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Alberta Liberals hit by defection as implosion continues; new poll suggests NDP potential for growth

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Floor-crossing Alberta MLA Bridget Pastoor

No one can say the Alberta Liberals don't have movement. The trouble is, it's all downhill.

That the slow-motion implosion of the Alberta Liberal Party is gathering speed was evident on two fronts yesterday, as one of the party's veteran MLAs skedaddled for the government benches and a new poll by Environics Research Group confirmed the party is mired in third place among the province's opposition parties.

The departure of Lethbridge-East MLA Bridget Pastoor, 71, was hardly the surprise the media made it out to be. She's been openly flirting with the governing Progressive Conservatives since early 2009, and like a lot of Alberta politicians of various stripes she was a Conservative before she was anything else.

But the timing of Pastoor's floor crossing was dramatic, a symbolic slap in the face of the Liberal leader by freshly appointed Premier Alison Redford on the first day of Part II of the Legislature's abbreviated fall resumed sitting, almost a year to the day after Sherman threw a spanner into the Conservative works by getting himself fired as Parliamentary Secretary for Health, kicked out of the Conservative caucus and setting the stage for then-premier Ed Stelmach's unhappy departure from power.

Back in November 2010, with the province in a tizzy about the state of health care and Sherman openly lambasting his own party, the part-time Emergency Room doc and Tory MLA for Edmonton-Meadowlark seemed like the most popular politician in the province. And while the sun shone last summer and fall, the by-then Independent Sherman was able to make hay with his popularity -- getting himself elected leader of the Alberta Liberals on Sept. 10.

But that was then and this is now. The stumblebum government of Stelmach has been replaced by a more sure-footed version of the same thing led by Redford, who was sworn in at the start of October, and Sherman and the Liberals find themselves in dire straights.

Hugh MacDonald, the seasoned veteran of many Liberal campaigns and effective MLA who challenged Sherman for the party leadership, has pulled the plug in disgust at the outcome of the weird leadership race, in which the party foolishly allowed anyone to vote, whether or not they were party members.

Liberal MLAs Kevin Taft, Edmonton Riverview, and Harry Chase, Calgary Varsity, had already announced they wouldn't run again. Back in 2010, Calgary-Currie MLA Dave Taylor quit the party, sitting for a spell as an Independent, then as an MLA for the fledgling and barely noticed Alberta Party. He'll retire from politics too when the next election is called.

Party staff is scuttling down the hawsers as the Liberal ship settles in the water.

As for Pastoor, she will run as a Tory in the next election, which, presumably, will fall between March 1 and May 31, according to the fixed-election law promised in this Legislative session by the Redford Tories.

If the latest Environics polling suggests anything, it may be that while Albertans generally liked Sherman as a rebel Tory, and didn't mind him as a principled Independent, they've grown tired of him as the leader of the Opposition. The slide of the Liberals also suggests that Alberta's substantial numbers of die-hard Liberals are finally losing interest in their moribund party with the Conservative Sherman at the helm.

The Environics numbers -- which were collected for the Calgary Herald between Nov. 4 and 8, then sat upon by the newspaper until now for some reason -- show Redford's Tories with a commanding 51-per-cent lead, indicating Albertans are quite satisfied with their government at the end of a tempestuous year.

The province-wide breakdown looks like this:

Progressive Conservatives – 51 per cent

Wildrose Party – 19 per cent

New Democratic Party – 14 per cent

Alberta Liberals – 13 per cent

There's not much joy here for the Wildrose Party under Danielle Smith, whose fortunes have also fallen with the departure of Stelmach and the rise of Redford.

If normal recent patterns persist, you can expect the Wildrose Party to release a poll of dubious provenance in a day or two that shows that party at a higher level and the Conservatives lower, with everyone else in about the same place.

Significantly, however, the Environics results showed Alberta's New Democrats under the steady old hand of Brian Mason second only to the Conservatives in the Capital Region, enjoying 21-per-cent support in the area.

This suggests that the NDP is the only opposition party with the potential for growth in the present circumstances. Coming into the 2008 provincial election at a lower level of support, they lost two of their four pre-2008 Edmonton seats and held on to Mason's in Edmonton-Highlands and Rachel Notley's in Edmonton-Strathcona.

If their current numbers hold, especially if the Wildrose Party can make a strong showing and split the right-wing vote, it's realistic for New Democrats to hope to recapture the two seats they lost in 2008 and return to four seats in the Legislature.

If the New Democrats want to move beyond that, however, they are going to have to move their support into the 25-per-cent range in the Edmonton area -- a development that is within the realm of possibility with the continued decline of Sherman's Liberals.

Since the NDP's regional advantage around Edmonton plays more strongly at current support levels than the Wildrose Party's regional advantage in Calgary, it could be a very close contest between the two parties to see which one emerges as the official Opposition.

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

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