“Still, at least Premier Notley’s job is fully secure. You can’t say the same for the leaders of the opposition parties. Both the Liberals and PCs have interim leaders and neither party appears to be in a tearing hurry to pick someone permanent. Ric McIver wants to be PC boss long-term; Dr. David Swann will hand over the keys to the Liberal party as soon as he is able.
You might think that with a Liberal government in Ottawa — with four seats in Alberta — there ought to be renewed interest in the Liberal brand in Alberta. There isn’t.”
- By Brent Rathgeber, Why nobody’s going to be ‘uniting the right’ in Alberta any time soon, ipolitics.ca, Jan 7, 2016
It has always been interesting to me to look at how people or organizations deal with difficulty. Often times, it is likely because this exercise in perseverance is inspirational to me. This notion is ever more remarkable when one deals with political parties or political entities. Think about Rachel Notley on October 18th, 2014. At that time, she had just won the leadership of the Alberta New Democratic Party. In winning 70% of the leadership vote, her difficulty though was not campaigning within the Alberta NDP.
Nor was her difficulty in having a weak Party. It is true that party was not a contender before 2014. I recognize that the party was shut out of the legislature, at times, before 1993; and had no more than four members between 1997 and 2012. However, through all of those times, the NDP had a full slate of candidates. They had a full party that could run a campaign and the NDP had a sense of themselves, their brand and their policies.
Mrs. Notley’s difficulty was in convincing Albertans that she was ‘Premier Material’. Her challenge was to convince Albertans that a party with four MLAs and who had never been in government could run the fourth largest province. Accordingly, Mrs. Notley’s greatest difficulty was not her strong and resilient party but running for office.
Today, the same could not be said of the Alberta Liberal Party. When asked why the Alberta Liberal Party did so badly in the 2015 election, he was clear. Mr. Bratt, chairman of policy studies at Mount Royal University, said: “Disorganization. No one knows what the Liberals have stood for. They frequently chose leaders simply because those leaders had somehow alienated the current PC government”. (Beleaguered Alberta Liberals face uncertain future after worst election showing in 33 years, Riley Hill, Special to National Post, June 1, 2015 10:26 PM ET)
If one wonders about the veracity of Mr. Bratt’s claims, one can look at our performance. In the 1990s, Laurence Decore won 32 seats and had full slates. While today, we struggled to get candidates and were only able to run candidates in 2/3 of Alberta’s provincial ridings. Consequently, it should not be a surprise that we have only one member in the Legislature. While there is a reservoir of “Good Will” with the electorate, one can hardly say that the Alberta Liberal Party is in good shape. With that being said, it is surprising and mindboggling that the Alberta Liberal Party Board decided to delay the Leadership race.
Other Political Parties in the same, or even more difficult, situation(s) have found success in proceeding with an immediate leadership race. In 2015, when Danielle Smith crossed the floor and took almost all Wildrose MLAs with her, the Wildrose Party had a problem. It was compounded when Premier Prentice hinted that he would call an early election. The decision of the Wildrose Party was extraordinary: speed up the leadership process. Instead of having the Leadership Election on June 6th, the race was moved up to March 28, 2015. Only days after that event, Premier Prentice asked the Lieutenant-Governor to drop the writ and the Alberta Election was started. If anyone needs to be reminded, the Wildrose Party captured 22 of 87 seats and the status of Official Opposition.
However, given the same set of facts we chose to delay a leadership race. For those who don’t remember, our leader – Raj Sherman – resigned his seat within 39 days of Danielle Smith. Presumably, he thought that the Alberta Liberal Party could have selected a new leader in the same compressed time. History has shown that he was wrong. For while Danielle Smith crossed the floor – effectively resigning her leadership – on December 17, 2015 and Dr. Sherman resigned in January 26, 2015, only the Alberta Liberal Party continues to have an interim leader. Even worse, we do not have a process for selecting a permanent leader.
If you have any doubt, let us look at what happened on January 9th, 2016. The Board of the Alberta Liberal Party was supposed to clarify the details for the scheduled leadership. It was supposed to end on April 23, 2016 with a leadership vote. However, that same board decided something wholly different: to delay the process. Consequently, the Board of the Alberta Liberal Party scrapped its existing process. If this could happen once, why would anyone in the right mind trust them a second time? To make matters worse, at the January 9th, 2016 meeting, the Board put off making a decision about any other details entirely. This is hardly the courage that was found by the Wildrose Party only a year ago. Nor is it similar to the courage found by the Alberta NDP when they asked the people of Alberta to trust them with power.
What makes this worse is that the indecision of the Board of the Alberta Liberal Party means that Leadership Candidates cannot act. For in Alberta, Leadership Candidates must abide by the Alberta Election Act. In that Act, it is clear that Leadership Candidates cannot accept donations until the Party informs Alberta Election that the race has started. Consequently, no race can begin until April 23, 2016. Or put differently, unless someone is retired or a millionaire, Alberta Liberals will not get a chance to talk about who they want to be. So if the aim of the Board was to encourage more candidates, they have likely done the opposite. If this is supposed to show us how the Alberta Liberal Party deals with challenges, I am discouraged. For we have a lot of challenges to deal with because we need to have change.
Change is what we need and change is what we want. Just take our policy platform in the last election. When it existed, it was bare. This is probably why Mr. Bratt felt that we are disorganized. Or put differently, if policy formation is the essential purpose for a political party, then ALP is not doing its job.
To put this concept into concrete terms, think of car manufacturers. Companies like Ford, Fiat and BMW design, build and sell cars to the public based on what they think the public or government wants. GM created the Chevy Volt in the 1990s because of governmental regulations. Toyota and Honda brought out hybrid cars because they thought the public was ready for it. The Nissan Leaf – one of the first market driven electric cars – faced the same reality.
The question is if the Alberta Liberal Party were to do the same (i.e. become a “Policy Manufacturer”), what would they come up with. If the last election was any indication, the answer would be not very much. As I helped out on Susan Wright’s and Shelley Wark-Martyn’s campaigns, I can tell you that the policy wasn’t thin, it was non-existent. If, as has been argued by some ALP members, a leadership race is supposed to help the party to come up with different perspectives, one has to wonder why the Board would abandon the present date for the hope of something better.
Furthermore, in getting back to this idea of car manufacturers, one must admit that cars need to be sold. The same is true when it comes to policy. I am one of the very few people – who without being prompted or having a gun put to my head – will willingly spend hours poring over policy platforms, campaign documents, Hansard, White Papers and Royal Commission Reports. Most people – members of political parties included – don’t read these long-winded pieces of paper. Most citizens require a person like Justin Trudeau or Bob Rae to act as their conduit for political messages.
While I do acknowledge that Dr. David Swann is a good, honest, principled man, he is not the best political pitch person. This is not to diminishment of Dr. David Swann’s 11 year career as being the trusted voice of Calgary Mountain-View and his 40 year career as being a medical doctor. While I would ask Dr. David Swann to be a Minister or to look after my daughter in a heartbeat, we have to ask one simple question: can we build a robust and energetic party including building and maintain riding associations, attracting new members and potential new candidates between now and 2017 with Dr. David Swann as the leader? In other words, the Alberta Liberal Party has needs to be able to construct policy and sell it. We can’t do that right now.
I would suggest that we take a lesson from our Federal cousins. After the electoral defeat of Mr. Ignatieff, the Federal Liberals made some hard choices. Michael Ignatieff resigned on May 2, 2011. By May 19, 2011, the Federal Board had given a rough sketch of the succession timeline and process. While Leadership Candidates didn’t know all of the rules, they knew that the Leadership Convention would be between March 1 and June 30, 2013. Leadership Candidates also knew that the hope was to move from delegacy-style event to a popular vote selection process. Candidates also knew that the interim leader would be Bob Rae because he was chosen on May 25, 2011.
Compare that to the present situation of the Alberta Liberal Party. Since Raj resigned his seat in January 26, 2015, we have set one date and then cancelled it. It will have been between 365-400 days before the Alberta Liberal Party decides anything. This is not encouraging.
I don’t blame Dr. David Swann. He was asked to take a vow of neutrality. Unlike Bob Rae, who came in with the authority to stop the internal party bickering, Dr. Swann has been asked to do a different job. For that I both respect and honour his contribution. The same thing cannot be said of the Board.
I started this piece noting that Alberta NDP had a strong sense of itself. The truth is that their “brand” came from strong leadership. It came from the actions not only of Rachel Notley but her predecessors, like Brian Mason and Raj Pannu, and strong, ever present riding associations. Rachel Notley’s success is a result of years of effort and toil. Her “small” challenge was to become Premier. As I hope I have shown, we have a bigger struggle and putting off our leadership race was more than just unhelpful, it was detrimental. It will mean that we will have more trouble finding leadership candidates; we will have more trouble selling our party to new members and have more trouble retaining associations. For all of these entities will be looking for an energy, vision or brand which a leadership contest would have brought. Sadly, instead of piggy-backing off the wins of Hehr, Kang, Boissonnault and Sohi, we have left ourselves again to the whims of Fortune and Chance.