Hehr piece: Fallout from the Calgary-Centre federal byelection

‘The Liberals and the NDP are zombie brands,’ writes Colby Cosh

The aftereffects in Alberta of the Nov. 26 Calgary-Centre federal byelection, carried off by Conservative Joan Crockatt with just 37 per cent of the vote, have officially become super hilarious. The reader will recall that the two main challengers for a Conservative seat in a relatively liberal-friendly part of Calgary were the capital-L Liberal Harvey Locke, who has spent decades as a top wilderness preservation advocate and all-around Nature Boy, and the Green Party’s Chris Turner, an urbanist author and magazine writer who uses the word “sustainable” with a frequency best characterized as “intolerable”. In short, the two parties both nominated professional environmentalists, neither of whom have done a whole lot else with their lives. We could all probably have anticipated a problem here.

How does a Green candidate run against a Harvey Locke? Turner was shrewd and cynical enough to find an answer: berate the older guy as an out-of-touch Seventies green who, as Locke had admitted in an interview, didn’t even move to Calgary from Banff until it looked like there might be a Commons seat available amid Cowtown’s dark Sanatic mills. (Asked by your correspondent if she approved of this campaigning style, Elizabeth May observed that the GPC is not one of those old-fashioned “top-down parties” in which the leader orders candidates about.) Locke, for his part, spluttered that his young rival was a “twerp”.

The twerp got about 7,000 votes, the old hippie got 9,000, and Crockatt, who did as little as humanly possible to distract the populace from any of this by appearing in public or uttering a sound, got 10,000. First past the post wins. (Although, to be honest with you, I have never really understood why that is our metaphor for “Most votes wins, even without a majority”. What does racing past a post have to do with it?)

Enter Kent Hehr, an Alberta Liberal who won a seat in our legislature fair and square in a constituency covered by the federal riding of Calgary-Centre. Hehr, thinking that this accomplishment might entitle him to an informed opinion on the future of the Liberal brand, took to David Cournoyer’s influential Daveberta blog to say he was tired of vote-splitting.

The center/center-left in this province will not form government until we are in one big-tent party. At this moment in time, and objectively looking at the provincial platforms of the progressive parties, we are for all intents and purposes also a distinction without a difference.

In the last election the NDP, Liberals, Greens and Alberta Party agreed on policy 95 per cent of the time. We should all be together in one big tent; there is less difference between all of our political parties than there is between the different wings of the PC government.

This online op-ed caused the president of Hehr’s own party to blow his stack to smithereens. Todd Van Vliet issued a press release that positioned the Liberals as a distinct, individual-oriented alternative to the New Democratic “party of labour, unions, and social justice” and didn’t mention the Greens at all. Not content to stop there, he put forth some pretty astonishing insinuations about Hehr’s motives.

…While Mr. Hehr may be working in good faith to create a stronger alternative to the PCs, working to eliminate one’s own party would not seem to be the best way to do that.

…So what’s actually going on with Kent Hehr and his advisers? Well, the idea of a merger certainly isn’t news. It has been raised at the last NDP annual general meeting and dismissed, and raised again at the last Alberta Liberal board meeting, and again dismissed. So who does this “merger” actually benefit? One would have to say, the PCs.

…one can’t help noting that the former Alberta Liberal executive director helping Mr. Hehr is a PR professional working with the local branch of one of the world’s larger PR firms. And one of his closest colleagues recently worked as Alison Redford’s leadership campaign manager and former Chief of Staff. Coincidence? Well, maybe.

He’s just sayin’! As a signal of his wholehearted embrace of the “dude are you even listening to the words coming out of your mouth” mode of rhetoric, Van Vliet warns that “Without the Liberals to balance the centre, the PCs gain a real possibility of staying in power for decades longer.” We need the Alberta Liberals to prevent the PCs from staying in power for decades? Golly, surely this is a bit like putting on granite swim-fins?

Van Vliet’s impatience is understandable, even if his rage isn’t. The Alberta Liberals passed through a short phase of merger discussions under their previous leader, the lugubrious peacenik Dr. David Swann, who is the previous leader and not the current one partly because he was so open to the idea. These “discussions” took the form of the Liberals discussing a merger and the New Democrats saying “Get bent, capitalist lackeys” over and over. When the Liberals proceeded to get rid of their fed-up physician and replace him with another fed-up physician, Dr. Raj Sherman, the resulting vote split in the 2012 general election was so clean and even that Joan Crockatt can only dream of such rapturous math: Liberals 127,645, NDP 126,752.

In view of this, partisans who regard continued PC government as an emergency are obviously right to consider a merger. They are equally obviously wrong to imagine it would get them anywhere in the total absence of a credible leader to rally behind. Ed Stelmach obliterated these parties in his one electoral trial, and, bad news, fellas, you’re not up against Ed Stelmach anymore. Hehr wants Liberals, New Democrats, Greens, Alberta Party hipsters, and presumably the Marxist-Leninists to “put down their guns” and unite in the hope of maybe, just possibly, taking back Official Opposition status for a progressive party. This confirms that Hehr is under the same delusions as Van Vliet: the NDP and the Liberals had Official Opposition status in Alberta for 30 years, and were spinning their wheels for about 29 of those. Whatever one thinks of the Wildrose Party’s philosophy, I think one must admit that they have made more effective use of the Opposition Leader’s office in eight months than anyone else did in the previous decade or more. If we’re applying the “Do they visibly annoy the Premier?” test they are already the all-time undisputed Alberta champions.

The Liberals and the NDP are zombie brands in Alberta now. Is Thomas “Dutch Disease” Mulcair’s leadership of the national NDP going to help Alberta’s Brian Mason woo voters? (This might be just me, but the time I saw them conduct a joint press conference it reminded me of feuding siblings trying to make nice for Nana at Christmas.) Will the coronation of Justin “Too Many Albertans” Trudeau help Raj Sherman get ahead? The private hope amongst their supporters, I suppose, is that Alberta history’s next Aberhart-like figure who comes out of nowhere and builds an overwhelming reputation outside party politics will choose to climb into their pickup truck. But this raises the question why such a person might conceivably need a ride in a rusted-out lemon.

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