It was a debate too short to contain any true substance. CBC had picked a good day to broadcast it, placing the seven-minute radio exchange about the relevance of cowboy culture a few days before the full-length version of The Walrus-sponsored debate at the Glenbow Museum, and a month prior to the kickoff of the centennial edition of the Calgary Stampede.
As it turns out, the mini-debate served as a preview of the upcoming battle for the recently vacated federal seat in Calgary Centre, the sprawling inner-city riding that encompasses downtown and portions of southwest and southeast Calgary. Joan Crockatt (who praised Smithbilt hats and cowboy boots) is running as the Conservative nominee in the byelection, while Chris Turner (who critiqued the mythologized western legacy) is the Green representative. But it wasn’t just an uncanny roster that made the debate noteworthy: it also seemed to reveal a deep-rooted clash of ideologies that will more than likely be a feature of this electoral battle.
As the former managing editor of the Calgary Herald and an occasional Sun News Network pundit, Crockatt flawlessly represents Stephen Harper-branded, Canadian Alliance-esque conservatism. It’s a rural-focused and tradition-heavy entity, just like the beloved cowboy that she defended. Last October, she even “lamented” — with Ezra Levant on his talk show, The Source — the proliferation of the “nanny state” in Alberta in a segment titled “RIP conservative Alberta.”
Competing with her for Lee Richardson’s former seat is a collection of progressives: an acclaimed green economy writer (Turner, who’s the confirmed Green candidate), a veteran conservationist (Harvey Locke, who’s seeking the Liberal nomination), the curator of TEDxCalgary (Rahim Sajan, also seeking the Liberal nod) and whoever ends up running for the NDP nomination (Alexandra Juric and Brian Wilkinson are rumoured candidates). On the whole, they appear to prefer the vibrant, diverse and urban image of Calgary. Yet despite the number of progressive candidates, or perhaps because of it, they’re in for a long, gruelling few months.
Calgary Centre has been held by some version of a right-wing party since it was declared a riding; for more than 30 years, candidates from the federal Progressive Conservatives (PC), Reform Party, Canadian Alliance and Conservatives have traded ownership. The closest a progressive party came to snagging the seat was in its first year of existence, when Trudeau’s Liberal candidate (Nicholas Taylor) came within 300 votes of victory.
“It’s a Conservative riding,” says Dave Cournoyer, a political blogger based in Edmonton. “Compared to other Calgary ridings it’s a softer Conservative riding: past Conservative MPs don’t rack up huge majorities compared to counterparts in other constituencies.”
Cournoyer’s analysis of the riding’s political inclination is accurate: while Jason Kenney was cruising to victory with over three-quarters of the vote in the adjacent riding of Calgary Southeast in 2011, Richardson was barely attracting 50 per cent of the vote. Even the ever-notorious (and sleepy) Rob Anders had more impressive results, gaining 62 per cent in Calgary West.
Calgary Centre, however, is a rather complicated riding. Kent Hehr, the two-term Liberal MLA for Calgary-Buffalo, points out that the provincial electoral districts intersected by the federal riding (Calgary-Buffalo, Calgary-Currie and Calgary-Elbow) are historically progressive. Voters in the area aren’t “rabid right-wingers,” he says; each of the three provincial ridings have been occupied by a Liberal at some point over the last two elections.
Adding to the complexity is the fact that both Richardson and Joe Clark, the former prime minister of Canada, were considered “Red Tories” when they represented the federal district, or at least more progressive than the new rising right wing of the time. Dave Taylor, the MLA of Calgary-Currie between 2004 and 2010, notes that his voters (who he calls “moderate” rather than “progressive”) were “more interested in identifying and solving problems than wrapping themselves in the flag of somebody’s ideology.”
In other words, there’s little way of predicting what will happen over the next few months. That is, unless a local progressive pollster’s crowd-sourcing idea proves effective.
Strategic voting might be the most despised phrase in Alberta politics after the last provincial election, but consultant Brian Singh is proposing a return to it, in a way. The president of ZINC Research has helped to found 1CalgaryCentre, a self-proclaimed apolitical organization that’s attempting to coalesce the progressive vote around one particular candidate — determined by popular vote on the website — in order to secure an anybody-but-Conservative win.
It’s a long-shot proposal though: with only 135 “likes” on Facebook, the group has a lot of work to do in the next six months, considering that the success of the idea is contingent upon social networking. But Singh, who was a major player in the Nenshi campaign, is confident that by posting plenty of information and interviews about the candidates, attention will be drawn to the effort and something can be made out of the momentum.
“This is not to say I want a two-party system,” says Singh, deflecting the unspoken inference that the election could dissolve into American-style partisanship. “I’d rather we didn’t. I like having diverse views in the Canadian system. But we also have to accept that there are certain limitations to what that looks like. Everyone still has a right to do what they want and start a party, which is great. But are we getting representation that reflects us as Calgary Centre?”
The candidates, however, have mixed opinions on 1CalgaryCentre. Locke, one of the two declared candidates for the Liberal nomination, suggests that the idea of a progressive party merger should be left to the federal leaders to work out; he says that he’s going to run his “socially progressive, fiscally prudent, environmentally responsible” campaign the best that he can. Sajan, the other Grit contender, explains that he believes the initiative is “very helpful for the community because it is going to increase voter engagement, and any time that happens it is a beautiful thing for this country.”
But for Turner, who decided to run for office after he met with Green Party leader Elizabeth May at a Stampede barbecue, views 1CalgaryCentre as exemplifying his entire perspective on the byelection. To him, the crucial thing is to get a progressive candidate into the “vulnerable riding.” If the Liberals had struck gold with Nenshi’s chief of staff, Chima Nkemdirim, the person the party was reportedly attempting to scoop up for the campaign, Turner says that he wouldn’t have run, and instead supported the candidate. For Turner, 1CalgaryCentre is the next best thing.
Within weeks, each of the party’s candidates will be officially nominated and funded. The writ should be dropped soon after, igniting byelections in Victoria, B.C. and Durham, Ont. as well as Calgary Centre. Considering that the government often loses byelections, progressive candidates may have a chance, placing a non-Conservative MP smack dab in the middle of the Conservative fortress of Calgary and in a riding that borders Prime Minster Stephen Harper’s. Although it won’t be easy, it might just answer the question that Turner and Crockatt debated months ago: what kind of city are we?