Can the Liberals win in Calgary?

As many as three Calgary ridings may be leaning Liberal. Still, Kathleen Petty cautions, this is not a city anyone wants to take for granted.

Grits have been as rare as hen's teeth in Calgary, but this time three ridings may be in play

Back in the mists of time, when this election was called, Liberal Justin Trudeau, signing his autograph, made his first campaign stop in Stephen Harper's Calgary while the Conservative leader returned the favour in Montreal. Election night will tell who was the more prescient. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

It was a Liberal sweep. Alberta's two biggest cities backed the Grits. All four seats! That was 1940, when Alberta had 17 ridings.

Seventy-five years later, the province has 34 ridings. And ever since John Diefenbaker swept through in 1958, most of them have been Conservative, or some relation on the political right.

From time to time, Edmonton has shown a willingness to take a chance on NDP and Liberal candidates. Calgary, not so much.  

Since Diefenbaker, only two Liberals have ever won in Calgary: Harry Hays, a former mayor, was elected in 1963 (lost in 1965); Pat Mahoney, a former judge, was swept in on Trudeaumania in 1968. He was swept out the next election.

Here we are in 2015, and, according to pollsters, as many as three seats in Calgary are suddenly looking possible for the Liberals: Calgary Confederation, Calgary Centre and Calgary Skyview.

The fact that another Trudeau is leading the party is an irresistible prospect for any pundit to contemplate.

The new Alberta?

Back in May, after the NDP won the provincial election, many here theorized that Calgary might be ready to shake off its blue mantle and become politically more adventurous.

The premise was that the population was younger and more progressive. The evidence was demographics and a popular Muslim mayor who has over 260,000 Twitter followers.

The reality, of course, is a little more complex. The mayor before Naheed Nenshi was Dave Bronconnier who was no fire-breathing right-winger. In fact he ran and lost as a Liberal in the 1997 federal election before winning the mayor's race in 2001.

As for demographics, although in-migration has come at a ferocious pace in recent years and contributed to the often cited younger population, Alberta has led the country in that statistic for a considerable length of time. In fact, the province hasn't had a net loss of people for more than 20 years.

The defeat of the Progressive Conservative provincial government in May, after 44 years in power, is often said to be a harbinger of the new Alberta.

Others argue the provincial election result was simply a consequence of an electorate that was fed up with what it saw as a stale and entitled dynasty in a time of economic upheaval.

We Albertans, it seems, don't get to that level of political disenchantment quickly or easily, but, once we do, watch out!

What surprised — even shocked — Canadians and many Albertans back in the spring was to whom voters turned. The idea of an NDP government in Alberta was about as likely as pigs flying.

It was suggested that this unexpected win would open minds to the idea of a federal NDP victory; that Rachel Notley's win could be leveraged federally to help make the sale to those who previously couldn't fathom the idea.

In Alberta today, however, there is evidence of buyers' remorse.

NDP Premier Rachel Notley addressed the Calgary Chamber of Congress on Friday. Her party won 15 Calgary seats in May. But the reaction now hasn't been as warm. (YouTube/Screenshot)

A case in point: the recent speech by Premier Notley at the Calgary Chamber of Commerce was a noticeably quiet affair, with scant enthusiasm on display.

Notley herself remarked on the reception, although she attributed it to people listening intently.

Others offered a different interpretation. During economically unsettling times, a speech about increasing costs and taxes on the energy industry, which went along with an endorsement of federal NDP Tom Mulcair, wasn't going to generate much more than a polite smattering of hands reluctantly coming together.

Still, even if Notley's NDP hasn't created a federal beachhead for the party in Alberta, the province does represent and reflect the change theme that's on display.

What's more, recent polling suggests the Liberals might actually be the biggest beneficiary — particularly in Calgary.

It's been 47 years since Calgary elected a federal Liberal — longer even than the period between changing provincial governments.

At the same time, a Conservative sweep is entirely possible, despite the recent prognostications. The thing about Alberta is that voters don't care what pundits and polls predict. When it comes to change, they work at their own pace. 

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Kathleen Petty

CBC Calgary's Executive Producer

Kathleen Petty is the one of the founding producers of what is now called CBC News Network. Petty created and produced several shows for the network while also hosting for more than 17 years. In 2006, she moved to radio and hosted the national political affairs program, The House on CBC radio along with national election coverage as well as hosting the local #1 morning show in Ottawa. Since then, Petty has written political analysis for and is now executive producer of CBC News in Calgary.


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