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john ibbitson

There can't be many riskier undertakings than for a pundit in Ottawa to pronounce on a by-election campaign in Alberta. But a couple of points need to be made about the intriguing contest currently underway in Calgary Centre.

Polls show that race to be surprisingly tight, with Conservative candidate Joan Crockatt, a journalist, enjoying only a five-point lead over Liberal candidate Harvey Locke, an environmentalist and lawyer. Liberal heir-apparent Justin Trudeau is campaigning in the riding Tuesday.

Just as surprising, Chris Turner of the Greens is only 10 points back, with momentum. Mr. Turner, an environmental author, is a former colleague of Mayor Naheed Nenshi and is running a strong campaign.

Could Calgary voters be about to upset decades of Tory tradition by sending a Liberal or, heaven forfend, a Green MP to Ottawa? Probably not.

First, polls have done a poor job of predicting electoral outcomes in Alberta of late, and need to be treated with caution.

It shouldn't be surprising that the opposition has some strength: Joe Clark, a red Tory, represented the riding for donkey's years; Lee Richardson, the most recent incumbent, was among the more moderate Conservatives in caucus.

Yes, the influx of immigrants from other provinces and from overseas is making the downtown younger and hipper, but the affluent inner suburbs that are part of the riding are solidly Conservative.

By-elections favour the party with the organizational chops to get out the vote. For that reason, as well, betting on the Tories to hold the riding is a reasonable – though not a 100 per cent safe – wager.

That said, the result in Calgary Centre could provide some powerful ammunition for those who long to see a union of progressive forces to confront the Conservatives.

A number of observers pointed out after the last federal election that Stephen Harper owes his majority government, at least in part, to the rise of the NDP and the collapse of Liberal support in suburban ridings outside Toronto.

The Conservative vote actually didn't increase by much, they point out. But the rise in NDP support drained enough votes from the Liberals to allow the Tories to come up the middle.

If such things are starting to happen even in Calgary, ground zero of the Conservative base, then the tactical advantage of co-operation among progressives becomes that more obvious.

A Conservative win in Calgary Centre because the left-of-centre vote was split is "not an outcome I like," observed Green Leader Elizabeth May in an interview, "but it does help carry the message that we can't continue to ignore the need for electoral co-operation."

The obstacles to that co-operation are formidable. Were the Liberals and NDP each to agree not to run candidates in ridings where the other or the Greens had the best shot of defeating the Conservatives, neither would be a national party in the next election.

And, of course, once voters are offered a clear either/or choice, some of those voters will head for the Tories.

Nonetheless, Calgary Centre will be an interesting by-election to watch on Nov. 26th. If the Conservatives win only because they split the opposition vote, expect to see more calls for co-operation among all three parties.

Nathan Cullen did surprisingly well in the NDP leadership race by casting himself as the pro-co-operation candidate.

Is there a Liberal leadership candidate out there who also wants to don the unite-the-left mantle? The result in Calgary Centre could make one or two of them at least try it on for size.