David Swann elected Alberta Liberal leader
Published Saturday, December 13, 2008 9:31PM EST
CALGARY - The Alberta Liberals have pinned their hopes for an end to almost nine decades of sitting in second place on a Calgary doctor who says it's time to represent the "sensible centre."
On Saturday, David Swann took the reins of the struggling party, which currently forms a nine-member Opposition against Premier Ed Stelmach and 71 Tories, with a promise of change and renewal.
That change could even extend to the party name, which some have argued is a liability in rural areas of Alberta, where some consider "Liberal" a dirty word.
"We have to re-engage our own party, and examine who we are and where we're going," Swann said.
"I want to review everything in the party, from our principles and values, to our strategies and communications -- and ultimately, even review the name."
Swann admitted it's a daunting task stepping up to the helm of the party. The Liberals haven't won in Alberta since 1917 and lost nearly one-half of their seats in the last election. The party also still owes more than $400,000 in campaign debts from 2001.
They have a membership base of about 6,000 people, something Swann says he'll aim to triple over the next few years as they bolster their resources to take on a Tory dynasty that has held power for nearly four decades.
Two other candidates, Dave Taylor of Calgary and Edmontonian Mo Elsalhy, had also thrown their hats into the leadership ring. The vote didn't go beyond a first ballot, with Swann taking 2,468 ballots to Taylor's 1,616 and Elsalhy's 491.
Taylor, a former radio talk show host, said while Swann may be considered a little left-leaning by some, he'd like to see a party that's "smack-dab in the middle" of the political spectrum.
He dismissed any talk of a rift in the party.
"Everybody gets behind the new leader, that's how it works in politics."
Swann, who has been a frequent critic of the government on health and the environment, first entered politics in 2004 after being fired as medical officer of health for the Palliser Health Region. He led other health officers to pass a resolution calling for action from the government on climate change days before being let go, and the ensuing public outcry led him to run for the Liberals.
"They reminded me that democracy costs something," he said of the Tory government of the time.
The way to successful renewal comes from the ground up, Swann said, adding he hopes to bring caucus together and set up a working group to work out a plan within 90 days.
Outgoing leader Kevin Taft said he feels a sense of relief in handing over the leadership. He said he leaves the party in a stronger financial position than when he began, and suggested the global economic crisis could actually bolster the party, whose membership reached about 100,000 during the last downturn.
"That was at a time of real economic stress, and I think we're about to enter that here in Alberta," he said. "The political scene can change very quickly."
Political scientist Keith Brownsey said Swann still faces "a very well-organized, very well-financed, very loyal Conservative machine in this province. And nothing's changed there."
He said that Swann is considered a social activist, and his leadership election ties the Liberals to that image. That may not be something that speaks to the average Albertan.
"People are worried about jobs, people are worried about income, people are worried about the children," he said. "Mr. Swann has to address that. Vision is one thing, pragmatic policies are something else."
Swann said he'll take some of inspiration from south of the border, especially in appealing to members of other parties who may be feeling disgruntled.
"(Incoming U.S. President Barack) Obama's campaign in the U.S. has shown a whole new way forward, and we're going to be borrowing extensively from that experience.
"People come when they are inspired and when they feel they can make a difference."