Today’s announcement that Dave Taylor had joined the fledgling Alberta Party as its first MLA is horrible news for the Alberta Liberals and glad tidings for anyone who enjoys being a spectator at the political equivalent of a bar brawl.
Last April 12, the Calgary-Currie MLA pulled the plug on the provincial Liberals to sit as an Independent. The move followed 14 months of frustration for Mr. Taylor after he lost the December 2008 Liberal leadership contest to Calgary physician David Swann, MLA for Calgary-Mountain View. In retrospect, it’s pretty clear Mr. Taylor would have been a better choice for the Liberals, but hey, history is history!
When he departed, Mr. Taylor had harsh words for Dr. Swann, describing him as lacking in both vision and direction. Ever since, there’s been no shortage of speculation about where the former radio talk show host would end up, or whether he’d just pull the plug on politics altogether. Now we know.
With the Liberal Opposition under Dr. Swann apparently disintegrating as quickly as Premier Ed Stelmach’s Conservative government, today’s news that the Alberta Party is viable enough to have an MLA in the Legislature means the province’s loyal cadre of Liberal voters, 12 to 15 per cent of the electorate, now may have another hospitable political home.
After all, the Alberta Party in its present incarnation is strongly influenced by a group of small-c-conservative Liberals in despair at the deterioration of their old party under Dr. Swann, who probably sits well to the left of everyone in his dwindling caucus. The Alberta Party leaders’ rhetoric is aimed squarely at their former party’s supporters. Their goal, surely, is to supplant the Liberals as the key centrist Opposition party in the Legislature with many of the same policies as the Liberals, but without that party’s perpetually damaged brand name.
That the Alberta Liberals are in deep trouble under Dr. Swann can no longer be denied. Mr. Taylor’s departure in April reduced the party’s caucus to eight. Two other MLAs, former leader Kevin Taft, Edmonton-Riverview, and Harry Chase, Calgary-Varsity, say they do not intend to seek re-election. Another two appear to be in search of an exit strategy – Bridget Pastoor, Lethbridge East, flirted with Premier Stelmach’s Tories last year, and Calgary-Buffalo’s Kent Hehr tried pretty seriously to become mayor of Calgary. The remaining four members of caucus are likely to stay Liberals – if they can get re-elected.
It’s ironic, of course, that half the Liberals’ traditional strategic assumption has come true. They always figured Albertans would eventually grow tired of the Conservatives. But they also assumed they’d be the only party there to benefit. Albertans are indeed saying they’re ready for change – but the resulting Tory implosion has led to the creation of new parties, not to more support for the Liberals.
The Alberta Party, of course, is aiming for more than disgruntled Liberal voters. They are also targeting Red Tories fed up with the incompetence of Mr. Stelmach’s crumbling Conservatives but too moderate to support the far-right Wildrose Alliance under its market fundamentalist leader, Danielle Smith.
Meanwhile, other permutations of Mr. Taylor’s announcement include the fact he now has an obvious leg up on winning the leadership of the new party, that pressure on former Conservative Raj Sherman to join the Alberta Party will have increased, and that the possibility of a “pizza Legislature” – less euphonious than a pizza Parliament, but just as interesting – is greatly enhanced.
The Alberta Party has a capable and appealing interim leader in former Edmonton Public School Trustee Sue Huff. What’s more, the bombastic and traditional Mr. Taylor does not really project the kaffeeklatsch intellectualism and youthful cool the party’s founders have tried to exude. But he has one quality that may be more important – to wit, a seat in the Legislature.
If the Alberta Party were to choose their only sitting MLA as leader, they would qualify for a leader’s allowance worth close to a quarter million dollars! If the next Alberta general election is still more than a year out, as Premier Stelmach keeps insisting and as is in fact likely, that cash would come in darned handy to a new party with a year to get on the provincial radar.
No doubt this factor influenced the ambitious Mr. Taylor’s decision, notwithstanding his long-ago promise to sit as an Independent until after the next general election.
As for Dr. Sherman, the former Conservative Parliamentary Assistant for Health kicked out of caucus by Mr. Stelmach on Nov. 22, the fact the Alberta Party has a viable presence in the Legislature may make it more tempting.
The NDP has been pitching Dr. Sherman hard, but the Alberta Party is surely looking better to him now than it did a week ago. After all, Mr. Taylor may have his faults, but he is an effective old-style Question Period performer who could take the less confident Dr. Sherman in hand. Dr. Sherman may conclude the Alberta Party is more appealing to Alberta’s voters, who can be both cynical and naïve, as something new and untainted.
Finally, the entry of the Alberta Party as a real player means there are now five parties with seats in the Legislature – four if you’re a Calgary Herald columnist, but then the Herald never did pay sufficient attention to the NDP.
That gives the House the faint odour of a pizza parlour already. But both the Conservatives and the Liberals have had a terrible year, and yet both command the loyalty of a die-hard core. With two new parties in the mix, and a determined NDP that’s strong in the Capital Region, there’s the potential for enough unpredictable vote splitting to produce a wide-open five-party mash-up after the next election.
Almost overnight, Alberta’s politics have gone from the least interesting in the nation to the most. Mr. Taylor now has a starring role in that story.
This post also appears on rabble.ca.