Calgary Centre post-mortem

Colby Cosh looks at the Green Party surge and how Trudeau's remarks affected the Liberals

Last night’s Calgary Centre by-election, won by media personality and former newspaper editor Joan Crockatt, was held in the most pro-Naheed Nenshi part of what is now a very pro-Nenshi city. Like Crockatt last night, Nenshi exploited a split opposition to win the Calgary mayoralty in 2010. But Calgary’s civic Ward 8, which makes up about two-thirds of the Calgary Centre riding, is a place where the mayor dominated all other contestants combined, taking 58% of the vote. The Green Party’s Chris Turner has close ties to Nenshi (though the mayor didn’t endorse anybody), and Turner was clearly hoping to capitalize on that success, employing Nenshi campaign staffers and Nenshian social-media tactics.

It earned him 26% of the vote. That’s still an amazing figure for a Green Party-labelled candidate in Calgary—especially an unknown one with essentially no pre-existing local political apparatus to exploit. From a standing start, Turner earned 20 votes for every three cast for the NDP’s Dan Meades.

The more meaningful pre-election data, however, may have come not from 2010 but from this year’s provincial election, in which Calgary Centre covers about the same area as three downtown constituencies: Calgary-Elbow, home base of both Ralph Klein and Alison Redford; Calgary-Buffalo, the city’s Liberal stronghold; and Calgary-Currie. The right-wing Wildrose Party got 12,694 votes there in April, and one would have to think that many of them were among the 10,201 who made it out to vote for Conservative Crockatt last night. (Her campaign was as Wildrose-heavy as Turner’s was Nenshi-heavy.) The Liberals had 8,449 provincial votes in the zone, and federal Liberal Harvey Locke got 9,034 last night.

That doesn’t speak particularly well for Locke’s performance, despite the fact that he kept pace with Crockatt deep into the evening. Calgary Centre represented a great opportunity for the Liberals, and Locke is one of the province’s best-known and well-liked conservationists. He needed to add to a dwindling base of diehard brand-loyal Liberals to win; instead, a Green spoiler attacked him in direct mailings as “stuck in the us-against-them environmentalism of the past” and grabbed four votes to every five of Locke’s. This is a pretty brazen move for somebody running under Elizabeth May’s banner, but I’m betting we will see more deployment of this Environmentalism 2.0 card from Green candidates.

Which brings us to the bushwhacking of Justin Trudeau, who made some comments about how Albertans are ruining the country on TV in Quebec a couple of years ago and was suddenly confronted with them by Sun Media in the last days of the campaign. I don’t know that these comments would have discouraged a loyal Liberal from voting for Harvey Locke. But Locke was supposed to have a great deal of red-Tory support that would have once gone to the incumbent MP, old Lougheed hand Lee Richardson (now Premier Redford’s principal secretary). Since Crockatt lost half of Richardson’s vote share, those voters certainly went somewhere. Or, rather, nowhere. Justin’s shoot-at-Alberta-from-the-hip himbo explosion probably kept quite a few of them at home on a chilly November day.

There is a lot of doubt afoot about the possible relevance of Justin’s comments, but nobody is really questioning whether they were foolish; if he was placed in a no-win situation, whose fault is that? Hint: it’s not only Justin’s. Some of the blame must go to the Liberals who are supposedly his rivals for the party leadership, but are acting as though he is already their leader and it would be unseemly to criticize him in public. Any one of them could have stepped in with some sharp words and helped rescue Harvey Locke. Instead, Calgary seems quite justified in rejecting the Screw Alberta Party by a narrow margin.

Locke, a former president of the Alberta Liberal Party, is leaving the door open for another Liberal run in the next general election. Anything is possible. But while voters might have seen Locke as a victim of circumstance this time, wouldn’t the perception be very different in 2015, especially if Justin Trudeau is the leader? At that point, wouldn’t Locke seem to Alberta voters like one of those guys who just never learns?

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