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.
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.
There may have been eighty three men and women (mostly men) sitting on the floor of the Legislative Assembly, but none made as much impact on the direction of the fall sitting than Dr. Raj Sherman. The medical doctor, first term MLA for Edmonton-Meadowlark, and now-former Parliamentary Assistant for Health was ejected from the Progressive Conservative caucus after criticizing Premier Ed Stelmach and former Minister of Health Ron Liepert and became an overnight hero to Albertans frustrated with the healthcare system. Dr. Sherman became a one-man wrecking crew and probably inflicted more damage to the PC Party in a month than any of the opposition MLAs have done in the past five years.
With the fall sitting ended and assuming he will not resign as an MLA, the big question is: where does this now Independent MLA go from here?
Stay Independent: One of Dr. Sherman’s biggest strengths is that he is not interested in being a politician. He has gained an incredible amount of media attention since becoming an Independent and his shedding of partisan ties has helped solidify his credibility as a voice for the public healthcare system in the Assembly. The challenge for any Independent MLA is the lack of financial resources available to non-party MLAs. Dr. Sherman has ridden a wave of support while being publicly backed by all of the opposition parties and his medical colleagues, but how long will this last?
Rejoin the Progressive Conservatives: After being indefinitely suspended form the PC caucus, Energy Minister Liepert said that he would refuse to support Dr. Sherman’s return to the PC caucus unless he completely withdrew the criticisms he expressed in a November interview with the Edmonton Journal. Making it even less likely he will return to the PC caucus was the alleged whisper campaign begun by Edmonton-Rutherford PC MLA Fred Horne, who has taken over Dr. Sherman’s former role as Parliamentary Assistant for Health.
Sit with the Liberals: Previous to his election as a PC MLA, Dr. Sherman had supported former Ontario Education Minister Gerard Kennedy in his bid to lead the Liberal Party of Canada in 2006 and was courted to run for the Liberals before the 2008 election. As a moderate, Dr. Sherman would probably be comfortable sitting in Official Opposition Liberal caucus, and while I am sure that David Swann would be ecstatic to have him join their ranks recent polling showing that party falling to 19% support might make it a less than appealing jump.
Become the first Alberta Party MLA: As the first MLA for the Alberta Party, Dr. Sherman would have the opportunity to help shape and provide a voice for a new and growing political party that has attracted many political activists across the province (including many key organizers from Naheed Nenshi‘s Mayoral campaign in Calgary). Dr. Sherman would likely be blocked by Speaker Ken Kowalski from accessing many additional financial resources, a challenge that the Wildrose Alliance caucus has been forced to deal with.
Join the Wildrose Alliance MLA: If door is closed to rejoining the PC caucus, joining the four MLA Wildrose Alliance caucus might look like the best opportunity that Dr. Sherman has to becoming Minister of Health after the next election. The question would is could support the negative tone that Danielle Smith and her MLAs have taken towards the public healthcare system?
Make the New Democratic Party a trio: Dr. Sherman appeared with NDP MLA Brian Mason at a recent rally for public healthcare at the Legislature, but I would be very surprised if his politics lined up with the two MLA social democratic caucus. Next to rejoining the PCs, this might be the most least likely scenario.