The first sentence of a recent letter sent out by Liberal Leader David Swann sums up the state of Alberta’s Official Opposition Party:
“We need your help to keep the ALP office operating at a reasonable level, and ready to serve Albertans.”
Over a year after the last election, the Alberta Liberals are struggling to pay their bills. It’s hard to understand why a political organization that earned 251,158 votes in the last election would have such a hard time paying off their 8-year debt, now sitting at around $400,000. The once $1 million debt-load was largely the product of the 2001 election campaign under former leader Nancy MacBeth. The Liberals went from 16 to 7 seats in that election, including a loss by MacBeth in Edmonton-McClung.
Two leaders and four years later, Edmonton-Riverview MLA Kevin Taft led the Liberals to reclaim a majority of seats in Edmonton and gain a three-seat beachhead in Calgary. While PC leader Ralph Klein was unceremoniously shown the door in 2006, the Liberals had high hopes. Ed Stelmach was selected as PC leader, and the Liberals raised $1 million in 2007 and won the by-election in Klein’s abandoned Calgary-Elbow constituency. As the 2008 election approached, most people predicted the PCs would be re-elected, but with a reduced majority government.
On March 3, 2008, the PCs got their vote out, and everyone else stayed home. Well, that’s not really what happened, but it’s almost true. The PCs surged from 63 to 72 seats, unseating Liberals, New Democrats, and Wildrosers across Alberta, but voter turnout dropped to record low levels. With only around 90% of Albertans registered to vote, the pathetic turnout likely sat under 40% of eligible voters (including 22 out of 83 ridings which had less than 40% turnout).
While the Liberals dropped to 9 MLAs in 2008 by losing seats in Edmonton and facing decreasing support in rural Alberta, they did manage to increase their seat and vote total in Calgary by electing two new MLAs. The election of Kent Hehr in Calgary-Buffalo and Darshan Kang in Calgary-McCall shifted the power base in the Liberal caucus to southern Alberta for the first time in recent memory (five MLAs from Calgary, three from Edmonton, and one from Lethbridge). In the contest to replace Taft, two Calgary MLAs quickly became frontrunners.
In December 2008, Calgary-Mountain View MLA David Swann won a first-ballot victory against fellow Calgary MLA Dave Taylor and former Edmonton MLA Mo Elsalhy to become the first Liberal leader from Calgary since Nick Taylor campaigned in that city during the 1970s (Nick Taylor was eventually elected MLA in the Westlock-Sturgeon and Redwater ridings north of Edmonton from 1986 to 1996).
Following his victory, Swann appointed Elsalhy to lead a committee tasked with proposing recommendations to renew the Liberal Party. Joining Elsalhy on the committee are Norma Block of Drayton Valley, Barry Cavanaugh and Stephanie Laskoski of Edmonton, Jade Boldt and Peter Willott of Calgary, and Zack Moline of Lethbridge. The committee has launched a website to jump start some discussion, and in a recent email, Elsalhy announced the launch of a survey for ALP members and non-members asking what Alberta’s Liberal Party can do to renew itself. At the Legislature, Swann has brought in former MLA Rick Miller as Chief of Staff, and Calgary Federal Liberal organizer Neil Mackie as Communications Director.
Can the Alberta Liberals renew by creating momentum, attracting new members, and paying down their financial debt? What will it take for the Swann Liberals to attract new strong candidates, as well as re-attracting the many former Liberal MLAs who have moved on to other levels of government (Edmonton City Councillors Linda Sloan, Karen Leibovici, and Ed Gibbons come to mind).
The Alberta Liberals are in a rough spot, financially and organizationally, and though it may be easy to criticize Swann’s choice to focus on open consultations rather than implement a pre-made strategy, consultation and dialogue are his style. At this point in the game, the Liberals have very little to lose, so my recommendations to them are to be bold, challenge their status quo, and turn things on their head, because if the current fundraising trends continue, the Alberta Liberal Party may not be in the position to do so after the next election.