Former Alberta labour leader Dan MacLennan

What if the Alberta Liberals found a leader who could generate a little excitement — say like Dan MacLennan, the former union leader controversial in labour circles for not being a New Democrat and beloved by the media for his entertainment value and easy way with a quote?

Full-disclosure here: the charismatic former jail guard known to his friends as “Buff” was my boss for many years, and I’ve seldom met a better retail politician, or a luckier one. Never afraid to do something no one else had tried, MacLennan left the union movement more than four years ago to become a senior manager for a major oilpatch construction company.

Last year, he was one of the eight members the government’s advisory committee on health care policy. (Controversial.) He’s now chair of the committee organizing the 2012 national Special Olympics Winter Games in the Edmonton bedroom community of St. Albert. (Less so.)

MacLennan was always a Liberal, and, in case you missed it amid the buzz about the Progressive Conservative leadership race and all the Tweets about the Alberta Party leadership, the Alberta Liberals are choosing a new leader too.

Outside Liberal circles, however, up to now there’s been very little public engagement with the effort to replace Opposition Leader Dr. David Swann, who never caught on with the public. This lack of interest is a sign of the depth of the trough into which the Alberta Liberals sank during Swann’s uninspired leadership.

Reasons now include the widespread assumption — most likely correct — that after the next general election the Wildrose Alliance will become the Official Opposition. Plus, there’s the fact leadership of the eight-member Liberal caucus is mainly of interest to people whom the public know of, but aren’t particularly thrilled about.

Still, it would be a mistake to rule the Liberals out completely. After all, even if the Wildrose Alliance becomes the Official Opposition, Liberals will continue to play an influential role among the parties of the centre and moderate left.

The thing to remember about the Liberals is that while they are the perpetual victims of their “damaged brand” (hence the rise of the Liberal-like Alberta Party), and haven’t seemed to have what it took to challenge the governing Conservatives since Laurence Decore was at their helm in the 1980s and 1990s, they have a determined base that just won’t vote for anyone else.

The most recent Alberta polls show that this is true. So, no matter how you cut it, there will always likely be a few Liberals in the Alberta Legislature.

Moreover, if voters fail to cotton on to the Alberta Party, as even that group’s enthusiasts must recognize is a possibility, where are disillusioned Alberta Partiers to drift but back to the Liberals?

Which is another way of saying that, for all its troubles, leadership of the Liberals is still a prize worth fighting for.

The trouble is, as noted, most of the names of potential leaders being bandied about so far are present or former Alberta Liberal caucus members — nice folks, capable local politicians, hard workers for their constituents, but no one that’s going to set the world afire.

Perennial Edmonton-Centre MLA Laurie Blakeman, now justly famous for demonstrating the political verities of Alberta using fruits and vegetables, is the only candidate officially in the race. Not so many days ago she was musing about running for the Alberta Party leadership.

However, Blakeman will soon be joined by others. There’s talk that Calgary-Buffalo MLA Kent Hehr is also interested. Not so many weeks ago he was thinking about running for mayor of Calgary. (As the whole world knows, that didn’t work out.) Former Edmonton-McClung MLA Mo Elsalhy, who tried for this particular brass ring once before, may try again.

Likewise, Edmonton-Gold Bar MLA Hugh MacDonald will probably take a run at the job, out of a sense of duty if nothing else. If there was only one Liberal left on earth, MacDonald would be that person, which seems a better motivation for wanting to be leader than seeing the job as Door No. 2 of a political exit strategy.

But the lack of enthusiasm generated by these good people brings us back to MacLennan.

There have always been reports he might someday, somehow be interested in making a run for the Liberal leadership — maybe even an eventual bid for the leadership of a united left. They’ve mostly been wishful thinking by people looking for a liberal saviour.

Lately, though, MacLennan’s been dropping hints he might actually be interested in the job. Leastways, he’s not denying the rumours any more.

Does he mean it? Beats me.

I can tell you one thing, though. I hope so. Because, if he does, the Liberal leadership race just got a whole lot more interesting!

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...