11/23/2012 04:00 EST | Updated 01/22/2013 05:12 EST

Calgary Centre Byelection: Conservatives Under Fire


CALGARY - There's something strange going on in Calgary — people are actually talking about a federal byelection coming up Monday in a downtown riding.

The buzz is unusual in a city which has been a vast political wasteland federally for anyone other than the Conservatives. A Liberal hasn't be elected since 1968. During the last election campaign, Prime Minister Stephen Harper didn't set foot in his hometown until election night.

And while the Conservatives and candidate Joan Crockatt are still considered the team to beat in Calgary Centre, the Liberals, the NDP and even the Greens are pushing hard.

The race has attracted some high-level federal interest. Liberal leadership candidate Justin Trudeau has visited to support Harvey Locke and NDP Leader Tom Mulcair has campaigned on behalf of Dan Meades.

"If there’s one province where I don’t have to convince people to be prudent with regard to political polling, it’s Alberta," said Mulcair in a campaign stop with Meades two weeks ago — an apparent shot at how the polls did little to predict a Tory win in the last provincial election.

Many young urban professionals are among Calgary Centre's 90,000 eligible voters. Parts of the riding have gone Liberal provincially, but the city has a long history of swinging right federally. Former Progressive Conservative leader Joe Clark won Calgary Centre in 2000 over an incumbent Canadian Alliance candidate. In that case, a coalition across political spectrums united behind him.

The seat came open earlier this year when Lee Richardson stepped down to work for the provincial government of Premier Alison Redford.

Even with history on her side, Crockatt, 56, isn't taking anything for granted.

"I don't think any seat is a safe seat and particularly not in a byelection. I don't know how to judge it — it's my first election campaign — and I'm just running as absolutely hard as I can and try to talk to every voter," says the former journalist and political pundit who has lived in Calgary Centre for the last 18 years.

Crockatt has been roasted for deciding to ignore a series of all-candidates debates, saying she would rather spend the time going door to door. She points out that in a byelection, voter apathy is a serious problem and photo ops and debates do little to sway voters.

"You're not out talking to voters and it's the same thing with debates. Those are things that you get very, very few undecided people that ever attend."

The Liberals say they are hoping to take advantage of what they see as a rift between federal and provincial conservatives in the province. Some federal Conservative MPs actively campaigned on behalf of the Wildrose party in the provincial election earlier this year instead of for Redford's Tories.

"I perceive the traditional strongly Conservative voting pattern of Calgarians to have been very much about insulating ourselves from eastern control," says Locke, a conservationist and lawyer.

"I think that's broken down now with the country being run out of Calgary by a prime minister from Calgary. I think that creates a less us versus them kind of issue. The open question is whether it will shift enough to make it possible for someone other than a Conservative to get elected."

The Liberals are pitching Calgary Centre as a clear two-horse race — Liberal versus Conservative — to avoid a split of their own.

"It's only two choices. It's either Harvey or it's the Conservatives," said Trudeau when he visited this week to press the flesh alongside Locke. "I'm just happy to be basking in the Harvey Locke charisma right now."

But the Liberal campaign was dealt a blow on the same day as Trudeau's visit. The party's natural resources critic David McGuinty, an Ontario MP, blew up at Conservative MPs in Ottawa, saying they have no place in federal politics because of their provincial views.

McGuinty resigned his critic post and apologized, but Crockatt pounced, raising the ghost of the old Liberal national energy program, a federal policy widely viewed as disastrous in Alberta.

Both Trudeau and Locke, 53, distance themselves from McGuinty's remarks.

But then Trudeau landed in the hot seat Thursday when remarks from a two-year-old television interview resurfaced in a Sun Media story, leading the Conservatives to accuse Trudeau of being anti-Alberta.

In the interview with the Tele-Quebec program Les francs-tireurs, Trudeau said: "Canada isn't doing well right now because it's Albertans who control our community and socio-democratic agenda. It doesn't work."

Trudeau accused the Tories of using out-of-context statements to launch a smear campaign.

"When they get scared, they do this. They attack. They draw out old comments and they try to divide and set people against each other," Trudeau said in Vancouver on Friday.

"This is a response to the great news that we're starting to get out of Calgary."

The NDP's Meades has spent a lot of time working on previous elections, but it's his first time as a candidate.

"Calgarians don't want another silent backbencher," Meades says. "The last thing we need here is for someone to nod along as votes that matter to the people of Calgary Centre come and go without any debate or conversation.

"That's what we've seen from MPs in Alberta the last number of years and that's what we'll see with the Conservative candidate if she gets elected."

Even the Greens are making a push with Calgary author and journalist Chris Turner, 39. He says he has the best chance of coming up the middle to win. He cites the unexpected victory of academic Naheed Nenshi in the Calgary mayoral race in 2010.

"I look at the polls and I'm the Nenshi. I see the Conservatives and Liberals fighting for that disgruntled conservative vote," he says.

"We are not nearly as predictable as we once were. For the first time in many decades there is a serious legitimate challenge to the Conservatives."

Also running are Libertarian Party candidate Tony Prashad and Independent Antoni Grochowski.

The riding is Crockatt's to lose, says University of Lethbridge political scientist Peter McCormick.

McCormick says the Conservatives are likely going to be unhappy with a loss of the popular vote, but he doubts they will lose the election since the opposition parties are not uniting behind a single candidate.

"They're all running hard and they're all attracting an amount of support," says McCormick.

"In Alberta there's always this drift back to the obvious in the closing days, which we saw in spades in the provincial election. And if you drift, you drift Conservative."

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version had an incorrect spelling of the NDP candidate's last name.

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