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Future bleak for Alberta Liberals; among progressive parties, only NDP has momentum

Alberta NDP Leader Brian Mason

If you want a useful yardstick of the relative health of Alberta's opposition parties, you need look no further than the number of candidates they have nominated for the next provincial election.

Using this measure, it is very unlikely the increasingly marginalized Alberta Liberal Party under Leader Raj Sherman will be capable of fielding a full slate of candidates on election day.

There will be 87 seats in the provincial Legislature after the next election. Here is a prediction: The Liberals will be unable to field a slate of even two-thirds that number, and may only be able to find candidates for about half the seats in the Legislature.

This is not idle mean-spiritedness. It is a forecast based on the difficulty all Alberta opposition parties have finding and fielding candidates, and the number of candidates the parties have nominated to date -- with a general election possibly as close as three months away and certainly coming no later than six months from now.

Here are the nomination numbers for the three major opposition parties, which any sensible Alberta Liberal supporter must find deeply troubling:

New Democratic Party: 60
Wildrose Alliance: 58
Alberta Liberals: 19

Anyone who knows politics knows that while it may be possible to find warm bodies to fill out a slate of candidates, even for governing parties it is difficult to find good candidates with whom electors will really be thrilled. One needs only consider some of the lags in Premier Alison Redford's Progressive Conservative caucus to know the truth of this!

Nevertheless, obviously both the NDP and the Wildrose Party have been doing their work with commitment and seriousness and will have full slates ready to go whenever the writ is dropped. Only the Conservatives will know when that is, of course, because Premier Redford's "fixed election dates" law doesn't fix an election date. It does, however, set the three-month period in which the vote will fall, which is why we can be confident the Liberal nomination numbers are going to be a big problem for the party.

Lacking key political staff and watching their support sag, the Liberals would be in a more difficult position anyway than the NDP or the Wildrose Party, even if they had more candidates.

Nomination numbers are moving targets, naturally. Last night, New Democrats in Edmonton-Centre nominated Candidate No. 60, Nadine Bailey, a veteran campaigner who ran federally for the party in May in the nearby Edmonton-Mill Woods-Beaumont riding. (She was also, I kid you not, nominated in the Canada's Sexiest Candidate contest started by a Toronto blogger who obviously had too much time on his hands.)

The NDP and Wildrose numbers tend to go back and forth as both parties proceed competently toward nomination of full slates. In fact, both will likely have 70 or more nominated within the next couple of weeks.

Meanwhile, the governing Conservatives, at 51 nominations, are a little behind, but given their position as Alberta's Natural Governing Party with a large elected caucus, they will have less trouble finding qualified candidates for the few ridings in which they don't already hold seats. The Alberta Party, which has never made it onto the province's political radar screen and is unlikely to do so now, has nominated only eight.

But while everyone else's numbers are building, the Liberals' tally stumbled backward Monday with the defection of Lethbridge-East MLA Bridget Pastoor to Premier Redford's Tories. This brought nominated Alberta Liberal candidates down from the 20 noted in Dave Cournoyer's useful Daveberta blog, consistently the best source on Alberta nomination tallies and names.

The loss of Pastoor comes on top of announcements by the backbone of the Liberal caucus -- experienced MLAs like former leadership candidate Edmonton-Gold Bar MLA Hugh MacDonald, former leader and Edmonton-Riverside MLA Kevin Taft and Calgary-Varsity's Harry Chase -- that they won't be seeking re-election. Another former potential Liberal leader, Dave Taylor, quit the caucus months ago and now sits as the Alberta Party's sole MLA. He too won't be running again in Calgary-Currie.

This collapse in MLA support is arguably even more serious to the Alberta Liberal Party's prospects than its decline in popular support as recorded by public opinion polls from better than a quarter of the Alberta electorate in the 2008 general election to somewhere between 11 and 15 per cent today.  

As for the NDP and Wildrose Party, while they have similar numbers of candidates nominated and arguably possess similar levels of political skill, they cannot simply be considered interchangeable destinations for protest votes.

You can judge a party by its platform statements or by the people who support it. By either measure, the well-funded Wildrose Party is far to the right of the governing Conservatives. And never forget that despite Wildrose rhetoric to the contrary, Premier Redford and her Conservatives are pretty far to the right.

The Wildrose Party, led by former Fraser Institute functionary Danielle Smith, is dedicated to the proposition all government services ought to be privatized -- and that goes particularly for the work done by the "publicly funded" public health system they promise to maintain with nuanced precision.

By contrast, the NDP led by Brian Mason is unabashedly a party of the progressive centre-left, committed to maintaining and improving publicly financed, publicly operated health care. (This is not something the Liberal leader, not so long ago the Conservative junior minister for health, can say!)

Mason earned his living doing a real job, driving a bus, before remaking himself as an effective Parliamentarian and legislative leader. With Edmonton-Strathcona MLA Rachel Notley, the small NDP caucus has consistently punched above their weight in Question Period.

With neither the Liberals nor the Alberta Party likely capable of nominating full slates of candidates, obviously the NDP is the only progressive opposition party where progressive voters can hope to get any impact with their votes.

Moreover, unlike some elections in the past, the NDP this time has been able to attract remarkably good candidates in all parts of the province. In addition to Ms. Bailey in Edmonton-Centre, there is five-term city councillor Lorna Watkins-Zimmer in Red Deer, Alberta Federation of Labour researcher Shannon Phillips in Lethbridge-West, and former councillor Wanda Laurin in Peace River.

In Edmonton, where the NDP enjoys a significant regional advantage, running ahead of all other opposition parties according to a recent Environics poll, there are candidates like Friends of Medicare Executive Director David Eggen in Edmonton-Calder, a former MLA, teacher Deron Bilous in Edmonton-Beverly and social worker Lori Sigurdson in Edmonton-Riverview.

So, sorry, but by every measure, the future looks very bleak for the Alberta Liberals.

The Wildrose Alliance is a radical right-wing party that would lead Albertans down a dangerous path to wholesale privatization of public services.

In this election cycle in Alberta, the New Democrats are the only progressive party with enough momentum to have a meaningful impact in the next election.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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