OTTAWA - Invading hordes of Liberal and New Democrat MPs will be doing some reconnaissance in Alberta over the next few weeks as their parties prepare plans to storm the Conservative bastion in the next federal election.
Justin Trudeau and his three dozen Liberal MPs will be first off the mark, gathering Monday for a three-day caucus retreat in Edmonton.
They'll be followed by NDP Leader Tom Mulcair and his 97 MPs, who are, coincidentally, holding their annual summer caucus retreat in the same city Sept. 9-11.
It's an unusual convergence of politicians from parties whose overtures have been steadfastly spurned by Albertans. And it's a sign that the political tides in the stolidly Conservative province may finally be shifting, propelled by the creation of six new primarily urban ridings, redrawn boundaries for existing ridings and the retirement of a number of Tory incumbents.
"People fundamentally misunderstand Alberta politics," says Stephen Carter, who masterminded the winning come-from-behind campaigns of Calgary's superstar mayor, Naheed Nenshi, and former Progressive Conservative premier Alison Redford by playing up their moderate, progressive credentials.
"They assume that we are redneck, right-wing, crazy-assed voters ... The reality is that 60 per cent of Albertans feel they are on the progressive side, not the Conservative side."
Carter contends that Albertans wind up voting Conservative en masse not for ideological reasons but because the Liberal party invariably "throws us under the bus," pandering to voters in central Canada, which accounts for 60 per cent of the seats in the House of Commons, at the expense of Alberta, which accounts for a measly 10 per cent.
On that score, Trudeau's father, Pierre, is often fingered as the worst offender, having turned the province into a wasteland for the Grits after introducing the reviled national energy program in 1980. In reality, the province has been pretty much a Liberal desert almost from the moment it entered Confederation in 1905.
Not since 1911 have Liberals managed to capture a majority of the province's seats. Since then, the best they could muster was seven of 17 seats — and that was way back in 1940. In the past 60 years, they've won no more than four Alberta seats and frequently wound up with none, as they did in 2011.
The NDP's record is even more dismal. It has been entirely shut out in every election but three and has never won more than one seat in the province.
But with 34 seats in play for the next election in 2015 and Stephen Harper's Conservative government nearing the 10-year mark — typically the best-before date for governments in Canada — both opposition parties sense an opportunity to finally break the Tory stranglehold on Alberta.
The Liberals believe they can win as many as six inner city ridings in Calgary and Edmonton, with an outside chance at snagging Fort McMurray, the oilsands heartland where the party came a strong second in a June 30 byelection, running under boundaries that will no longer exist in 2015.
In an interview, Trudeau said it's "really important" to him that the Liberals win "a large handful" of seats in Alberta.
"Alberta's important, the West is important in this country," he told The Canadian Press.
"If you want to be a credible government running this country, you have to be able to draw on great, strong, credible voices from every corner of the country and that's exactly what we're focused on."
An indication of the party's improved fortunes can be gleaned from the high-profile candidates who have stepped forward to carry the federal Liberal banner in the province, such as popular former MLAs Kent Hehr and Darshan Kang in Calgary.
Anne McLellan, a former Liberal cabinet minister who held down the riding of Edmonton Centre from 1993 to 2006, notes that her old riding now boasts more than 800 members, almost 500 of whom turned out recently for a hotly contested nomination, won by franco-Albertan entrepreneur Randy Boissonnault.
She credits the creation of new inner-city ridings, fatigue with the "bullying" style of Harper's government and the appeal of Trudeau's more sunny approach to politics for the Liberals' newfound optimism.
"When people decide it's time for a change, there's nothing an incumbent party can do about that," she says. "I'm not saying the tipping point is there yet but I think it's getting close."
Edmonton-Strathcona MP Linda Duncan, the NDP's sole representative in the province, is equally bullish on her party's chances.
With Albertans seemingly prepared to jettison the Progressive Conservative dynasty that has ruled the province for more than four decades, Duncan predicts the NDP will emerge as the alternative to the ascendant Wild Rose provincially and that will have a spillover effect on federal New Democrats in the province.
"In the last federal election, we came second in almost every riding ... including rural," she says.
The opportunities are "very good," Duncan says, particularly in Edmonton where a recent poll put the provincial NDP at the head of the pack. Still, she acknowledges it's "never easy" in Alberta.
Carter, who helped out on Martha Hall Findlay's rival bid for the Liberal leadership against Trudeau, scoffs at Duncan's optimism. He believes the NDP can likely hang on to Duncan's seat but won't make any gains due to the hard line Mulcair has adopted against the pipelines desperately needed to get Alberta's oil sands bitumen to off-shore markets.
And pipelines could yet kill the Liberals' chances as well, Carter warns.
Trudeau has taken a softer line than Mulcair on pipelines, enthusiastically endorsing the proposed Keystone XL pipeline to the U.S. Gulf coast. Like Mulcair, he is adamantly opposed to the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline to Kitimat, British Columbia, but he's willing to consider the Kinder Morgan trans-mountain pipeline to Burnaby, B.C., provided it passes environmental muster and gets buy-in from First Nations and other effected communities.
Trudeau's mushy, mixed message on pipelines amounts, in Carter's view, to little more than "lip service" to the importance of getting Alberta's oil and gas to market.
If Liberals want to win the half-dozen seats Carter believes are ripe for the picking, he says they'll "have to try and find a way to run a national campaign without disadvantaging Alberta." Given their past history, he's skeptical.
However, Duncan, an environmental lawyer before jumping into politics who has championed the need for a strong federal role in environmental reviews of energy projects, disputes the notion that a party's fate in Alberta depends on its position on pipelines. That is not all Albertans care about, she insists. They also care about developing the oilsands in an environmentally sustainable way and about the impact of pipelines on their communities.
"If that were not the case, I would not have been elected (in 2008) and re-elected with a substantially larger margin (in 2011)."
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