Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Swann Song

There used to be a time when you could tune out Alberta politics for a decade and not miss much. Now, every day brings a new bombshell.

The latest comes from the Alberta Liberals, with David Swann resigning before even fighting his first election as leader. Although the news is surprising, it likely shouldn't be - since taking over, Swann has faced internal party disent and defections. With the ALP down in the polls and unable to gain traction in the press, the pressure built. Something had to give.

While the Liberals may fare better under a new leader, Swann's departure is still disheartening. After all, David Swann is exactly the type of person politics needs more of. A lifelong Albertan, Swann has spent his life trying to make the world a better place - he worked at a mission hospital in Africa for three years and has been a passionate advocate on issues like Darfur and the environment. It was the latter that drove him into politics in 2002, when the government fired him from his position as an Alberta Health Office for speaking out in favour of the Kyoto Accord.

I first met David Swann shortly after that. It was at a backyard Liberal barbecue, and we talked about his motivations for entering politics. Although soft spoken, Swann showed passion and clearly wanted to make a difference. In all my years in politics, I've never met anyone as genuine as Dr. Swann.

And I wasn't the only one who felt that way. I door knocked for him a few times in the 2004 election and was amazed by his ability to bring in supporters and volunteers from outside the party. They certainly weren't there for the campaign food, which was usually some variant of an organic humus-like substance. No, these people saw a candidate who cared about the issues they cared about, and wanted to help him make a difference. So did voters - he won the riding in a 3,000 vote landslide. As a Liberal in Calgary, that's no small miracle.

In 2008, Swann tossed his hat into the ring for the Alberta Liberal leadership. Once again, he did what David Swann does best - he got people who don't care to care. He was up against a slick sound byte machine by the name of Dave Taylor. Taylor had an exceptionally well run campaign and led in media coverage and membership sales. But people who signed up for David Swann truly respected the man and believed in him - they voted, and Swann won. Score one for the "little guy".

Sadly, from there things turned out the way they always seem to when people like David Swann become party leaders. The party turned on him. The media ignored him. Things fell apart. Although the situation is obviously different, it's hard not to draw parallels with Ed Stelmach. Both Ed and David are honest, genuine men, in politics for all the right reasons - yet pundits, partisans, and politicos throw those descriptions around as if they were tragic flaws making them unsuitable to hold office.

When good people fail in politics, you can't help feeling bad for them. But this wasn't even a case of good people failing. All Ed Stelmach did was win 8 times as many seats as the second place party in his one election. All David Swann did was win convincingly in every election he ever ran in. Then as leader, he eliminated the ALP debt which had hung around the party's neck like an albatross. I'll be the first to admit I didn't have high hopes for Swann in the next election - but surely a man who made a habit of proving critics wrong deserved a chance.

Yes, when good people fail in politics, you can't help feeling bad for them. But when good people do nothing but succeed and are still forced out of the game? You can't help feeling bad about politics.



  • It really is sad. Swann, like Stelmach, Stephen Dion and John Tory before him are all people who really are in politics for the right reasons but just can't seem to get over the hump. It's too bad.

    By Anonymous Crocker Jarmon, at 2:33 p.m.  

  • "Yes, when good people fail in politics, you can't help feeling bad for them. But when good people do nothing but succeed and are still forced out of the game? You can't help feeling bad about politics."

    You are so right Dan.

    The fact that this leaked out last night at the hand of those omnipresent "anonymous Liberal sources" (or were they Senior Liberal Strategists, I can't remember) is kind of allegorical to Swann's whole tenure. He couldn't even make his resignation without a bunch of dirty political nonsense getting in the way. Today, I do feel bad about politics. Not sure we deserved David Swann.

    By Anonymous Justin Archer, at 2:34 p.m.  

  • All of these people fail at the important part of their job - POLITICS!

    A decent person who is unable to manipulate and control the less than decent people surrounding them will simply be their tool if they somehow manage to survive. If they can't handle being in such a situation, then they shouldn't have gotten into politics. It's not exactly a revelation that politics attracts some conniving people, the subject has been fertile ground for Plato, Confucius, et al.

    So good riddance to the bad rubbish of weak, naive fools in politics.

    By Blogger Hey, at 2:42 p.m.  

  • Stelmach's and Swann's dedication to their parties and to the greater good over personal ambition definitely made them stand out in Alberta politics; it's too bad this just made them easier targets. Your comment that maybe we didn't deserve Dr. Swann is unsettling, poignant, and all too true.

    Excellent post, thank you!

    SAF, Edmonton

    By Blogger Stephen Fitzpatrick, at 2:57 p.m.  

  • Great post!

    Another reason why this is the only political blog I read.

    I feel similarly about Dr. Swann. We needed him, and he offered a legitimate alternative to the current government.

    I don't think he's a replaceable voice in Alberta politics, especially at a time when health care is probably the #1 issue.

    By Blogger Robert Vollman, at 3:00 p.m.  

  • The one thing you should add to your post is how it was a lot of Swann's very own supporters who jumped ship to the AB Party even after their guy won.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:12 p.m.  

  • Hey Hey - Swann obviously deserves some of the blame for not keeping the party together but, really, what can you do when a guy like Dave Taylor decides he doesn't like your policy of not making him party leader?

    Obviously, Swann isn't a gifted politician in the traditional sense of the word. Had I been in Alberta last leadership race, I likely wouldn't have voted for him.

    But I do think the guy deserves a fair shot in an election. It's one thing for "good people" like Dion or Tory to fall on their faces during a campaign and then get punted. Swann has been quite succesful in 2 general elections and 1 leadership contest - it doesn't seem unreasonable for him to at least be given a shot in a general election.

    As mentioned above, his credibility on the Health Care file is certainly an asset. And I have serious doubts that Hugh MacDonald or Laurie Blakeman or whomever takes over will do much better.

    By Blogger calgarygrit, at 3:25 p.m.  

  • As someone who worked for David four of his seven years in public office, I couldn't have put it better myself Dan. David is a great man but unfortunately never quite understood that politics is a game where nice guys usually don't finish first. Preston Manning has used a biblical phrase to describe what's needed in politics, to be 'as gentle as a dove, and as cunning as a serpent'. Unfortunately for David he never caught onto the latter part of that statement. I hope he doesn't retire entirely from politics as his voice is one of the few honest, caring and compassionate ones around.

    By Anonymous Mike, at 3:47 p.m.  

  • The problem with David wasn't the fact that he was politically naive, it was that he wouldn't take advice from those around him who weren't politically naive.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:20 a.m.  

  • It's a testament to Manitoba that the their version of Swann, has been leader of the their Liberal party for 12 years.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:43 a.m.  

  • I never realized you felt so strongly about Swann - I'm really not an expert about him.

    I don't believe that politics must be a game for the conniving alone - I feel bad about politics in general every single day. It's an unfortunate system of pitting would-be/should-be teammates against one another in an irrelevant zero-sum game. Co-operation (especially between diverging views) is the stronger way.

    By Anonymous Jacques Beau Verte, at 12:49 p.m.  

  • JBV - I feel strongly that Swann is a great human being and the kind of person we need in politics.

    That said, I tend to agree with the common perception that he's not a very good politician.

    My feeling is just that he deserved a chance to show what he could do in a general election. And that the fact that people like him always do seem to fail, speaks rather poorly about the political system we play in.

    By Blogger calgarygrit, at 4:19 p.m.  

  • Anybody dumb enough to think Kyoto was a good treaty for Canada deserves to be a Liberal Party Leader.

    But since this guy has had a career consisting of jobs that are just various forms of a liplock on a public teat, we should expect him to be attracted to Liberal policies.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:23 p.m.  

  • It is best that Stelmach leaves.

    Thx for the story.


    By Anonymous mac, at 11:40 p.m.  

  • David Swann should not have believed the critical press so much. Their odds are deliberately stacked against the Liberal party. Plus, David could've benefited from a little more 'fire in the belly.'


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:53 a.m.  

  • It sounds like a loss to everyone, CG.

    By Anonymous Jacques Beau Verte, at 12:58 p.m.  

  • Swann didn't have the kind of "let's go have a beer together, I have bad-grammar, too" type politician Albertans seem to love so much, these days.

    And yes, perhaps he doesn't have razor-sharp political instincts, but he leaves at least one important record, and that is as the first Alberta politician in modern times to see that winning will only come with the small parties uniting against the big boys, and that only by working together against Alberta's first-past-the-post electoral system do underdogs have a fighting chance.

    Other parties and leaders can dispute and ridicule his legacy on this issue all they want, but years down the road the need for cooperation will be proven as the most necessary strategy in Alberta petro-state politics for the centre-left. Swann will have the last laugh.

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