The pandemic has turned the world so upside down that federal Liberals are acting as if they have a chance at acquiring a toe-hold in Alberta – like there’s a potential return to having some MPs in Calgary and Edmonton after being completely locked out of the province in the 2019 vote.
What the Liberals have their sights set on – whenever the federal election is called – wouldn’t be considered much of a breakthrough in most other parts of the country. The governing party is looking to recoup a few ridings in Calgary where it has a small chance of eking out a victory on the home turf of Canadian conservatism. They’ve acclaimed two high-profile candidates to help with this.
In Edmonton, there are still hopes the party might persuade outgoing Mayor Don Iveson to run. Randy Boissonnault, a one-term MP who lost his seat in 2019, is also seeking the Liberal nomination in Edmonton Centre.
But the fact that there’s any hope at all is saying much in a province where just two years ago, after the 2019 federal election, it seemed as if electing a few Liberal MPs was a mere quirk of the 2015 election – when Justin Trudeau was a shiny, new political force. Six years ago, the province elected four Liberal MPs. In contrast, in 2019, when the votes were counted, 33 of Alberta’s 34 MPs were Conservatives. There is one NDP MP, Heather McPherson, in Edmonton.
Mr. Trudeau visited Calgary on Wednesday, ostensibly to meet with Premier Jason Kenney, Mayor Naheed Nenshi and to re-announce more than $1.5-billion in federal funding for the city’s stalled Green Line – an extension of the light-rail system that will be the biggest infrastructure project in the city’s history.
He arrived just before the actual Stampede, and before an election, and this Tibb’s Eve-like visit means it’s less likely he will return any time soon. If and when a federal election is called this summer, the Liberal Leader will likely want to spend more of his valuable campaign time in more winnable parts of the country. A Calgary trip is a good one to get out of the way.
But the possibility, however faint, of winning seats back in Alberta’s largest city was an undercurrent of the visit.
Entering the federal fray is the ambitious young councillor, George Chahal, who represents Ward 5 in the city’s northeast. He has served one term on city council, but his profile has risen as he has worked to get his working-class constituents help after a massive hailstorm destroyed thousands of homes and cars last year. He also brought attention to the issue of vaccine hesitancy in the neighbourhoods he represents. He has been acclaimed by the Liberals in Calgary Skyview.
“We need to make sure that all regions are represented, and that diverse voices are represented across the country. Calgarians want a voice in the government,” Mr. Chahal said in an interview this week.
“The concerns of northeast Calgary and the concerns of working-class Calgary are extremely important, and I can bring those voices forward.”
The Liberals also posted on their website this week that Murray Sigler had been acclaimed in Calgary Confederation. The well-known businessman has been involved in too many community organizations to name, and most recently, served as interim president and chief executive of the Calgary Chamber. His nomination is also a potential game-changer in the riding. It was a close vote in 2015, when Liberal Matt Grant nearly defeated Conservative Len Webber – now the MP.
Consultant Sabrina Grover will also run in Calgary Centre, which Kent Hehr won in 2015.
There has long been speculation that Mr. Nenshi – also set to retire from the mayor’s chair this year – would enter federal politics. To be sure, there were many moments of reciprocated admiration between Mr. Trudeau and the mayor at the Green Line news conference on Wednesday, and they often have a mutual political adversary in Mr. Kenney (who notably was not at the announcement for the project his government is also contributing more than $1.5-billion to).
But so far, Mr. Nenshi has brushed off any suggestion he wants to quickly jump into partisan politics.
It’s not a cakewalk for any Liberal candidate, anywhere in Alberta. Many Albertans don’t believe the governing party cares at all about the tens of thousands of oil and gas workers who have lost their jobs in recent years, or the economic upheaval likely to come from future policy and energy industry transitions. The muted response from Ottawa when the flagship Canadian oil company Encana Corp., now Ovintiv Inc., departed for Denver two years ago is not forgotten.
In Edmonton, former cabinet minister Amarjeet Sohi – who pushed hard for Ottawa to support the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion but still lost his seat in 2019 – has exited party politics to campaign to become Edmonton’s next mayor.
The federal Liberals have been deeply unpopular in Alberta. But that description – for this moment – now feels more apt when applied to Mr. Kenney’s United Conservative Party (UCP) government. Alberta’s economy has been especially hard-hit by the pandemic and the oil-demand drop of last year, and Ottawa’s income and business supports – and money for old oil-well cleanup – have been lifelines over the past 15 months.
The Liberals are still hoping their handling of the pandemic at the national level is somewhat less disliked than Mr. Kenney’s at the provincial. The Alberta Premier’s approval numbers are low, and he is facing political challenges from the left and right.
Erin O’Toole was also in Calgary this week. There was an announcement that a Conservative government would give Alberta a $4-billion boost through the federal Fiscal Stabilization program, “to end mistreatment of Western Canadians.” But the federal Liberals are also hoping to capitalize on the fact that the Conservative Leader has failed to build momentum or excitement, even in Alberta, up to now.
When an election is called, Mr. Trudeau is just as likely to use Mr. Kenney as a target to galvanize his supporters as he is Mr. O’Toole. Battles over energy-infrastructure legislation could turn into clashes over Ottawa’s designation of plastics as a “toxic” substance, or could shift to a debate about the legitimacy of a referendum on equalization that the UCP is holding this October.
“Sometimes, elbows will come up,” the Prime Minister said this week in describing Canadian politics. A referendum on equalization combined with the potential for a federal election in the months ahead means there will be no end to elbows up in Edmonton and Calgary.
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