The race to be leader of the Liberals

By Jon Roe

They lost seven seats in March, a leader in June and now have six months to pick someone to reorganize and rebuild their party.

The Alberta Liberal Party has had a trying few months. They dropped from 16 seats in the legislature to nine in March’s provincial election–even after polls showed Albertans wanted change from the 36-year-old reign of the Progressive Conservative party. They are saddled with almost $600,000 in debt, and at the end of June, Kevin Taft, party leader since 2004, announced he would be stepping aside.

But both Mo Elsalhy and Dave Taylor, the only two so far to announce their intentions to run in the party leadership election in December, think not everything is as bad as it seems and that the Liberals taking gov- ernment is not an impossible feat.

Taylor has been an MLA since 2004 in Calgary-Currie and a broadcaster previously. He feels his ability to communicate is why he would make a great leader.

“I think [communication] is a skill we absolutely need if we’re going to be successful in explaining ourselves, in building relationships with ordinary Albertans and, hopefully, winning elections,” said Taylor.

Elsalhy was first elected in the 2004 election, defeating a Conservative minister to take Edmonton-McClung before he was unseated in March by another Conservative. He feels being the youngest of the candidates, both declared and rumoured, and his background in business make him a good choice for leader.

“I understand marketing and the importance of one-on-one connections,” Elsalhy explained. “I know the importance of building trust and relationships with people. I did it as a health professional and as a small business person.”

The Liberal party has not formed a government since the 1920s and in the last four elections have fluctuated between seven and 18 seats, as well as going through five different leaders. Taft was the first leader since Laurence Decore in the late ’80s and early ’90s to lead the party into more than one election. Similarly, Elsalhy is looking long term.

“I am working towards 2016 and if we could do it by 2012, I would be the happiest person on earth,” he said. “Realistically speaking, it takes this long to organize and prepare for the groundwork. This is exactly what the Saskatchewan Party did and what I hope to do in Alberta.”

Mount Royal College instructor of policy studies Keith Brownsey said, regardless of who wins the leadership, the party needs to rebuild in all 83 ridings and put together constituency organizations that a winning campaign can be built upon. He added that the Liberals have a realistic shot at government even as early as 2012.

“The Conservatives actually got 84,000 more votes than they did in 2004,” said Brownsey. “Well, why did they get that? They were well organized. They managed to identify their vote and get their vote out on election day. The Liberals failed at this task, which is the fundamental of any election campaign, they failed at this task miserably.”

For Taylor, the party needs to build itself an identity that Albertans can trust and votes will follow. The Progressive Conservatives maintained their dominance of rural Alberta in the last election and the Liberals will have to win seats outside of urban centres in order to have a hope at forming government.

Taylor explained that this comes back to identifying what the Liberals stand for and developing more agricultural policies, an area he admitted the party has been light on.

“There’s not a hope in hell of rural Albertans voting Liberal, until they know who we are, until they’ve had the chance to meet us face-to-face,” said Taylor.

Though only Taylor and Elsalhy have officially declared their intentions, there are a handful of rumoured candidates interested in taking the helm of the party. Calgary-Mountain View MLA David Swann is among the potential candidates, but, according to Taylor, is undecided between running for the Liberal leadership and pursuing a new “united left” political party that would combine members of the Liberals, the Alberta NDP and the Green Party of Alberta–an idea that Brownsey thinks is absurd.

“All the united left movement would do is weaken any opposition to the Conservatives,” said Brownsey.

It is still early, with six months to go before the Liberal convention, but the race should be interesting, as it’s important for Albertans, he said.

“The Conservative government has a number of proposals that will be rather controversial that will be introduced this fall,” he added. “The government itself seems to be somewhat adrift. People forget that Mr. Stelmach is a very, very conservative individual.”

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