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

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Alberta Liberal leadership candidate 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 Dr. 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 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 Swann as leader -- 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 Dr. Raj Sherman, MLA for Edmonton-Meadowlark -- this is going to make the Liberals' existential crisis much worse.

To be blunt, the problem is 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.

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 Sherman as their leader, but 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 David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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