Liberal Party President Erick Ambtman edged out Calgary-Buffalo MLA Kent Hehr in the latest blog poll asking readers of this blog who they thought should replace Calgary-Mountain View MLA David Swann as leader of his party. In close third is former Edmonton Member of Parliament Anne McLellan, a high-profile name in Alberta politics.
Mr. Ambtman is a virtual unknown to most people outside Liberal Party and some other political circles, but his performance at a media conference following Dr. Swann’s resignation announcement gave him an opportunity to show off some of his respectable speaking skills to the media. If he does not seek his party’s leadership, he could be a strong candidate in the next election.
The Alberta Liberalsshuffled their shadow cabinet yesterday in preparation for the Spring Sitting of the Legislature, an expected PC cabinet shuffle, and a provincial election expected early in 2012. After a rough 2010 filled with internalpartydivisions, incoherent messaging, and growing communicationschallenges, the Liberals need to be a lot more strategic in 2011 if they want to be a significant player in the political narrative building towards a 2012 provincial election.
With only eight Liberal MLAs in the Assembly, there are not many combinations that would make for a dramatic shuffle of critic portfolios, but yesterday’s changes includes some interesting moves.
There were a few interesting moves, including shuffling Hugh MacDonald out of the Labour critic portfolios and Kent Hehr from Justice critic to Energy, but most interesting move has Health & Wellness critic Kevin Taft shuffled aside to let Liberal leader David Swann take an additional critic responsibility. This gives us a pretty good clue about what the Liberals want to focus on in 2011, and how they might try to write themselves back into the political narrative.
Becoming the Health Care Party.
Health care was the dominant issue of the Fall 2010 sitting of the Legislature and is expected to be front and centre when the Spring sitting begins on February 22, 2011. The past six months of high-profile health care news stories, the firing of Dr. Raj Sherman, and the political battles that ensued make it a no-brainer why the Liberals would want their leader to be front and centre on this issue.
The soft-spoken Dr. Swann brings years of practical experience as a medical doctor that gives him a unique and personal perspective from inside the health care system, but that does not make his challenge any easier. As Health & Wellness critic, Dr. Taft has easily been the most well spoken and focused Liberal MLA in the Assembly. Carrying a wealth of knowledge collected after years working in the health care policy field, Dr. Taft was a formidable critic in that role.
As a strategy, it would be smart for the Liberals to want to become the health care party and the main alternative to the “lurch planning” of the Progressive Conservatives and the privatization agenda of the Wildrose Alliance. Putting their leader front and centre is one small step towards this and gaining more media attention, as NDP leader Brian Mason has discovered in his dual role as Health critic for his party.
The big challenge for any party is whether to emphasize the strength of their current team or improve the visibility of their current leader? With Dr. Taft having announced that he will not be standing for re-election there is a good argument to be made that the caucus should shift that high profile role to an MLA who is planning to stand for re-election. The challenge for the eight Liberal MLAs is whether they can afford to put their leader front and centre at the cost of putting one of their strongest players on the bench? It is a bit of gamble, but it could work for the Liberals.
New Liberal Critic Portfolios
David Swann (Calgary-Mountain View)- Health & Wellness, Executive Council Laurie Blakeman (Edmonton-Centre) – Environment, Sustainable Resource Development, Culture and Community Spirit Harry Chase (Calgary-Varsity) – Children and Youth Services, Tourism, Parks, and Recreation, Employment and Immigration Kent Hehr (Calgary-Buffalo) – Energy, Education Darshan Kang (Calgary-McCall) – Service Alberta, Housing and Urban Affairs, Infrastructure, Transportation Hugh MacDonald (Edmonton-Gold Bar) – Treasury Board, Finance and Enterprise, Justice and Attorney General, Solicitor General and Public Security Bridget Pastoor (Lethbridge-East) – Seniors and Community Supports, Municipal Affairs, International and Intergovernmental Affairs, Agriculture and Rural Development Kevin Taft (Edmonton-Riverview) – Aboriginal Relations, Advanced Education and Technology
Albertans appointed to the Federal Cabinet Two Alberta Conservative MPs were included in a recent cabinet shuffle in Ottawa. Macleod MP Ted Menzies was appointed as the Minister of State (Finance) and Calgary-Nose Hill MP Diane Ablonczy was appointed as Minister of State for Foreign Affairs (Americas). These two minor appointments were meant to offset the loss of Environment Minister Jim Prentice from the federal cabinet in Ottawa.
Raj Against the Machine Tour
Independent Edmonton-Meadowlark MLA Raj Sherman is hitting the road this spring on a province-wide town hall tour to hear Albertans’ views on health care. Dr. Sherman was kicked out of the PC caucus in November 2010 when he publicly criticized the PC government’s record on health care and singled out former Health Minister Ron Liepert as a problem. The good Doctor Sherman is also the newest MLA to join Twitter, where he can be found at @RajShermanMLA
NDP tackle the Tories on Long-term Care NDP MLA Brian Mason raised some fair criticisms of the PC Government’s handling of Long-term Care as the new Villa Caritas facility opened near the Misericordia Hospital in Edmonton. Many of the beds in the Covenant Health-operated Villa Caritas were originally slated as Long-term Care spaces, but were later changed to include geriatric mental health patients transferred from Alberta Hospital Edmonton. According to the NDP, there are more than 600 people on the waiting list for long-term care beds in Edmonton.
Also expected to join the contest is three-term Town of Hinton Mayor Glenn Taylor, who is expected to launch his campaign for the new Alberta Party leadership in the next few weeks. Mayor Taylor was first elected to his current job in 2004. This would not be his first foray into provincial politics as he was the NDP candidate in West Yellowhead in the 1997 General Election when he placed a strong third with 20% of the vote.
Around the world in 21 days
Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Iris Evans is gearing up for a trip around the globe that will land her in Thailand, the United Arab Emirates, and the United Kingdom from January 10 to 31, 2011. Cypress-Medicine Hat PC MLA Len Mitzel recently travelled to Texas for a three day trip to a meeting of the Ports-to-Plains Alliance meeting. I generally support sending representatives to promote Alberta internationally, but with the total amount of travel time being logged by cabinet ministers and PC MLAs, now might be the time to have a serious discussion about the value of these trips.
The Alberta-China Connection
The Calgary Herald has published the first of a four part series of articles written by Jason Fekete investigating the Province of Alberta’s relationship with the People’s Republic of China.
The 2010 Spring session of the Alberta Legislature wrapped up yesterday with little fanfare. Ending a month and a half earlier than the increasingly pointless Legislative calendar had scheduled, Premier Ed Stelmach‘s PCs seemed happy to cut short one of their roughest sessions in decades. Here are some thoughts on how each of the parties fared during the 2010 Spring session:
Entering their 39th year in office, the Progressive Conservatives caucus appeared to list from left to right and back again during this session. The massive cuts expected in the 2010 budget never emerged (and the cuts that did take place were largely overshadowed by funding to health care and education). Their flagship bill, the Competitiveness Act, is already becoming largely forgotten in the minds of most political watchers and did not have the public splash impact that was likely intended.
Their political machinery is still well-financed, but the PC Party leadership appears disconnected from mainstream Albertans. Premier Stelmach’s weak public speaking skills were crutched by some of the cabinet ministers who were shuffled into new positions in February and have made an impact this Spring. Most notably, Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky, Labour Minister Thomas Lukaszuk, Finance Minister Ted Morton, Housing Minister Jonathan Denis, and Solicitor General Municipal Affairs Minister Hector Goudreau have performed fairly well in their new roles. In the Health Care file, Minister Zwozdesky appears to have spent much of the past three months travelling the province attempting to extinguish the fires set by his predecessor (now -Energy Minister Ron Liepert). While his style has brought a much friendlier tone to his position, there are still remains unanswered questions around issues ranging from seniors’ pharmacare to the future of Alberta Hospital Edmonton.
As criticisms have increased from outside the Legislature, it appears that a few PC backbenchers are increasingly unwilling to read the puff-ball questions that they regularly line up for. Whitecourt-Ste. Anne MLA George VanderBurg, Lesser Slave Lake MLA Pearl Calahasen, and Grande Prairie-Wapiti MLA Wayne Drysdale have asked some pretty tough questions and have noticeably got under the skin of some cabinet ministers during Question Period.
Premier Stelmach and his cabinet ministers will undertake a province-wide tour over the summer to talk with Albertans (and try to win back the hearts and minds of PC supporters who have flocked to the Wildrose Alliance). The optimist in me hopes that the tour will actually be effective in reconnecting our elected government officials with Albertans.
The very public departure of Calgary-Currie MLA Dave Taylor and his verbal lashing of Dr. Swann in the media seemed to be the most memorable moment for the Liberals during this session, though internally, they are probably better off without Mr. Taylor. The Liberals won a reprieve from negative attention when a motion by backbench PC MLA Verlyn Olson temporarily removed the independence of Public Accounts Committee chairman Hugh MacDonald. While I believe Dr. Swann’s performance actually improved after Mr. Taylor’s departure, similar to their federal counterparts, the provincial Liberals biggest weakness is their focus on daily tactics, rather than long-term strategy to form government.
With the addition of former PC MLAs Rob Anderson and Heather Forsyth, the WRA caucus was boosted to third-party status for the first time. Ms. Forsyth’s Mandatory Reporting of Child Pornography bill was passed on third reading (I cannot remember any time that an opposition MLAs private members bill was passed into legislation). The Wildrose Alliance was faced with the challenge of not becoming the NDP of the right and have been strategic in what issues they chose to focus on (ie: opposing the centralization of regional health authorities into Alberta Health Services).
With three MLAs in the Assembly, seatless leader Danielle Smith has spent the majority of her time during this session criss-crossing the province, speaking to town hall meetings, trade shows, chambers of commerce, and anyone interested in meeting with the newly anointed Dauphine of Alberta politics (a very smart decision in my mind).
Outside the Legislature, the NDP appear to be stalled in the polls and have not been able to capitalize on the destabilization inside the Liberal Party. At their 2009 convention, Nova Scotia NDP organizer Matt Hebbadvised his Alberta cousins to build a bigger tent of supporters and to act like a party of government by taking a pragmatic and constructive approach to politics. “Act like a party of government, don’t talk about it,” was Mr. Hebb’s message. Judging by the daily outrage and ankle bitting during Question Period, it does not appear that the two MLAs have heeded Mr. Hebb’s advice.
Independent MLAs Guy Boutilier and Dave Taylor now share the lonely northwest corner of the Assembly floor. It was suspected that Mr. Boutilier might join the Wildrose Alliance caucus (his 2008 campaign manager has joined the WRA), but he may be too much of a wildcard for a party that is riding high in the polls and posturing to form the next government. More recently, there have been rumors floating that Mr. Taylor would like to acquire the leadership of the newly reorganized Alberta Party and reshape it into his own image (knowing the people involved in the Alberta Party, this might not be a welcoming prospect).
Since the 2008 election, five of 83 MLAs have forced the changing of seating arrangements on the Assembly floor. There has not been this much movement across the Assembly floor between elections since the early 1990s, which saw some significant Liberal by-election victories, a New Democrat cross to the PCs, a PC leave to sit as an Independent, and a handful of right-leaning Liberals cross to the PCs. It is also the first time since 1989 that an opposition party other than the Liberals or NDP have had more than one MLA in the Assembly (the Representative Party elected two former Social Credit MLAs in 1986).
This was the final session for long-time Canadian Press reporter Jim MacDonald, who will be retiring from his role in May. After 27 years working for Canadian Press, Mr. MacDonald has become an institution in the Press Gallery. During my time as a spokesperson for the Council of Alberta University Students from 2006 to 2007, Mr. MacDonald was always the most nerve-racking reporter in a media scrum – always asking the toughest questions and not taking spin for an answer. He will be missed.
On a final note, I feel the need to recognize Calgary Herald columnist Don Braid, who is normally a very good columnist, but during this spring session has written some excellent columns about politics in Alberta.
Dave Taylor, the party’s former deputy leader, the Calgary MLA many Liberals wanted as their top gun 16 months ago, will sit as an independent beginning Monday.
He is fed up with the Liberals as the main opposition on paper but nowhere near that in performance.
“We just don’t have a position that’s obvious to anybody on most things. I’m sorry, but we don’t. For two years now, we haven’t really stood for anything, with a few notable exceptions,” says Taylor, who spearheaded the party’s oilpatch-friendly policy on royalties.
“The Liberals are pretty much off the radar. We’re not talking about or standing for things in a way that translates to Albertans. Most Albertans have passed the Liberals by. People aren’t even politely curious.”
“I don’t think I can serve my constituents or other Albertans in the way they deserved to be served within the Liberals. They’re just too unfocused, too lacking in the ability to connect with the people of Alberta.”
“I just don’t see things happening. I feel I’ve tried.”
Mr. Taylor was first elected in 2004, defeating PC MLA Jon Lord in a high profile race. He served as Deputy Leader during Kevin Taft‘s time as Leader of the Official Opposition and ran for the party leadership following Dr. Taft’s resignation in 2008. Only attracting 1,616 votes, Mr. Taylor placed second to Calgary-Mountain ViewMLA David Swann. His defection from the Liberal caucus should not come as a surprise to many, as these rumours have been swirling around since the Liberals lost ground to the PCs in the last election. Liberal sources have told me that over the past year, caucus meetings have become especially heated between Mr. Taylor and other MLAs, leading to a dysfunctional team environment in the Official Opposition caucus. In January 2010, Mr. Taylor was given the opportunity to step into the spotlight when he announced the Liberal Party’s new energy policy, which was supposed to signal “a dramatic shift and tone” for the Liberals. In recent months, it has been rumoured that Mr. Taylor was investigating a run for Mayor of Calgary, though these now appear to be unsubstantiated.
As an Independent, Mr. Taylor would be in a good position to accept woos from both the Progressive Conservatives (who are in desperate need for some personality and could undercut the Liberals further by appointing him to cabinet) or the Wildrose Alliance (who could use a prominent opposition voice like Mr. Taylor’s to moderate their public face).
If Mr. Taylor does indeed announce his departure from the Liberal caucus today, these effects could be devastating to the Liberal Party – both Liberal Party President Tony Sansotta and Executive Director Corey Hogan were heavily involved in Mr. Taylor’s leadership campaign. His departure will also bring the Liberal caucus down to 8 MLAs from the 9 elected in 2008. While this initially does not look good for Dr. Swann, it could lead the Liberal caucus to become a more cohesive unit (strength in the face of destruction) – or it could lead to more internal criticism of his low-key style of leadership.
UPDATE: Both David Swann and Dave Taylor have released statements to the media. I attended Dr. Swann’s media conference at the Legislature this morning and will have some photos up later today. In a display of caucus solidarity, Dr. Swann was joined by 6 of the remaining 8 members of the Liberal caucus (Calgary-McCall MLA Darshan Kang is in India on family matters). Dr. Swann told the media that he knew Mr. Taylor had not been happy inside the Liberal caucus since he was defeated in the 2008 leadership campaign.