Alberta Liberal Leader David Swann believes Alberta’s political reality is an uneasy standoff between lack of trust and outright fear.
It is, he told the Advocate editorial board this week, a particularly unhealthy situation that will worsen the longer Premier Ed Stelmach’s Progressive Conservatives remain in power.
In Swann’s view, Albertans no longer trust the Conservatives and, in fact, fear the outcome of Stelmach’s misguided policies and mismanaged initiatives. It’s a valid perspective.
In the four years that Stelmach has led the Conservatives, he has stumbled repeatedly.
Albertans have much to be concerned about, most critically the state of provincial health care. On the periphery, but no less real, are concerns about energy royalty formulas (and the health of the energy industry), education funding and environmental protection, to name a few.
But where will Alberta voters turn?
Swann obviously wants to offer the Liberals as the logical choice, and believes a bit of simple math will give his candidates the boost they need.
The Calgary MLA and physician expects Stelmach to call an election within the next year. He anticipates the Conservatives and the Wildrose Alliance will divide the vote on the right.
When the remainder of distrustful, fearful Albertans look for an alternative, Swann wants that alternative to be the Liberals.
And, truthfully, the Liberals are the only other alternative.
As important, as it is for the New Democrats to have a voice in the legislature, they are neither prepared nor philosophically positioned to direct the fate of this province. Offering perspective is one thing, offering direction and leadership is another.
Swann also wants us to consider what would happen if Danielle Smith’s group of disaffected (and further right) conservatives, under the Wildrose banner, gains control of the province.
The message of fear and distrust gets a little more leverage.
But Swann needs to make certain he projects an image of moderation, competent leadership and vision if he wants to be an alternative. That means focusing on a few clear goals that the Liberals can fix, and being forthright about how it will be done.
Repairing health care is obvious, and here Swann has a rational and achievable plan.
He also believes more tinkering with energy royalty formulas will only further inflame, and handicap, Alberta’s most critical industry. So he advocates a slow, careful approach here.
And he stands clearly on the side of honest stewardship of the environment.
Those three areas of policy should give him enough material to clearly separate Liberal policy from Conservative and Wildrose thinking. It should be the basis for a valid campaign.
Swann has a long way to go. There are eight Liberals in the legislature, 67 Conservatives, four Wildrose members, two New Democrats and two independent members. The vote shuffling will have to be widespread and vigorous for the status quo to change.
But the Conservatives have never been more vulnerable. If Swann is right in believing Albertans need to be driven by fear and mistrust to change course, then 2011 could be a year of great upheaval in Alberta politics.
John Stewart is the Advocate’s managing editor.