Alberta Liberals’ open nomination scheme will not fix the party’s existential crisis

Alberta Liberals follow party leader Dr. David Swann down a street in Calgary. Alberta political party supporters may not be exactly as illustrated. (Photo grabbed from sveinnbirkir.tumblr.com/.) Below: the real Dr. Swann, Dr. Raj Sherman.


Are they nuts?

In an effort to end their party’s continuing implosion, Alberta Liberals voted at their convention in Calgary yesterday to open their leadership and riding nomination contests to all voters, including those who are not members of their party.

It doesn’t take a PhD in political science to see what’s wrong with this scheme. Talk about handing potential hijackers the keys to the jetliner!

At the riding level, the only thing that will save the fast-fading party from that particular kind of disaster is that outside of a few electoral districts it is now so irrelevant no scheming Tory, perfidious New Democrat or mischievous Wildroser would bother to waste the time needed to derail a Liberal candidate. In other words, why bother to hijack a mode of transportation that’s going nowhere?

Do you doubt that the Alberta Liberals are going nowhere? Consider the words of leadership candidate and Edmonton-Centre MLA Laurie Blakeman, partly recounted to us by the Calgary Herald, which unfortunately didn’t quote her in full detail. “Blakeman, however, believes opening the nomination and leadership votes to members and registered supporters alike is ‘a huge advantage’ for her because she has lots of backers who’ve left the Liberal party,” the Cowtown quotidian reported. (Emphasis added.)

On a similar theme in the same story, departing Alberta Liberal Leader David Swann, under whose unsteady hand the party has faltered so badly, compared membership in political parties to being part of a religious cult. “There is a reluctance to join a ‘religion,’ there is a reluctance to join a ‘cult,’” he told the Herald, apparently in an effort to explain why Albertans are reluctant to join the Alberta Liberals.

But political parties only start to seem like religious cults when they’re down to their final few true believers, still clinging desperately to the faith, and no one else is interested. Alas for the party led by Dr. Swann, physician and MLA for Calgary-Mountain View, that’s pretty much where the Alberta Liberals find themselves today.

Handing the levers of the party’s nomination processes to anyone who happens to wander in from the street is not going to fix this crisis.

Indeed, given the four candidates in the race to replace Dr. Swann as leader – Ms. Blakeman, Edmonton-Goldbar MLA and stalwart Grit Hugh MacDonald, hitherto unknown Calgarian Bruce Payne, who is both an evangelical preacher and trade unionist, and health care gadfly Raj Sherman, MLA for Edmonton-Meadowlark – this is going to make the Liberals’ existential crisis much worse.

To be blunt, the problem is Dr. Sherman, the former Conservative Parliamentary Assistant for Health and part-time Emergency Room physician who was cashiered by Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach last fall for attacking his own government.

Dr. Sherman is personable, presentable and very popular with a significant number of Albertans. He is also a one-issue politician who is persuaded that only he has the answers to Alberta’s health care crisis. As such, a strong case can be made that he is exactly the wrong person to lead a party that is teetering on the edge of extinction.

It is the special responsibility of party loyalists – the kind of people who join political parties, pay dues and get to vote in internal party elections – to think really seriously about who is right and who is wrong for leadership roles.

There is no pleasure in saying that the Alberta Liberals cannot survive Dr. Sherman as their leader, but Dr. Sherman is exactly what they are likely to get if they open their leadership contest to the general public.

The youthful party brain trust on the Alberta Liberal executive that came up with this foolishness claims it was modelled on the U.S. primary system. But this is a misunderstanding of how most U.S. primary elections work. Those elections are conducted by state governments on behalf of the parties, presumably guaranteeing minimum standards. What’s more, the system assumes there are only two parties, and typically only registered party supporters get to vote.

Yesterday’s Liberal decision, at least, is the best news that could be imagined by the fledgling Alberta Party, which ran a blunder-free leadership convention in Edmonton over the weekend and chose a sensible and experienced politician, Hinton Mayor Glenn Taylor, in a vote by 1,200 party members.

As a party dedicated to the proposition that many former Liberal voters are now looking for a new home, the adoption of this ill-thought-out notion as Liberal policy will surely persuade many of Alberta’s remaining hard-core Liberals to consider switching to the Alberta Party.

This post also appears on rabble.ca.

8 Comments on "Alberta Liberals’ open nomination scheme will not fix the party’s existential crisis"

  1. Anonymous says:

    Wow. I'm thankful nobody reads your blog because this is a load of bovine struccus.

  2. Anonymous says:

    States with an open presidential primary
    Alabama
    Arizona
    Arkansas
    Georgia
    Hawaii
    Idaho
    Indiana
    Massachusetts
    Michigan
    Minnesota
    Mississippi
    Missouri
    North Dakota
    South Carolina
    Tennessee
    Texas
    Vermont
    Virginia
    Wisconsin

  3. calgarygrit says:

    David,

    The exact same argument could be made about the US Primary system…all you need to do is register your support for a party there and that's what the ALP is asking for here. In fact, in many primaries even Republicans and independents can vote for a Democratic candidate.

    Also, it's easy to "hijack" a political party now, just by paying $5 a form. I'm sure I don't need to point out any recent examples of this to you.

    Finally, I'd say it's refreshing to see a party actually do something tangible in an effort to "do politics differently" rather than just talking about it.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Good work, Dave, you've got two marginal political parties pissed at you in as many days. When are you going after the NDP?

  5. Brandon E. Beasley says:

    CG, I don't necessarily endorse David's comments, but the Alberta Party IS doing politics differently, and not just talking about it. Our leadership election, public consultations, and ongoing policy formation process has proven that.

  6. Anonymous says:

    It must be a shock to have a party take a definitive stand on anything after spending any period of time in the presence of Alberta Party members.

  7. calgarygrit says:

    BB – I don't want to get into an argument over this because I do like the intent behind the Alberta Party. In the long run, they may very well emerge as the centre/left alternative to the PCs and if they do and I find myself in Alberta, I would certainly vote for them.

    But I am genuinely curious as to what differs the ABParty's leadership election, policy process, and public consultations from other parties? Admitedly, I'm not in Alberta so I may not be up on the specifics, but my understanding is:

    Leadership – People could sign up for a membership and vote for a leader, much the same way every other party selects its leader.

    Policy Process – Members draft policies which are voted on and prioritized at a policy convention, much the same way every other party drafts policy. (I may be wrong on this, so don't hesitate to correct me)

    Public Consultation – I'll agree the Big Listen has been well branded and may have been more extensive than what most parties have done, but a lot of parties hold coffee parties and open Town Halls (heck, even Michael Ignatieff did an "open mike" tour at campuses last year).

    Again, this isn't a critique of the ABParty. They've used traditional and modern political tactics and tools extremelly well. I just still haven't seen what's so different about them. But I'm open to being convinced. Cheers,

  8. Anonymous says:

    I agree with Dan Arnold – I too am puzzled by how the Alberta Party's recent Leadership Race was different than the PC, Wildrose Alliance, NDP and previous ALP Leadership races. I expect that they, like the ALP and the NDP, would publish all donors to the Leadership contenders – so in THAT way they are perhaps marginally more open than the PC Party and the WAP.
    As far as the "registered voter" rules to be set in place tomorrow by the ALP – I'm reposting a post I made on daveberta's blog.
    This initiative reminds me of my youth in Seattle, Washington where my Dad was the Democratic "Precinct Committee Chair." Our neighbours (the Precinct was only a few square blocks) would come together in our living room to vote on delegates, raise money for candidates and otherwise talk politics. Even in those highly politicized days of Nixon and Kennedy, the attendees were NOT all members of the Democratic Party – but were the names of folks who had "Registered as Democratic Supporters." Dad's contact lists for the meeting, as I recall, came from the Voters Registry folks and NOT the Democratic Party.
    In the last 20 years, of course, more folks are registering as Independents but I believe all registered parties continue to have access to them as well for organizing.
    In the last US election the Precinct Committee Chairs (a couple of my now middle-aged plus friends hold these positions) were used by the Clinton & Obama leadership bids – and continue to be the "grassroots" connection with "registered" Democrats.
    Closer to home and in the history of the ALP – the largest number of actual ALP Memberships was during the Decore years when there was NO COST to belonging to the Party.
    Now, with the slippage for every political party in the number of citizens willing to JOIN – and with the current grumbling from Albertans that they don't want to pay $5 to have a say in who will be the next Premier (at least until the next election cycle) this "registered supporter" concept is going to be a winner. Whether the voter joins to support a particular leader (based on ties to unions, arts, medicine, education, a faith-based community, democratic reform etc.) OR just feel like they would like to have a vote on the ALP Candidate or Leadership hopeful – it is an investment of their time. It provides the ALP with voters from the demographics outside of the "usual" political pulse in Alberta and lets members of other parties "flirt" with the ALP. I sold many memberships in support of David Swann's leadership to NDP members, I could have tripled that if there was not the "onus" of "belonging" to the ALP.
    I’m anxious to start signing up registered supporters – as, I’m sure, are the Leadership Candidates!

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