Alberta Liberals deal with their 'damaged brand'

EDMONTON -- The Alberta Liberals staged a play Saturday morning at their annual convention. If that sounds like a strange thing to see at a political gathering, it's because the Liberals' informal theme this weekend is how to do things differently, how to break free of 87 years in opposition.

"I set a challenge to the organizers to court controversy. I said everything should be on the table -- the name, working with others. Whatever it takes," Leader Kevin Taft said.

"I think after the last election, more people than ever came to the conclusion that doing the same old thing again and again doesn't make sense. So I wanted to stretch the limits in a way that we haven't before. And this is the time to do it, right after the election."

This time last year, Taft and his party were boasting about being a government in waiting. Now they are 31/2 years away from the next election, facing a leadership contest and an emboldened PC party with a 72-seat majority. They are also hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt.

But the more than 150 people who attended the convention at the Best Western Inn on the west side were still upbeat, making self-deprecating jokes and talking about new ways of doing business.

One breakout session was called A New Way: brainstorming session including discussion of the name change, new party, new directions. Another was called Democracy Done Differently.

A morning panel featured rancher and writer Les Brost, and Alberta Federation of Labour president, Gil McGowan. McGowan recently positioned himself at the heart of the left-of-centre debate in Alberta by proposing a strategic merger between the Liberals and the NDP.

Brost predicted tough economic times for the province and said people will be more receptive to the party's message when the boom dies down a bit.

McGowan said he told the NDP convention last summer that their brand was damaged in Alberta.

"But your brand is just as damaged, if not more so," he told the Liberals.

McGowan outlined several options for the future, ranging from the status quo to blowing up all the parties and starting a new one.

The theatrical presentation featured a hapless party supporter being fought over by a status-quo Liberal in a red dress named "Catherine the Grit" and a woman in a green shirt and rainbow headband wanting to pull the party to the ideological left.

How far the party lets itself be pulled may rest on who they pick as party leader in December. All three candidates know the party needs to look at how they're doing things, but they vary in how far they are willing to go.

Since last election, Calgary-Mountain View MLA David Swann has been holding wide-ranging forums around the province that have drawn Greens, NDs and Liberals. Of the three, he is most open to the name change and about co-operating with the other parties.

Calgary-Currie MLA Dave Taylor urges a bit more caution: "I think we've got some work to do on ourselves first in terms of organizational skills, in terms of some culture and attitude, in terms of the way we see ourselves."

Mo Elsalhy, the former MLA for Edmonton-McClung, has also expressed skepticism about the need for a party name change.

The three leadership candidates will hold their second debate this morning on the convention's last day.

Edmonton Journal, Sun Oct 5 2008
Byline: Archie McLean

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