Third Option

The strange fate of the Alberta Liberal Party

By Frank Dabbs

The Alberta Liberals have a new leader. Calgary lawyer David Khan won the 2017 race against Calgary lawyer Kerry Cundal with 55 per cent of the 1,661 votes cast. A cogent issue divided the two. Cundal was open to discussing a merger or other strategic deal with moderate progressives before the 2019 provincial election. Khan wanted to retain, nurture and grow the Liberal Party, and define it as the centrist alternative to the NDP on the left and the United Conservative Party on the right.

With Alberta’s next election just over a year away, the Liberals see fertile ground beneath their feet. Says party president Karen Sevcik, “We will campaign as the third option to the NDP and the united conservatives, and will aim to be the balance of power if there’s a minority government.”

In January 2015, just three years ago, the Alberta Liberals were in a shambles.

The party was leaderless after the abrupt resignation of Dr. Raj Sherman under the cloud of a $500 administrative penalty imposed by Elections Alberta for violating political donation limits. The chief elections officer also ordered the Liberals and the Edmonton-Meadowlark constituency to repay $4,000 that Sherman had donated to his own riding organization. Sevcik said this bill devastated a party struggling to regain its financial balance after taking 13 years to pay down the million-dollar debt run up in the campaign of 2001.

Sherman had been a disruptive choice as leader in 2011 when he defeated two long-standing Liberal Party establishment members, Edmonton MLAs Hugh MacDonald and Laurie Blakeman. Sherman, an emergency room physician, had been a rebel Progressive Conservative MLA from 2008 until 2010, when he was suspended from caucus by Premier Ed Stelmach for criticizing wait times in Alberta hospitals. He sat as an independent in the Legislature until the Liberal campaign to replace reluctant leader Dr. David Swann.

Nothing good happened for Sherman or the party under his leadership. On the eve of the May 5, 2015 election, the Liberals lacked an organized presence in more than 30 of the province’s 87 constituencies. The caucus and the party staff were quietly at odds. Lifelong volunteer David Hastings says a lot of little things added up to a lack of political discipline and loyalty. Political professionals hired by the Liberals to solve the party’s problems had arrived, become disenchanted with the fractious culture that disabled serious political work, and gladly departed, he says.

Alberta Liberals were also struggling with internal divisions over their relationship with two other progressive parties, the Greens and the newly reconstituted Alberta Party. These divisions spilled into the public arena when Edmonton-Centre veteran MLA Blakeman insisted, over Liberal establishment objections, on campaigning simultaneously in 2015 for the Green, Liberal and Alberta parties, publicly highlighting the three parties’ common ground. Her point was moot, as she lost her seat in the NDP sweep of Edmonton.

That year, Liberals were not voters’ choice as the progressive alternative to the PCs. “Albertans were fed up with 44 years of the PCs. The NDP were ready to replace them and we weren’t. We were without a leader and we weren’t well organized,” says Sevcik. “Dr. Swann hadn’t yet stepped in as interim leader. We only had 56 candidates for 87 constituencies. The NDs were well organized, had candidates in 87 constituencies—and they had Rachel.” The Liberals garnered just 4 per cent of the popular vote (their lowest share in over 30 years) and retained only Dr. Swann’s Calgary-Mountainview constituency.

New leader David Khan must differentiate his party from other progressives on the centre and left.

After the election, things got even worse. Just when the Liberals thought they had reached rock bottom, something else came along to push the party further toward its nadir. In the chaotic months after the embarrassing defeat, Elections Alberta delisted 35 Liberal constituency organizations for failing to keep up with the financial disclosures required by law.

What had happened to the once great party that was Alberta’s first political dynasty?

The Alberta Liberal Party is a political institution as old as the province. Just a day after Wilfrid Laurier’s federal government formed the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan on September 1, 1905, the new Lieutenant Governor, George Bulyea, asked provincial Liberal leader Alexander Rutherford to form a government, making Rutherford the first premier of Alberta. The Liberals won a majority in the first provincial election, two months later on November 9, and were re-elected in 1909, 1913 and 1917, governing for 16 years.

June 7, 2017, marked exactly 100 years since the Alberta Liberals last won an election and formed government. The Liberals were defeated in 1921 by the United Farmers of Alberta. The compelling issue was self-government by a made-in-Alberta party. The Liberals had been mortally wounded by a telephone pole scandal. In a fruitless attempt to bribe the farmer vote, Alberta Government Telephones had shipped telephone poles to rural areas. There was no intention to extend service to remote locations, and the ruse was uncovered before voting day. Over the century since, the Liberals have been the official opposition for 60 years. A heady title, but more often than not the official opposition in name only, in actuality a tiny legislative rump.

During the 14 years of UFA government the official opposition Liberals went through several leaders, most notably Charles Stewart, Joseph Shaw, John McDonald and William Howson. The only Liberal historical footnote in those years is a tawdry one. In 1934 Edson mayor Allan MacMillan and his daughter Vivian sued Premier John Brownlee for seducing Vivian. The trial evidence was she-said, he-said and the case was dismissed. However, for years rumour and gossip made much of the fact that MacMillan was a staunch Liberal. It was alleged he had conspired to ruin Brownlee’s career. A Social Credit election landslide the following year ended the UFA dynasty.

In the 36 years that followed, the Liberals produced only one promising challenger to Premier Ernest Manning—James Harper Prowse, a Taber-born lawyer and officer in the Canadian army during the Second World War. After becoming party leader in 1947 Prowse steadily improved the party’s public presence. He was a compelling orator and the party won 15 seats in the 1955 election. This came on the strength of allegations that Social Credit MLAs were receiving preferential treatment at the government-owned Alberta Treasury Branches and that Manning himself had improperly benefited from a complicated land swap that included the government and concerned a parcel on his farm being acquired by a gravel company.

Nothing came of the Manning allegations. Prowse by this time was battling alcoholism, so he left Alberta politics in 1959 and was appointed to the Senate seven years later. He was succeeded by Grant MacEwan, who was later rewarded for his service as opposition leader with an appointment by Prime Minister Lester Pearson to be Lieutenant Governor of Alberta.

In 1971 the election of Peter Lougheed, a moderate PC, obviated the need for a centrist Liberal alternative. “We didn’t do well in the Lougheed years, because Alberta already had a liberal premier,” recalls lawyer, author and long-time Liberal activist Darryl Raymaker.

Although there have been lean times for Alberta’s Liberals, none were bleaker than the 14 years Lougheed was premier. The joke during those years was that although they were the official opposition, the Liberals held their meetings in a telephone booth.

Khan dismisses the Alberta Party as “PC-lite” because it’s never stated what its core values are.

The election of 1982 was the party’s lowest point. It was the beginning of winter, November, a cold, grey time of year. Lougheed had been premier for 11 years and was at the zenith of his dominance over the province’s public life. Many Albertans wanted to punish the federal Liberal government for its National Energy Program, launched in 1980, which had side-swiped Alberta’s economy. Egged on by campaigning PCs, voters saw the provincial Liberals as a proxy.

“It was rough. I was having trouble getting candidates,” recalls then-party leader Nick Taylor 35 years later. “On the last weekend of the campaign I gave a speech in Red Deer, hoping to squeeze out a few more votes. Some bright young reporter asked me after the speech, ‘Mr. Taylor, if you wake up on Tuesday and find you have been elected premier, what is the first thing you will do?’

‘Demand a recount,’ I said.”

None was necessary. The Liberals did not take any seats.

Twice during the 44-year PC political dynasty the Liberals were resurgent, once led by Edmonton lawyer and businessman Laurence Decore (from 1988 to 1994), and once by academic and policymaker Kevin Taft (from 2004 to 2008). Decore’s Liberals won 32 seats in the general election of 1993, forming the biggest opposition in Alberta’s history. Taft led the party to 16 seats in 2004. On both occasions, the Liberals held the PCs to less than 50 per cent of the popular vote but were nonetheless defeated by Premier Ralph Klein’s machine.

In the past 50 years Alberta’s Liberals have never reconciled the goals of the provincial party and national party. They have not created a persuasive progressive identity and agenda. They have lacked the strength of leadership to match their three main adversaries, premiers Ernest Manning, Peter Lougheed and Ralph Klein. They have not assembled a coalition of interests into the big tent needed to elect a government.

Former Liberal policy vice-president and now executive vice-president David Gamble sees some daylight, however, in the federal Liberals’ success in selling “more acceptable” centrist policies in urban Alberta. In 2015 the party won four seats in the province: former MLAs Kent Hehr and Darshan Kang are now the MPs for Calgary-Centre and Calgary-Skyview, while Randy Boissonnault and Amarjeet Sohi won in Edmonton-Centre and Edmonton-Mill Woods, respectively. The former are the first two Liberals elected federally in Calgary since 1968. “When we went door to door for provincial candidates in 2015 we were told that provincial Liberals were too far left but federal Liberals were okay,” Gamble recounts. “In the next provincial election, if [people] are comfortable voting federal Liberal, we want them to be comfortable voting provincial Liberal.”

Mount Royal University political philosopher Lori Williams says the Alberta Liberals have been formally separated from their federal cousins for 30 years but a perceived connection has nonetheless been an anchor—particularly since the NEP and Pierre Trudeau—weighing down their fortunes by “tainting their brand.” Federal Liberal leaders and prime ministers “fly over Alberta and don’t even bother with it,” Williams says. “Even though the provincial and federal parties aren’t the same, people who aren’t knowledgeable or attentive to politics see them as one entity.”

“The other thing that’s critical is the Liberals haven’t operated as a party,” she adds. “It’s been a bunch of independent MLAs or funders or organizers who have their own vision of how things should happen, and they’ve been historically pretty bad at supporting their leader. In fact, they’ve attacked or undermined their leader. It has been very difficult to lead the party because of those differences.”

Williams also sees weakness in the party’s lack of visionary leadership. There have been good leaders but not the kind who can generate momentum, she says. “People are looking for a political home, and if a leader can provide them with a credible alternative, that’s where they’re going to go,” she says. “The challenge for the Liberals is that Rachel Notley is a very credible leader. Notley has incredible political skills and instincts. She’s very pragmatic even though she leads an ideologically left-wing party.”

But it’s not just leadership—it’s whether there’s space for that party to move into, Williams says. “The Liberals aren’t in people’s minds as the alternative, and to expect that shift in one election is a bit much. [However], if people are disenchanted with the NDP and don’t like what’s happening with the new unite-the-right party, that actually might make things right for people to consider an alternative.”

Williams thinks the province’s new united conservative party represents a shift to the right, that it will not be a big-tent party like Peter Lougheed’s was. The centre could open up as a result, creating opportunity for the Liberals.

It’s fundamentally important for David Khan to differentiate the Liberals from other progressives on the centre and left. “We share a lot of principles and values with the NDP,” he says. “They’ve implemented many of our policies—most notably Bill 6 on farmworker safety. But they’re ham-fisted. We’re fundamentally different from the NDP because we’re not beholden to the unions and other special interests. We’re more concerned about being fiscally prudent and getting the government’s financial house in order. We’re more concerned about jobs and the economy and more concerned about oil and gas. On the environment our policies are less about optics than the NDP’s and more about doing things effectively. The carbon tax, for instance, has been a disappointment in its crafting and implementation.”

Since the NEP and Pierre Trudeau, the federal connection has been an anchor weighing down Alberta Liberals’ fortunes by tainting their brand.

Khan dismisses the Alberta Party as “PC-lite” because he says it has never stated its core values or what its policies would be. “The Alberta Party is a marketing experiment to rebrand a far-right conservative party as moderate. It’s been unable to move beyond central Calgary,” he says. Gamble adds that while Alberta Party leader Greg Clark got plenty of Liberal support to win his Calgary-Elbow riding in the 2015 election, his claim to be in sync with Alberta Liberals is just a trick.

Adds Khan, “If we Liberals are cautious and play to our situation today, with only one MLA and weighed down by the last election, I would say five to eight seats would be a positive outcome for us. But if we decouple from the recent past and say the 2015 election was an anomaly for many reasons that have already been corrected, we can do better. Much better.”

The challenge for Khan as he begins his leadership is to rejuvenate the party. In his victory speech he said, “We have the opportunity to create a better Alberta with liberal ideas and values, to make a province we all want to live in. A province of enterprise and fairness; a community of equals. To do this we need to organize and modernize the party.”

Khan thinks most Albertans are “small l” liberals, and that if he can capture that vote, his party has a real chance to put new people with a new vision in government. He says he wants to recruit 45 potential cabinet ministers among the 87 candidates the Liberals hope to have in 2019. It’s a giant task. Khan embarked on his quest June 4 with just 2,200 members, roughly a quarter of the number of people who voted in the 2011 Liberal leadership race, and a sliver of the more than 100,000 members the PCs had on the rolls for their 2017 leadership vote. In the first quarter of 2017 the Alberta Liberals raised $47,000, a fraction of the million dollars that Kenney spent to win the PC leadership.

The Liberals’ vital statistics, however, are the best they’ve been in years. At the time of the party’s annual meeting last June, Elections Alberta had reinstated most constituencies; the party expected the two delinquent ridings to comply imminently with the requirements for reinstatement.

A year ago, it was a fair question to ask Liberals, Why not just throw in the towel and merge with other progressives under a less tainted name?

“Now,” says Khan, “we are way past that.”

Journalist Frank Dabbs is the author of two political biographies, including Ralph Klein: A Maverick Life.


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