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In Alberta, a change in the political wind

It's a political match that dates back decades in Alberta - Tories and Liberals vying for power in the provincial legislature.

The parties continue to hold sway, with a combined 75 of the province's 83 seats, but theirs has long been a lopsided battle - the Progressive Conservatives have held a majority since 1971.

The tide, however, may be shifting. A move on Monday by independent MLA Dave Taylor to join the fledgling centrist Alberta Party is the latest in a string of steps - sparked by the success of the upstart right-wing Wildrose Alliance - that raise the prospect of a post-federalist political landscape in the province in which traditional political brands lose sway.

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Although the PC party maintains a strong base, it's now being flanked on the right by Wildrose, while on its left, the Alberta Party and Mr. Taylor seek to rally disaffected liberals, red Tories and other so-called progressives to overtake the long-established Liberal and New Democratic parties.

"There are many, many people for whom those brands don't resonate any more," said Mr. Taylor, a former radio host first elected in 2004, who announced his decision to join the party on Monday. "But nobody wanted to be the first one to sign on."

The push for a revived and united centre-left in Alberta isn't new. The charismatic but polarizing Mr. Taylor sought the Liberal leadership in 2008 under many of the same principles before quitting last year, saying the party was in "critical condition." Later that year, the Liberals took out newspaper ads seeking co-operation with other left-wing and centrist parties. The bid fizzled.

"Clearly, there is a desire for some sort of centrist party that's not the Liberal Party of Alberta. The Liberal Party has tried to be that. People have looked at them and rejected them," said Duane Bratt, a political scientist at Calgary's Mount Royal University. But, he cautions, "the Alberta Party is still microscopic, except on online polls."

The year-old Alberta Party movement is driven by a handful of well-connected but disenchanted backroom organizers, some of whom helped the PC party come from nowhere to unseat the Social Credit government in 1971. Many are disgruntled Liberals.

The party lacks the kind of infrastructure the Liberals have in fundraising and constituency associations, but also much of the baggage that has held the Liberal brand back. It has been developing policy and has constituency associations in 27 ridings. "We have a lot of work ahead of us, but what we've been able to accomplish in one year is quite remarkable," interim leader Sue Huff said.

The party's choice of Mr. Taylor is in some ways a coup, giving it a foothold in the legislature and putting it on voters' radar.

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But Mr. Taylor's presence may also pose problems. First, he is coy about whether he'll seek the party's leadership. If he did, it would set up a battle with small-town mayor Glenn Taylor (no relation), who also plans to run and has much of the party's support. A fight could drag out while the party should be focusing on getting candidates for an election expected in March, 2012.

"You wonder what the attractiveness is of bringing Taylor in at this point, if not a coronation as leader of the party," Prof. Bratt said.

Secondly, Mr. Taylor will hurt the Alberta Party's ability to attract floor-crossers from the stumbling Liberals because of his acrimonious departure last year.

"I certainly wouldn't be crossing to the Alberta Party if Dave Taylor's involved," said Laurie Blakeman, an Edmonton Liberal MLA in whose name was frequently tossed about as a potential floor-crosser. "We've been there. We know what he's about. The rest of the Alberta Party is about to find out."

Finally, Mr. Taylor's move is being called hypocritical because he condemned Wildrose members for switching parties without a by-election. He's now doing the same thing, saying it's too close to a general election and a by-election would be irresponsible.

The Liberals aren't shying away from the battle. They recently elected as president 32-year-old Erick Ambtman, who is the face of a youth movement in the party. After a century in Alberta politics, the party insists it's the only realistic alternative to the PCs and Wildrose.

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"We continue to believe [the Alberta Party]is not a viable option," Mr. Ambtman said on Monday. "We'll see how the public perceives this. You've got a group of disgruntled Liberals over there, and now they have the king of disgruntled Liberals as their MLA."

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Josh is a parliamentary reporter in Ottawa. Before moving to the nation's capital in 2013, he covered provincial affairs in Edmonton and throughout Alberta. He joined the Globe in 2008 in Toronto before returning to his home province in 2010. More

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