Other members of the Alberta Liberal Party started Monday with a unique problem: not a single person had registered for their leadership race.
Deadline came at 5 p.m. Friday, then went, and the party appeared to erase the leadership section of its website. On Monday, they released a statement saying the party had officially closed nominations and since no candidate had come forward, they were calling. For no one.
“It is undeniable that this is a difficult time for our party and for politics in this province,” said party chair Helen McMenamin.
“We see signs of a brighter future for the Alberta Liberal Party. We will continue to work towards that future and a better future for Albertans.
It was an inauspicious end to a race launched with hope and optimism by the oldest surviving political party in the province a few months earlier. In June, Acting Chief John Roggeveen, a Calgary lawyer who has held the fort for more than a year, said in a statement that while he was proud of the work he had done, he was delighted to “pass the torch to a new permanent leader.
“Whoever they are, I’m confident they will succeed in growing the Alberta Liberal movement.
What comes next is anyone’s guess. But it’s a crossroads for a party that once rose to official opposition, an offshoot of one of Canada’s most storied political brands that has long struggled to distance itself from the federal party long regarded with serious in the western Prairies.
“Being leader of the Alberta Liberal Party right now isn’t even a thankless job, it’s all there is after the thankless,” says Dave Cournoyer, a political writer who runs a Alberta politics blog called Daveberta, who once worked in communications for the provincial Liberals. “This is a party that had been the official opposition for 20 years, was a real presence in Alberta politics and had some very good MPs,” he said.
“It’s actually kind of sad.”
It doesn’t help that the race failed against the backdrop of one of the most watched contests in the country. The competition to replace Jason Kenney and lead Alberta’s ruling United Conservatives continues to rage, sparking debates about everything from provincial sovereignty to the mysteries of gas prices. This race approved seven candidates and saw three withdraw or be rejected. In a sign of just how hot this race is, the latter group included, inauspiciously, an ER doctor named Raj Sherman, a former provincial Liberal leader.
Formed in 1905, around the same time Alberta became a province, the Alberta Liberals went on to form government for the first 16 years of the province’s existence under three different premiers. Things have been a bit more uneven since then.
There were low moments, including in the 1960s when they also flirted with oblivion, particularly after Calgary MPP Bill Dickie crossed the floor for the Conservatives, leaving the legislature without Liberal representation for the first time. “The party’s place in the spectrum of Alberta politics needs to be reassessed,” noted an editorial in The Albertan newspaper at the time.
In the early 1980s, the party was in such dire financial straits, with a debt of $175,000 – an amount that is more than double that now – it was forced to lay off all of its staff, according to a Red Deer article Advocate.
But through it all, the party was able to raise funds, find leaders and operate a functioning organization, points out Duane Bratt, professor of political science at Mount Royal University in Calgary. In the second half of the decade, the party rallied and was able to regain a foothold in the Legislative Assembly. The party’s high point – at least after World War I – came in 1993, he notes. That year, the party veered to the right, dominated Edmonton and became the official opposition.
Although the party managed to cling to the opposition for almost two decades – acting as a more left-wing counterweight to the Progressive Conservatives who dominated the province for nearly half a century – it nevertheless experienced a slow decline since then, he said.
“If you were to make a graph, and you would have represented the seats from 1993, it’s straight down.” As well as losing MPs, losing its last seat in 2019, the party has lost votes – it got less than 1% of the vote in the last election – and now, a leader. “Alberta’s oldest party is not dead, but it is on life support,” he said.
He also suffers, according to some, from guilt by association, due to the dislike, bordering on hatred, for Justin Trudeau in many parts of the province. It was also sidelined by the rise of the NPD party, which surged under the leadership of Rachel Notley.
“I don’t know if there’s a goal for the Alberta Liberal Party right now,” Cournoyer said. “I think anyone who would have voted Liberal in the past…those people have moved on to other political parties, and right now the party with almost all that territory is Notley’s NDP.
“You are building a political party out of almost nothing at this point. And you’re competing against a party that basically offers similar values at this point.
But Bratt counters that Alberta could also be at the forefront of a larger trend. He points the finger at the Ontario Liberals, who have just suffered a bitter electoral defeat, and the Parti Québécois, which is struggling to attach itself to Francophones.
“If you hate (Justin) Trudeau, it’s all his fault,” he said. “But I just think the centrist parties have problems in the western world.”
The party’s board is expected to announce the next steps in the coming days.
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