Alberta Liberal Leader David Swann

Another shoe must drop before the new campaign by provincial Liberal Leader David Swann to “unite the left” in Alberta has any hope of success.

Unfortunately for Swann — since he can expect no immediate reciprocal gesture from the province’s New Democrats — it is his Liberals who will have to make the next necessary concession too.

Now that the Liberals have called on other parties (and by implication those parties’ supporters) to come to Papa, or at least to find some way to co-operate, they need to commit themselves to the very hard decision not to run strong candidates in the few Edmonton-area ridings where the Alberta New Democrats have a chance.

This will be extremely difficult for the Calgary physician’s own Liberal supporters to swallow. But risking even more than he has already is the only way to prove that this is not just a halfhearted gesture required by the Liberal convention resolution that was narrowly passed last May.

Oddly enough, as Swann seems to be an unusually sincere politician whose personal beliefs are far more progressive than those of Liberals in other provinces, it is likely he really meant his entreaty to the supporters of “progressive political parties” to find a way to make common cause at a historic moment when the usually monolithic right-wing vote in Alberta is split.

Swann’s plea appeared as a half-page advertisement in Alberta’s two largest newspapers on July 7. Under the heading “Let’s Talk,” it argued that working together is the way to “build a progressive alternative” to endless right-wing rule, whether under the pragmatic Conservatives of Premier Ed Stelmach or the market fundamentalist Wildrose Alliance of Danielle Smith. Indeed, one senses that Swann has picked this issue as his hill worth dying on.

The advertisements — signed by Swann and party President Tony Sansotta — beseeched other political parties and their supporters to work with the Liberals toward the goal of achieving “a once-in-a-generation opportunity to unseat the Conservatives.”

Of course, placing the ads was the easy part. Now Swann’s Liberals have to show that they mean it. To do that, they will have to fight both die-hard New Democrats and their own fiercest partisans, and perhaps the kitchen kaffeeklatschers of the nascent Alberta Party as well.

At least the leader of the Alberta Party, which has no MLAs and which for months has been holding meetings in homes across the province supposedly to find out what Albertans think, did not slam the door on the idea. He did suggest the AP would really prefer just to go on chitchatting and drinking coffee.

The New Democrats under Brian Mason said hell no: “We believe that this ad by the Alberta Liberal Party is an act of desperation by a party that is clearly floundering and worried about holding onto the seats it does have,” Mason sniffed at a news conference called in response to media interest in the ads.

In a long commentary posted on Facebook, influential Lethbridge-based NDP activist Shannon Phillips provided a distilled version of the official New Democrat theme: “People who think the ‘left’ or ‘progressives’ should unite are interested in power. Full stop. That’s all they want. They don’t care about how they get it, and they have no plan for once they’ve got it,” she wrote. “…If the Liberals pull their heads out and leave the NDP alone on the left, the NDP increases their vote, and the Liberals actually get a shot at power.”

Phillips and many others in the NDP argue there is no guarantee Liberal or New Democratic voters in ridings where their party has pulled back would vote for the other partner in this effort. They suggest the Liberals would be smarter to go after Red Tories than coalition minded New Democrats. This argument could turn out to be true, of course, but to many progressive Albertans it smacks of a call to leave us Knee-Dips to our 9 per cent, where we’re happy, secure and in no danger of ever having to make the hard choices required to govern.

Given such objections by the potential allies to whom Swann was reaching out, the chances of his effort succeeding seem slim.

Still, the ad was a significant development. For one thing, it was a rare acknowledgement that the Alberta Liberals recognize what they’ve been doing isn’t working.

More significantly, the fact the Liberals ran the ads — and the New Democrats’ defensive response — suggest the leaders of all centrist parties in Alberta are starting to hear from their supporters that they would welcome some form of co-operation that could finally topple the Tories and stave off the Wildrose Alliance.

There is no polling yet to prove this supposition, but informal Internet polls like one on the CBC seem to indicate that ordinary Albertans are warmer to the idea than their political leaders. Likewise, letters to the editor of Alberta papers have so far been mainly positive.

Count on it that the New Democrats have heard the same things from many of their supporters as the Liberals are hearing from theirs.

New Democrat leaders will resist the idea of co-operation just as many Liberals activists did last May. But if Swann dares to go further and drop the other shoe, rank and file members may just take up the idea and push their leaders to a level of co-operation that could actually bring positive change to Alberta.

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

David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...