Their provincial cousins are barely an afterthought in the election called this week, seemingly destined for fourth-place status as they just try to hold on to a couple of seats.
But that is not stopping top members of Justin Trudeau's campaign team from insisting that Alberta could be fertile ground for Liberals in next fall's federal race. Never mind just winning their first seat there in a decade; they claim they could win as many as four, equalling their best showing in the province since the Second World War.
For many veterans of their party, that sounds a little too quixotic. And so Mr. Trudeau's Liberals find themselves in an ongoing internal debate about how much resources – time, money and human capital – to invest in a province where their brand has long been toxic.
That debate will say much about how the party is being rebuilt, because it pits against each other two competing visions of the Liberals' path to victory.
Among one crowd, whose members tend to have played leading roles in the Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin eras, a common view is that if the Liberals are to compete for power, it will be by unapologetically focusing on regions that have previously been kind to them and have large blocs of winnable ridings. First and foremost, that means Ontario (especially the Greater Toronto Area) and Quebec; to a lesser extent, the Vancouver area and Winnipeg; Atlantic Canada is an essential part of the mix, although success there is taken as a given in the coming campaign.
Worrying too much about Alberta would be the antithesis of that approach. There is reasonable doubt whether the son of the prime minister who brought in the National Energy Policy is capable of getting Albertans to see his party in a different light. In the provincial campaign, the Liberals do not even have candidates in more than half the ridings, demonstrating there is neither brand strength nor organizational support to draw on. And unless the election is extremely close, the number of seats open to the federal Liberals there – which skeptics would peg at more like one or two – would not make or break their bid for government.
To the newer group around Mr. Trudeau, the electoral map is evolving in a different way. They believe that, with increasingly young and diverse populations, Calgary and Edmonton are starting to look much like the sorts of urban centres in which their party prospers. Their future coalition, some of them argue, will be more about targeting urban and suburban ridings than certain provinces over others – an attractive formula, given population migration patterns.
If that is more of a long-term project, any sort of beachhead in Alberta at all could still have an immediate post-election benefit. In the minority-parliament scenarios in which the Liberals could seek to form government, having representation in a province pivotal to the national economy could bolster their legitimacy.
Until closer to the official campaign period, when resources will become more finite, the Liberals do not really have to make a binary choice between targeting or not targeting Alberta. But by late summer or early fall, there will be a few tests of which viewpoint is prevailing.
One will be the use of Mr. Trudeau's time. As a symbol of speaking to all Canadians, the Liberal Leader will almost certainly visit Alberta within a day or two of the writ drop. But many of his predecessors have done that – albeit sometimes with a quick stop near an airport, not the sort of showy downtown Calgary or Edmonton event for which Mr. Trudeau will probably opt – and the question is how often he goes back.
A second will be organizational support. The Liberals have smartly made up for their lack of ground strength by attracting candidates with local profile and their own volunteer bases in the ridings where they have a chance, including erstwhile MLAs Kent Hehr and Darshan Kang in Calgary and city councillor Amarjeet Sohi in Edmonton. But there are so few Liberal field organizers with successful campaign experience in Alberta that some might need to be shipped in. And as with elsewhere in the country, the Liberals will have to decide whether it is worth offering central supports such as phone banks to help find and mobilize supporters.
Probably the best gauge will be advertising on local television and radio. Calgary, in particular, is among the most expensive markets in the country. So with relatively few seats in play there, the value proposition – relative even to a more expensive market like Toronto, which has far more room for gain – could be relatively low. So the Liberals would really have to believe in their potential to make a significant investment.
On top of all that is the small matter of policy, particularly when it comes to the balance between the economy and the environment. To date, Mr. Trudeau has been moderately supportive of oil sands development, while promising to work with the provinces on carbon reduction. Being more critical of extraction methods might score him points elsewhere, particularly Quebec, but only if he were essentially willing to write off Alberta.
How Mr. Trudeau and his campaign team approach such decisions will depend on what the Liberals' internal research – polling, numbers of supporters being identified through door knocking, and so on – tells them between now and then. And they might yet be influenced a little by the nascent provincial campaign, not so much by the plight of the moribund Liberals as by whether there's a big surge for the upstart NDP, which could help federal New Democrats pull away centre-left votes next fall.
But then, if federal Liberals are looking for excuses to abandon their Alberta aspirations, it is not as though history does not provide them with enough already. To talk to the younger strategists and organizers around Mr. Trudeau is to get the sense that they are too excited about the prospect of rewriting that history to give up on it without a fight.