Whether or not the Alberta New Democrats do anything about changing their leader any time soon, now that Canada’s laziest legislature has closed for its long summer break there is another completely non-controversial task they need urgently to address.

To wit: nominating candidates for the next provincial general election.

After the March 2008 general election that saw then-trusted Conservative leader Ed Stelmach returned to office by a more-massive majority than even his most-loyal loyalists predicted, there was a lot of talk in Alberta NDP circles about the need to nominate candidates in plenty of time for the next election. No way should New Democrats ever again be surprised by something as predictable and inexorable as the Alberta electoral process, plenty of NDP supporters said at the time.

Well, here we are two years later and virtually nothing has happened. Well, two hard-working teachers, Deron Bilous and former Edmonton-Calder MLA David Eggen, are applying themselves to get nominated. Bilous is seeking the nomination at a meeting May 5 in Edmonton-Beverly-Clareview, and Eggen, with his old riding gerrymandered out of existence, plans to run in Edmonton-Glenora. But other than that, there’s precious little activity.

If you talk to Alberta New Democrats nowadays, plenty of them will tell you there is no urgency whatsoever. After all, Stelmach has said there’d be no election until March 2012, and the premier is known to be a stubborn and determined man who won’t change his mind even when he needs to. Ergo: it’ll be two years before the next election; everyone can go back to sleep

Don’t count on. Because that was then and this is now.

The key difference now is that Stelmach is no longer the trusted and popular figure he was in 2008. Those notorious “No Plan” TV ads attacking Stelmach and the Conservatives may not have done much for the unions that bankrolled them back in 2007, but they seem to have set the tone for public attitudes about the premier ever since.

That is, while the Tories were reelected big time, the no plan accusation stuck — thanks in part to the Conservatives’ own repeated fumbles, of course. Regardless of the reason, the Conservatives’ legislation attempting to ban similar ads criticizing the government before an election won’t make the no-plan perception go away. Today, Stelmach and many members of his government are widely seen by Albertans as nincompoops who just can’t get the job done.

That’s not good news for the Conservatives in a province where voters don’t much care if you’re a nice guy, but do expect their governments to be run by people they see as capable of doing the job.

But it’s not necessarily good news for opposition parties if they can’t get their acts together to prepare for an election against Stelmach’s stumblebum caucus. Indeed, one thing that still works for the Conservatives is the equally pervasive popular perception that the centrist opposition parties are even less competent than the government. As Albertans so frequently explain their Tory votes: “What are the alternatives?

As a result, Alberta voters dissatisfied with the government are for now parking their protest votes with the far-right Wildrose Alliance. But that could change after the Alliance’s general meeting this June in Red Deer, when the Wildrosers are going to have to release a policy platform. If it flops — as it could as they struggle to balance public caution with the far-right wish list of their radical base — opportunities will be created for the parties in the centre.

With the disunited Liberals focused on a misconceived strategy of painting their leader as a nice guy who really cares (all true, but irrelevant to Alberta’s pragmatic voters) and the Alberta Party still holding endless kitchen-table kaffeeklatsches, this presents a unique opportunity for New Democrats.

But nothing is likely to come of it if they don’t quickly nominate strong candidates in key ridings.

There are plenty of reasons for the Tories to find an excuse to call an election early. After all, while they’re still in the lead according to most reputable polls, Wildrose support continues to grow. What’s more, Stelmach’s leadership is being questioned within his own fearful caucus. At least one well-placed Conservative cabinet minister has quietly set up a committee to seek the leadership in case the premier steps down – or is skidded.

For the NDP, this adds up to an urgent need to find good candidates immediately and nominate them. It’s time to get cracking!

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

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe...