David Swann has one of the toughest jobs in Alberta politics: leading the provincial Liberals as the party fights for air time against Premier Jim Prentice's dominant Progressive Conservatives.
Officially, the veteran Calgary MLA is interim leader, replacing Raj Sherman, who stepped down early this year, but with an election call expected before the Liberals can hold a leadership convention, he will pilot the party into the campaign.
Dr. Swann spoke to Jeffrey Jones about the party's chances, the defection of Wildrose MLAs to the PCs, efforts to unite the left, and Alberta's oil-price and budget crisis.
Can any opposition party beat Jim Prentice's Progressive Conservatives?
That's for Albertans to decide. What we've seen is a contempt for democracy by both the PCs and the Wildrose.
I think many are outraged by this. There's a tremendous sense that our democracy has been dishonored and discredited and people are saying, "I don't believe in any of you and I'm not going to bother voting," or, "This is a critical time to get involved and ensure that we get a strong opposition, if not a change of government."
I would call it a very interesting and dangerous time for Albertans, especially for the Tories, given they're pulling a fast election and they've undermined the democratic process by reversing the committee decision on the Auditor-General's funding.
Is there a chance for an alliance of the parties on the centre and left?
I opened that door several years ago; there was no interest in it. Certainly, the New Democrats have expressed over and over again that they're not interested in any kind of co-operation. They think that they're going to be the next government. With regard to the Alberta Party, it's too late at this stage. We've got just a few weeks. Our focus is getting Liberals elected at this time. I am open, as I've always said, to talks after this election. But it's too late for discussions that would produce anything meaningful in electoral politics.
How will the Alberta Liberals campaign in the upcoming election?
There is a real opportunity now that the Official Opposition [Wildrose] collapsed into the PC party. We are the only moderate opposition that believes in balancing free enterprise, public-sector supports for people and a healthy society.
After 44 years, people are saying this government is way past its best-before date. They continue to follow the rather staid and uninspiring direction that has brought us to the crisis that we're in again this year.
Many people want to see something more of a longer-term vision, a focus on people and longer-term investments, as opposed to short-term economic interest alone. We're obviously scrambling somewhat a year in from what we thought was going to be the election.
What do you make of the government's latest fiscal update, showing a surplus for the current year and warning of a return to deficit in 2015-16?
The real issue here is a fiscal framework that's been broken for decades, and this government continues to tinker around the edges instead of addressing it head-on.
We have 30 per cent of the budget that is subject to oil-price fluctuations. It means we can't plan anything year to year. It means we are subject to a boom-and-bust mentality – layoffs and then hiring from one year to the next.
Basic services that we count on for people – basic education or health care or supports for people in poverty – suddenly become volatile as well. That's not a way to run a society.
How would the Liberals handle the oil-price volatility?
At this time, we need to borrow to meet the obligations to the people and to the infrastructure needs. Mr. Prentice himself has said that we have a $30-billion infrastructure backlog, including maintenance, and we need to start addressing that, especially during a time when interest rates are low and joblessness is part of the scene here. Longer term, we need a progressive tax in this province. That means that, instead of everybody, including large corporations, paying 10 per cent, people earning over $150,000 in a family would pay 12 per cent, and large corporations would pay up to 14 per cent. So there would be a fairer tax regime that would actually provide the basic supports for a stable budget up to another $5.5-billion a year, to ensure that we can meet our commitments to the people and to the environment.
This interview has been edited and condensed