Liberal underdogs no closer to their day

Liberal underdogs no closer to their day; Opposition party still on sidelines as Wildrose moves in on weakened Tories

Edmonton Journal
Mon Feb 1 2010
Page: A1
Section: News
Byline: Trish Audette
Dateline: EDMONTON
Source: Edmonton Journal

For David Swann’s Liberals, the perpetual underdogs of Alberta politics, the challenge of getting noticed is as stark as ever.

Survey national media and you’ll see Danielle Smith, the new leader of the right-wing Wildrose Alliance. She may not have a seat in the legislature, but she got a sitting with CBC National anchor Peter Mansbridge. Rick Mercer of CBC’s The Rick Mercer Report took her on a “first date” to West Edmonton Mall. And scribes considering her chances at toppling a decades-old Progressive Conservative government describe her as “not unattractive.”

In Edmonton, Liberals say what matters to their man — Swann, the activist medical doctor who came to politics to meet a challenge, not to be a politician — is what Alberta voters think, not the rest of Canada.

“It’s been interesting” to watch Smith’s coverage, says the leader of the official opposition. “Some of us are natural at putting our ideas into a short sound bite, and some of us aren’t.”

As support for Premier Ed Stelmach’s government crumbles, Smith’s Wildrose Alliance is picking up steam, disgruntled Tory MLAs and poll numbers.

The Liberals, meanwhile, claim a firm quarter of decided voters.

On the one hand, those are decided voters that Liberals can count on, rain or shine. On the other hand, it’s a tough battle to find new support.

“It’s frustrating when you’re the official opposition and you’re sitting there and wondering how you can get in the game,” says Liberal executive director Corey Hogan.

“It’s hard to compete with the flavour of the month.”

No matter the poll numbers, however, Swann and most Liberals insist Smith’s arrival on the scene is a good thing for provincial politics.

“They help us, essentially, as a fellow opposition (party) and (by) pulling the Tory party as well as themselves on the right,” Swann says.

In recent years, he adds, the Stelmach government has been “pretty fuzzy” in its agenda. Swann describes the government’s spending as “socialist,” while changes to the Human Rights Act under Bill 44 or to property rights laws under Bill 50 were “right wing.”

The Wildrose Alliance’s social and fiscal conservative leaning opens up a middle ground for Liberals to take a stand for progressive Albertans, Swann says.

But not everyone shares Swann’s optimistic vision of a three-way race.

Donn Lovett is a former Liberal organizer who sees a “huge vacuum” in the province’s centrist politics. His assessment of the party?

“We’re not relevant,” Lovett says. Lovett was one of the Liberal party’s campaign organizers during the Calgary-Glenmore byelection last September; he quit the party in December.

The Liberals’ byelection candidate fell just 278 votes behind Paul Hinman, who won the riding for the Wildrose Alliance. The Conservative candidate placed a distant third.

Lovett says it’s clear people aren’t happy with the Stelmach government, but the Liberals haven’t seized the opportunity.

“There are people within this party that have been around for a long time, and they know how to lose,” Lovett says. “They do not know how to win.”

Last year at this time, the party was $400,000 in debt, its seats in the legislature were halved by the 2008 election, and there were haunting rumours the party would have to shut down its only office, in Edmonton.

Today, members estimate the debt is down to about $80,000 (until an audit is done, Hogan’s official number is “below $175,000”). Former Edmonton MLA Mo Elsalhy, who led the party’s renewal efforts last year, says communication has improved, fundraising is up and the party is working on a new logo and website.

“It is probably not fair in the purest of sense,” Elsalhy says of the attention the Wildrose has drawn. “But politics is a game, and it has to be played … I think we’re getting better at playing the game.”

Expect clear strategies in the months ahead regarding health care, the environment, the economy and education, Swann says.

“We’ve been good critics; it’s time to shift gears,” he adds.

Former Liberal and political blogger Dave Cournoyer says the party’s recent efforts to generate “buzz” show potential, but adds: “I’m not holding my breath …

“Outside of the two major cities, support is low.”

The Liberals, Cournoyer argues, have effectively become the “default opposition party,” and they’re in danger of being pushed off the political landscape altogether.

“I’m not sure who can save the Liberal party at this point.”

Laurie Blakeman, the Liberal MLA for Edmonton-Centre, urges patience, however.

Since her 1997 election, Blakeman has seen five party leaders, including Grant Mitchell, Nancy MacBeth, Ken Nicol and Kevin Taft.

“Each successive leader is given less time to figure out the rules of the game,” Blakeman says.

Before her time, Laurence Decore was the Liberal leader with the best chance of taking down the Tories. In 1993, his team collected 40 per cent of the vote to Ralph Klein’s 45 per cent. It took nearly two decades of municipal and provincial political experience to come so close, Blakeman says.

Swann first won his Calgary seat in 2004, and became party leader in late 2008.

Says Blakeman: “He’s doing fine.”

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