A shorter version of this column ran in yesterday’s edition of the Saint City News. In this on-line version, I have added a few footnotes. After you’ve read the column, don’t forget to scroll down, look at the pictures, then vote in the “barber poll” at right.
Last week, Kevin Taft, the best premier Alberta never had, announced he is stepping down as leader of the Alberta Liberal Party. Taft’s decision was inevitable in the wake of the catastrophic March 3 election, in which his caucus was reduced from 16 members to nine despite many indicators before Election Day that Albertans were ready for change. 
For Liberals, this is bad news and good news. Bad news because Taft will never have the chance to lead Alberta, a job at which he would have excelled if only his party could have formed a government. Good news because his decision denotes recognition that the former professor was too pedantic, too fair minded, too uncharismatic ever to lead his party to victory, even over a premier as breathtakingly uninspiring as Ed Stelmach.
For Liberals in St. Albert, it is certainly good news, as it increases the chances they can seize back the right to represent this volatile riding four or five years hence. This will be particularly so if our Conservative MLA spends his time tilting at such electoral windmills as fixed voting dates. 
If they are to succeed, however, Alberta Liberals will have their work cut out for them. For no matter whom they choose as leader, they face a tough strategic conundrum.
Voting Conservative is default behaviour for most Albertans who bother to vote. Not voting at all is the default position for even more – a disgraceful 1.3 million eligible voters in the last provincial election.  This means any opposition party that wants to succeed must do something compelling enough to get both groups’ attention.
By now it should be clear that the NDP has decided it’s not the party to do that. It’s a principled, honourable and thoroughly marginalized organization that’s staked out its territory on the ideological fringe. As NDPers made abundantly clear at their mid-June convention, that’s their story and they’re stickin’ to it. 
But for Liberals to succeed, they must simultaneously achieve two contradictory goals: First, they must persuade significant numbers of NDP and Green voters, many of whom despise Grits even more than Tories, to vote strategically for a Liberal. Second, they need to convince enough soft supporters of the government that change is both beneficial and non-threatening. It wouldn’t hurt if they could also get some of those 1.3 million non-voters off their duffs!
Trouble is, what’s likely to excite voters in Group 1 may turn off voters in Group 2, and vice-versa.
So what are the Liberals to do? They need to start with three things: a new leader, a new name and a new plan.
Now, it’s a given they’ll have a new leader. But simply shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic isn’t going to do the trick. Liberals need a leader who is charismatic and articulate – a contrast, in short, to the rudderless Stelmach. Alas, there’s no one now in the Liberal caucus who can play that role.
This is the Digital Age, and if the Liberals can’t find a charismatic leader who sparkles on TV (hello there, Dave Bronconnier! ) they remain doomed. Dave Taylor and Laurie Blakeman are fine people and good MLAs, but if Liberals choose either, get ready for a 25th straight defeat.
As for the name, sorry, but it’s got to go. It’s beyond obvious that the Liberal brand is simply no good in Alberta. That’s too bad. It’s a nice name. But in Alberta it’s about as popular as a crate of rancid tuna. This isn’t going to change. A glib “New Liberal” moniker  – a la New Labour or, one supposes, New Democrat – isn’t going to help either. Alberta Liberals need to get over it and pick a completely new name – preferably one that symbolically welcomes New Democrats and Greens.
Look at the neighbours, folks! The only way for Social Credit to get back to power in B.C. was a reverse takeover of the Liberal brand. The only way for the Conservatives to come back in Saskatchewan was to re-brand themselves the Saskatchewan Party.
As for a new plan, almost any plan would suffice. Heaven knows, the government doesn’t have one – unless spending ever more and taking trips at taxpayers’ expense counts as planning. No matter how many times Ed Stelmach repeats the P-word in press releases, Albertans know in their hearts those reviled Albertans for Change ads had it right: “No Plan!”  But you’ve got to tell voters what your plan is. Repeating “It’s time,” as Taft did, was obviously not enough.
The Liberals’ great strength is what the other parties hate and fear about them. They’re pragmatic. They usually put people first. They weigh ideas on their merits, not their ideological purity, emphasizing public good over private gain. A plan that makes this clear is the key to bringing new finances, and new votes, to the Liberals.
New leader, new name, new plan: maybe, just maybe, they add up to a new government!
 It’s not just Dr. Taft’s fault, of course. The decline in the Liberals’ electoral fortunes has been fairly steady since their high point under the leadership of Laurence Decore. Consider these statistics:
Total votes for the Alberta Liberal Party, 1993 to 2008:
1993 – 392,899
1997 – 309,784
2001 – 276,854
2004 – 261,471
2008 – 250,862
Total seats for the Alberta Liberal Party, 1993 to 2008:
1993 – 32
1997 – 18
2001 – 7
2004 – 16
2008 – 9
 Total popular vote in the March 2008 election: 951,451. For more statistical information on the election, see the Wikipedia entry on the subject. According to the Calgary Herald (“Election plagued with problems, by Jason Fekete, July 1, 2008), nearly 60 per cent of Alberta eligible voters did not vote, the worst electoral turnout in Canadian history.
 Alas, you can’t relive the horrible “No Plan!” moment. Someone has removed the ad from Youtube.com. Pity!