Retiring Edmonton-Gold Bar MLA Hugh MacDonald

The planned departure of Hugh MacDonald from the crumbling Alberta Liberal Party became official yesterday when paid reporters finally tracked down the Edmonton-Gold Bar MLA and got him to confirm what’s been discussed here in the blogosphere since last week.

When the media eventually found him, MacDonald, 56, was too polite to aim anything but the subtlest jibes at party leader Dr. Raj Sherman, the mercurial former Tory elected in a leadership contest dreamed up by a couple of youthful party officials that let people who weren’t members of the party make the key decision about its future.

Well, the people spoke when they chose Sherman — decisively defeating MacDonald — but it’s hard to image the people speaking cared very much about the Liberal Party except as a vehicle for their candidate’s hobby horses.

“A party is bigger than one person,” MacDonald gently told the Edmonton Journal yesterday, ostensibly referring to himself. “A party is a group of people, and we forget that.” Perhaps, however, he was also taking a sly dig at Sherman, a one-man band if ever there was one.

The loss of the four-term MLA and die-hard Liberal is a much more serious blow to the Official Opposition party than a mere resignation announcement by one individual would normally signal for several reasons.

For one thing, as noted in this space on Monday, MacDonald is one of the hardest working Alberta MLAs in any party, a skilled researcher all on his own with the ability to sniff out scandals buried deep in dull financial reports that were sure to engage the attention of media and embarrass the government.

Indeed, it would be fair to say MacDonald has probably been personally responsible for at least half the Alberta Liberals’ press clippings over the past dozen years.

And the media hits he generated tended to be substantial ones, because of his nose for news and ability to dig it out. Without him, the party will have a hard time engaging the media — as a tired-looking Sherman unintentionally demonstrated yesterday by drifting rudderless through a pointless news conference on how it’s imperative, nay, urgent, nay, essential that Albertans defeat the Tories. Why? Because, he said, “we must remove this government! They have lost the moral authority to govern!”

You know what? That isn’t going to wash with Albertans, whose deeply programmed default position is to vote Tory. If you don’t give them a reason to vote for another party, they won’t do it. “Alberta, you’re getting screwed, it’s time to change your government,” isn’t a reason.

Indeed, this did not seem to impress the media. Reporters looked bored and quickly departed, filing little.

Returning to MacDonald, in addition to his personal qualities, he made Edmonton-Gold Bar the Liberals’ safest seat in Alberta. Arguably, that isn’t so any more. Right wing former Edmonton mayoral candidate David Dorward, who did well running for the Conservatives in the riding in 2008, likely wants another kick at the can.

Moreover, the Wildrose Party has not yet nominated a candidate, but if they find a good one, they could split the right wing vote with the Tories.

In normal times with MacDonald bearing their standard, that would be good news for the Liberals. But with the party seemingly headed for the precipice, the door is open to unexpected outcomes.

All this has New Democrats counting up their recent federal votes in the neighbourhood — NDP 45 per cent, Conservatives 49 per cent over the same real estate, without any Wildrosers to confound conservative voters, and without “Hughie’s” union affiliation to woo those who might otherwise vote NDP.

This has the NDP wondering of their nominated candidate, groundwater specialist and geologist Marlin Schmidt, 33, may suddenly be a contender thanks to the lingering effects of the Orange Wavelet that lapped through Alberta in the spring.

Finally, the loss of MacDonald is not the only departure facing the nine-member Liberal legislative caucus. Calgary-Varsity MLA Harry Chase and Edmonton-Riverview MLA Kevin Taft, a former party leader, have already announced they are retiring. There is no guarantee they will be replaced by Liberals.

Edmonton-Centre MLA Laurie Blakeman, who also lost to Sherman in the leadership contest, was sounding yesterday like a woman who might soon make the same decision as MacDonald. “I’ll admit that I’m trying to figure out what my place in the caucus is,” she told the Journal. “I have, I’m sure, the same questions that must have gone through Hugh’s mind.”

“Bottom line is how much fun is that going to be if I just get pushed off to the side and I’m supposed to be the queen mother? Good Lord, I couldn’t do that.” These hardly sound like the words of a candidate determined to stick by the new leader through thick and thin.

With Sherman at the helm, the Alberta Liberals are falling apart. MacDonald’s official announcement is one sign. The only real surprise is how quickly it’s happening.

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...