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The Strange Death of Liberal Alberta
After a slow decline, the first party to govern Alberta is finally collapsing
The Alberta Liberal Party announced on Aug. 15 that its planned upcoming leadership race would be called off, as not a single member put forward their name to lead the party by the deadline set for that day — an ignominious development for the party that formed Alberta’s first government in 1905.
In a statement, party president Helen McMenamin claimed in a news release there were “several interested candidates but some could not make the commitment for personal reasons,” while others were too young and inexperienced to assume leadership.
Whether that’s true or McMenamin is just saving face, there’s no doubt we’ve come a long way from the days when the Liberals were the main opposition to the PC dynasty in Alberta. Just as the PCs were subsumed by the UCP after a humbling defeat in 2015, the Liberals’ role as the logical choice for non-conservative Albertans has been usurped by the provincial NDP.
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The decay of the Alberta Liberals, who haven’t governed the province in 101 years, has been a slow one, although there have been occasional blips. In 1993, leader Laurence Decore formed the largest Official Opposition in Alberta history, but at the end of the day, they still lost, and it’s been all downhill since.
In 2012, the Alberta Liberal Party lost its position as the Official Opposition to the hard-right Wildrose Party.
According to Keith Brownsey, a political scientist at Calgary’s Mount Royal University, Dr. David Swann, who led the party from 2008 to 2011, as well as his immediate predecessor Kevin Taft, are largely to blame for the Liberals’ inability to grow the party to the point where it could have conceivably formed government once Albertans grew tired of the PCs.
He said he thinks highly of Swann as an individual, but at the end of the day he wasn’t “committed, and didn't seem to understand, what it takes to run a serious political party.”
“The Liberals seem to be resigned to the fact that the Conservatives would govern forever, and they didn't know how to deal with that,” Brownsey said. “It was really bizarre.”
He believes Taft had an opportunity to significantly grow the party during the 2008 election, which had record-low voter turnout of 41.3%, but the party leadership didn’t know what it was doing:
They just thought their candidates would stand on a street corner and wave a sign and think that was actually campaigning. They wouldn't contact voters. They didn't have the resources. They wouldn't do polling, they wouldn't do this, they wouldn't do that. It was a mess.
He contrasted this with the NDP’s approach in 2015, where they brought in experienced political operatives from other provinces to help run their campaign, which few expected them to actually win.
Through it all, Swann was able to hold on to his seat through sheer “personal popularity,” Brownsey said.
“People liked him. Voters in that constituency seemed to like them. That was all good, but one seat in the legislature is no big deal,” he added.
Swann, who also was the last Liberal MLA in the Alberta legislature, representing Calgary-Mountain View from 2004 to 2019, told me that while there is a strong anti-Liberal animus in Alberta’s political culture, perpetuated in its right-wing media, he ultimately failed to grow the party during his tenure as leader.
“There are lots of dimensions that I think demonstrate that the Liberal Party is running out of fashion, or running out of energy, or running out of a compelling vision for Alberta,” Swann said.
While the Liberals’ embrace of a strongly-regulated “free enterprise system” has historically been distinct from the NDP, under Rachel Notley the NDP has occupied the same territory, Swann said.
(The question of whether the NDP under Grant Notley, Rachel’s dad, who led the party from 1968 until his untimely death in 1984, was in fact anti-capitalist has been disputed, like on this classic episode of the Alberta Advantage podcast.)
But while Swann agrees with Notley on the appropriate balance between the private and public sectors, he believes she has moved too far to the centre, if not the right, on matters relating to fossil fuels:
She has bent over backwards for the oil industry as far as I'm concerned. She did nothing to ensure that the oil industry paid its dues, paid its taxes, paid its rent to [rural] landowners and got on board with the cleanup of the many thousand sites that are inactive and are just lying dormant, continuing to leak or pollute in many cases.
Swann, who currently chairs the board of the Alberta Liabilities Disclosure Project, an organization tracking the financial and environmental impacts of abandoned oil and gas wells, said Notley “failed completely in terms of the real teeth we need in the oil industry to get things cleaned up.”
However, Swann said his goal for the 2023 election is to get Notley re-elected premier.
For Lisa Young, a political scientist at the University of Calgary, the provincial Liberals are a casualty of Alberta politics becoming a two-party system, with the UCP on the right and the NDP on the centre-left
But this situation isn’t unique to Alberta, as she points out the provincial NDP has swallowed the support of federal Liberals in Western Canada, from B.C. to Manitoba.
Specific to Alberta, the provincial NDP happened to be “in the right place at the right time” for the end of the 44-year PC dynasty, Young added. “Had it happened a few years earlier and the Liberals had been in that place, maybe they would have been in a position to seize the moment.,”
Albertans who’ve historically voted Liberal provincially, and continue to vote Liberal federally, have mostly become Alberta NDP voters, she explained. The few who can’t bring themselves to vote NDP in any form will vote for the Alberta Party, “which doesn't have the baggage of the name ‘Liberal’.
She said the provincial Liberals are “probably defunct at this point” barring some radical change in Alberta’s political terrain.
Swann confessed to several regrets from his time as Liberal leader.
Under his watch as Liberal leader in 2010, former leadership rival Dave Taylor crossed the floor to the Alberta Party. Swann cited his efforts to bridge the gap between the two parties as a major reason he had to step down as Liberal leader.
He regrets having pushed so hard for unity with the Alberta Party, considering his caucus was so opposed to it. “If I had known that my party was really completely against merging, I would have backed off on that and just focused on what we could do as a party to build,” said Swann.
He also wishes he had pushed harder on making oil and gas companies pay to clean up their liabilities and strengthening the public healthcare system. “I could have been much stronger on those issues.”
In the future, Swann would like to see a strong third party option in the province, he said, maintaining the only way to do this is through unity with the centre-right Alberta Party
“This two party state is just a recipe for factionalism and polarization and lack of any kind of constructive dialogue and working on things in the public interest.” Swann said. “It's just we're good, you're bad, we're white, you're black. It's not constructive politics at all.”
Edited by Ximena González
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