Alberta Liberals Leader Dr. David Swann

Watching the Alberta Liberals these days is like watching the proverbial slow-motion train wreck.

It’s quite horrible, and it’s taking a very long time!

Last weekend, Alberta Liberal Leader Dr. David Swann formally submitted his letter of resignation. He’d announced he was going to step aside last February, when it looked like it was either that or face a broiling caucus rebellion. But his resignation won’t take effect till September, when the current Legislative session ends.

Until then, the Calgary physician and MLA for Calgary-Mountain View told a news conference on the parlous state of Alberta health care in Edmonton Monday, he’s determined to continue to fight the good fight.

The trouble with that plan is that what the Alberta Liberals desperately need right now is a new leader, at least an interim one form their depleted Legislative ranks. This is a matter of outright survival, not merely hanging on to the role of lead Opposition party in the face of the challenge from the right-wing Wildrose Alliance.

Swann is a thoroughly upright and principled man. Alas, he has a tin ear when it comes to political strategy and a leaden and inflexible style during Question Period that cedes the best questions and the most news clips to the Wildrose Alliance and the NDP.

For the past couple of years he has failed utterly to take advantage of the continued chaos that has afflicted the Conservative caucus under Premier Ed Stelmach.

But unlike the premier, whose Conservative party has bags of money in its election slush fund, enough MLAs to survive additional defections to the Wildrose Alliance without imploding, and sufficient bench strength to put a second string on the ice if anyone drops a stick, Swann’s eight-member Liberal caucus is only about two faltering heart beats away from needing a defibrillator!

As previously noted in this space, Swann’s delayed departure at the same time as the government is hunting for a new leader leaves the Alberta Legislature in the weird position of having a lame duck premier and a lame duck Opposition leader at the same moment.

Under these difficult circumstances, either Edmonton-Centre MLA Laurie Blakeman, who is officially a candidate for the Liberal leadership, or Edmonton-Goldbar MLA Hugh MacDonald, who is not but should be, might be able to save the party.

Even Independent Edmonton-Meadowlark MLA and ER physician Raj Sherman, who contributed to months of stormy weather in the Legislature with his accusations physicians were intimidated by the Alberta Health Services superboard when they spoke up for patients, would do a better job. The former Tory, fired last fall by the premier from his position as Parliamentary Assistant for Health, is also a candidate of sorts for the Liberal leadership.

Instead, Swann determinedly soldiers on, even as his party appears to crumble. There can be no doubt he believes he is serving faithfully and doing the right thing. He would serve his Liberals better by stepping aside as quickly as possible.

Monday’s news conference, meanwhile, was part of the effort by a variety of political and medical figures to make hay while the sun shines by pushing Stelmach’s reluctant government to name a judicial inquiry into Sherman’s charges of institutionalized intimidation by AHS.

A parade of physicians have been coming forward for weeks in the media to substantiate the accusations, generating some public support for the idea of an inquiry. But what really has Albertans in a swivet is the fact the entire provincial health care system appears to have been in a state of utter pandemonium ever since former Health Minister Ron Liepert rolled nine health regions into the single superboard we now know as AHS.

The massive reorganization was an experiment now almost universally acknowledged to have been a failure, if not a catastrophe. Indeed, just last week the AHS president and CEO Dr. Chris Eagle announced an effort to take steps to undo some of the worst features of Liepert’s folly.

But instead of firing him, as one might have expected, Premier Stelmach moved Liepert to cabinet’s important energy portfolio in January 2010. At the time, Alberta NDP Leader Brian Mason commented, “Same bull, different china shop.” Now it appears Mason’s observation was prescient as well as droll.

Leastways, according to the local press, as the health crisis continues at a slow boil, Liepert now has plans “to create an energy superboard.”

On the face of it, this idea seems to be a scheme to strip the Alberta Environment and Sustainable Development ministries of any decision-making authority when it comes to making way for the energy industry, an approach that is vintage Liepert.

Given the notorious success of Liepert’s past effort in superboard creation, however, it may actually be worse than paving the way to environmental degradation on a hitherto unheard of scale.

If the energy minister duplicates his previous performance in health care, we may be about to apply the patented Ron Liepert wrecking ball to the to the sector that underpins the province’s entire economy!

We Albertans only depend on the health care system for our lives. This time we’re talking about something really important — money!

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...