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After a century of stumbles, Alberta's Liberals march on

This month Alberta's Liberals celebrate the 100th anniversary of their last electoral victory. As they choose a new leader, the question facing the party is should it fight on or simply fade away?

Party last won an election in June 1917; maybe a new leader can change its fortunes

Alberta's Liberals last ruled the province 100 years ago, when Arthur Sifton was elected premier in the 1917 election. (Glenbow Museum)

A lot has changed in Alberta over the past century.

Half-tons have replaced horses on our streets; the oil and gas industry has supplanted farming as the province's economic engine; and Calgary, the province's Cowtown, has grown from a small city of 35,000 to a bustling metropolis of more than a million. 

Provincial politics, too, is barely recognizable.

In June 1917, the Liberal Party of Alberta was celebrating an election victory that would turn out to be its last.

I think the NDP are going to lose a lot of seats — and I want them to lose them to us.- David Khan, Alberta Liberal leadership candidate

Today, it holds just one seat in the legislature. A hundred years removed from electoral success, and more than a decade from any real political relevance, Alberta's Liberals sit idling at a dusty prairie crossroads.

On Sunday, party members choose between two candidates willing to jump into the driver's seat and determine which direction their party will take.

The question facing David Khan and Kerry Cundal: Should they continue to fight on under the Liberal flag or allow the tattered brand to simply fade away, folding it into something new. 

For Khan, it is a simple choice. If he wins the party leadership, he hopes to lead the Liberals down the road to redemption and into the next provincial election.

Premier Arthur Sifton, front left, and his Liberal government in the Alberta legislature circa 1917. (Glenbow Museum)

"I am very optimistic about the next election," he said. "I think the NDP are going to lose a lot of seats — and I want them to lose them to us."

Khan believes his Liberals can win at least five to eight seats in 2019, mainly in Calgary and suburban Edmonton.

The source of that optimism is his sense that with the NDP in power, and the imminent demise of the Progressive Conservative Party, centrist voters in Alberta are looking for a new home.

"We have got a huge opportunity because there is a huge opening in the centre, and much of that NDP vote in the last election was a protest vote," Khan said.

And he believes that under Justin Trudeau, the Liberal brand is now a strength rather than a weakness.

"We elected two federal MPs for the first time since 1967 in Calgary, and two more in Edmonton — I think federally and provincially, the Liberal brand is on the rise here in Alberta."

'Working together'

There is a precedent for this kind of comeback.

One need look no further than the B.C. Liberals, who went from having no seats to Official Opposition to forming government in just two elections in the 1990s.

Of course, staying the course isn't the only way forward.

Liberal leadership candidate Kerry Cundal agrees that many centrist voters in Alberta are up for grabs, but the Calgary lawyer isn't ruling out co-operating with other parties to get them.

David Khan, left, and Kerry Cundal are vying for the leadership of the Alberta Liberal Party after Nolan Crouse, who had been the lone candidate, dropped out two days before the nomination deadline. (Stephanie Wiebe/CBC News; Kerry Cundal/YouTube)

"If we share the same principles and the same vision for Alberta, then we should be working together, not against each other," she said.

Cundal took part in a "unite the centre" meeting in Red Deer in April and says that she would consider merging with another party or dropping the Liberal name if party members supported it.

"By July or August we will be in a position to know how we are going to move forward," she said, "whether it is under the existing label, whether it is under a new label or whether it is going to be a formal co-operation with another party."

Cundal says her greatest fear is that Alberta will become a two-party system where voters in the centre are forced to choose between two extreme choices.

"We don't have to look too far south of the border to see what that looks like — you just end up in loggerheads, with people butting heads and not getting anything done."

'They have fallen apart'

But it may simply be too late for either strategy to work.

Political scientist Keith Brownsey says that the provincial NDP have governed "well within spitting distance of centre," making the current government a reasonable option for centrists.

And Brownsey adds that the past decade has not been kind to Alberta's Liberals.

Interim party leader David Swann is the sole Liberal member of Alberta's Legislative Assembly. (Mike Spenrath/CBC News)

"It's a disaster — there is no question about that,' he said. "They have fallen apart for all sorts of reasons, everything from lack of organization to poor leadership."

On the surface, that may make a merger with another party or a renaming of the Liberal Party make sense. But Brownsey says that could be a mistake.

"The Liberals have a brand, they have a loyal core of supporters, they have five to seven per cent of the province — you can build on that," he said.

Building on that or building something new, however, will take time and money — two things the party has little of these days.

That means that even after a century of wandering Alberta's political wilderness, the province's Liberals may need to march a little further still.

About the Author

Erin Collins

Senior reporter

Erin Collins is an award-winning senior reporter with CBC National News based in Calgary.

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