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David Swann talks to reporters in Edmonton in this January 24, 2008 file photo. The Alberta Liberals have given Calgary MLA David Swann the hefty job of making the party a viable option in the Tory-dominated province. (John Ulan/The Canadian Press/John Ulan/The Canadian Press)
David Swann talks to reporters in Edmonton in this January 24, 2008 file photo. The Alberta Liberals have given Calgary MLA David Swann the hefty job of making the party a viable option in the Tory-dominated province. (John Ulan/The Canadian Press/John Ulan/The Canadian Press)

Alberta Liberal Leader resigns as political landscape shifts Add to ...

The surprise departure of Alberta Opposition Leader David Swann marks the end of his Liberal Party's status quo, and hands the reins to people half his age in hopes of revamping its long-greying brand.

The party has gone nearly 90 years without forming a government in the generally conservative province, where it has eight of 83 MLAs and about 20 per cent public support, according to the most recent poll. And while Dr. Swann, like his predecessor, Kevin Taft, is widely regarded as a likable and intelligent statesman who lacks a galvanizing presence, things weren't improving.

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Had he held on, he would have continued to face pressure from within to leave, as well as a challenge from the eager but underdeveloped Alberta Party, which is eating away at his Liberal base. He risked losing the party's Official Opposition status.

It was the tumultuous month in Alberta politics that gave Dr. Swann, 61, his window of opportunity. When the resignations of Premier Ed Stelmach and Finance Minister Ted Morton were announced suddenly last week, the Liberals knew they'd have time to find a new leader before the next election.

And with the upstart Alberta Party picking up disgruntled former Liberal MLA Dave Taylor last week, rumours about floor-crossing Liberals died down.

As such, Liberals sought their next move. Repeatedly, party officials cited the "future" as a reason for Tuesday's announcement, playing down suggestions of a coup (though Dr. Swann clearly faced pressure from within).

Dr. Swann remains, however, the architect of what the new party will look like - he hand-picked its new 32-year-old president, Erick Ambtman, encouraging him to seek the position.

In leaving after just two years and without leading his party in a general election, Dr. Swann has triggered the generational hand-off in an attempt to woo back those who've left.

"It's the right time for a new leader and a new generation of Albertans to take our party into the future," he said Tuesday.

He'll stay until spring. After his announcement, MLAs who were rumoured to be considering jumping ship, Kent Hehr and Darshan Kang, told The Globe they'd stay and run again for the Liberals.

Until a new leader is found, Mr. Ambtman effectively leads the rebuilding. He's a rookie who looked uncomfortable at his first press conference Tuesday. ("I do not like it," he said after the cameras left, letting out a nervous laugh.)

But he is also, in many ways, the face of what party officials hope is an evolving Liberal brand - one that can win back those who've fled to the Alberta Party and emerge as the standard-bearer for both the centre-left and new voters.

"I think it's happening and it's most definitely needed," said party whip and retiring MLA Harry Chase, himself 63, of the youth movement.

A city economist, Mr. Ambtman is considering changes that could turn the traditional party membership-based leadership race on its head, one Liberal told The Globe. The move stems from the presumption many young people don't buy memberships, and would be marginalized in the leadership race.

And he inherits a clean slate - under Dr. Swann, the party retired the extensive debt left by previous leaders.

"If anything to me it shows a lot of fearlessness on the part of our party, a willingness to take some risks, to put out people and ideas that challenge the status quo," Mr. Ambtman said of his appointment and that of party executive director Corey Hogan, 29.

What Dr. Swann did was "open the doors for people like me, people like Corey. That younger Liberal, that new Liberal in Alberta," Mr. Ambtman said.

"The man [Dr. Swann]is still our coach," Mr. Hogan added.

The overhaul is critical if the party is to survive. There are now five bona fide political parties in Alberta with an election, at most, 26 months away.

On the right, the surging Wildrose Alliance has a charismatic leader, Danielle Smith, and is polling in a statistical dead-heat with the PCs, who have held office since 1971, leaving conservative voters split for the first time in decades. It should be an opportunity for a centre-left party to make new gains.

The Liberals are moving to become that go-to party. To do so, some in the party thought Dr. Swann needed to go and he ultimately agreed. With internal battles settled, it's up to Mr. Ambtman to find a way to beat the four other parties.

"We have a lot of optimism about being able to capitalize on the chaos that we see today in Alberta politics, the flux," said New Democratic Party Leader Brian Mason, adding: "Obviously, it's a time of great change in Alberta politics, and I don't think that's a bad thing."

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