It was a tale of two parties last weekend as supporters of both the Alberta Progressive Conservatives and Liberals gathered for their annual general meeting and conventions. As Ed Stelmach and his long-ruling Tories nestled themselves in the seclusion of the pristine Rocky Mountains while holding their convention in the posh Jasper Park Lodge, the less-financially-endowed Alberta Liberals opted for a more modest (and affordable) venue: a hotel on Stony Plain Road in west Edmonton.
The Alberta Liberals were only able to attract about 200 supporters (a notably small gathering for a major political party) from across the province to Edmonton in order to elect a new party executive and discuss the direction of their party over the Oct. 4 weekend. It was quite a contrast to conventions not too long ago where Liberal activists seriously talked about dislodging the 37-year old PC dynasty.
At the same time as the leadership race is moving forward, a larger and arguably more important discussion is happening about the Liberals' future, and it had a prominent spot at the "Turning Point" convention.
The first morning of the convention saw Alberta Federation of Labour President Gil McGowan make a plea for cooperation between the Liberals and New Democrats. McGowan's proposal was similar to the one recently voted down by New Democrats at their recent convention. Though McGowan's proposal did not go to a vote, it generated quite a bit of discussion throughout the weekend.
Later that day, Lougheed-era cabinet minister-turned-Liberal supporter David King moderated one of the weekend's more popular discussion sessions, during which he asked delegates to think about and discuss everything from changing the Liberal name to finding new ways of rebuilding constituency and party organizations, to even starting a new party altogether. There was little consensus, however, between the diehard Liberals supporters and more open-minded progressives, so it's too soon to tell whether the Liberal Party will move forward or continue its traditional approach to Alberta politics.
Opinion was also split among the leadership candidates on the future direction of the Alberta Liberals. Candidates Dave Taylor and Mo Elsalhy have positioned themselves as protectors of the Liberal brand, and Taylor has even gone so far as to position himself as the "unapologetic Liberal" of the race. On the opposite side of the discussion is Calgary MLA David Swann, who is unapologetic about admitting the toxicity of the Liberal brand in Alberta. Since the March provincial election, Swann has hosted a series of town hall meetings across Alberta and talked publicly about changing the party name and leading the party in a different direction.
I'm sympathetic to Swann's argument. With their party swimming in debt and receiving a 20-year low in popular support in the last election, Alberta Liberal supporters should not be afraid to embrace the discussions that occurred this past weekend. They should also remember that with the Tories approaching their 40th anniversary in government, Albertans who are serious about changing how this province is governed need to start thinking and acting outside the box. Many Alberta Liberals are proud of having served as a strong opposition in the past, but even with a popular leader like former Edmonton mayor Laurence Decore, they have never succeeded in overcoming the PC political machine. It is easy to rest on your ideological laurels, but it is just as important to remember that it's not impossible for a young, energetic thinker to come out of nowhere and sweep the traditional parties to the sidelines, much like Peter Lougheed did 37 years ago.
See Magazine, Thurs Oct 9 2008
Byline: Dave Cournoyer