 in meadowlark and turned the riding blue. Then he became parliamentary assistant to health, he challenged his own gov’t on principles, and now if enough people vote and there is no cheating, he WILL be ALP leader with the potential of suprises next provincial election…..YES all that in 3 years people. It took 14 yrs for Hugh and Laurie to run for leadership. I think Sherman has become battle hardened and proven his mettle and his brass. The rate at what this guy accomplishes, he deserves all the support.

I don’t think Laurie has taken the low road at all. While I am voting for Sherman I have been very impressed with her.

Hugh MacDonald has got to grow up. The damage he is doing to his own party with his childish behaviour is inexcusable.

Probably, either he will win or Sherman will win. But MacDonald has poisoned things so badly that the Liberal party looks poised to be the sure loser.

Only the liberals could turn 30,000 supporters into a bad thing.

Umm, I’ve been away, far away from this leadership “thing”. I see that Raj has won. Ok.

Where is he taking the party (pragmatically) that people already in the party won’t follow?

What values will he compromise?

I’m still trying to see how what he believes in do not jibe with a loose definition of Liberal.

Will be observing…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *