Can Trudeau take Calgary from Stephen Harper? Maybe.

OPINION by Gillian Steward

Stephen Harper used to be able to count on Calgary as secure territory — the place he could come home to and be surrounded by faithful admirers.

But it became obvious during the Sept. 17 leaders’ debate, which was staged in Calgary, that that’s no longer the case.

There are still plenty of Conservatives in Calgary but the political landscape has shifted so much in the past few years that Harper now looks more like a hockey player with elbows up than one cruising in for the easy shot on goal.

With the election of Rachel Notley’s NDP government in May — even the majority of Calgary seats went NDP — Harper can no longer count on a deeply entrenched Progressive Conservative provincial government to serve as his cheering section. So he has resorted to taking cheap shots at the provincial NDP that reveal more about his fierce partisanship than his respect for the truth.

During the debate he said the NDP’s increase of two percentage points to corporate taxes was causing companies in Alberta to lay people off. Really? Isn’t it the drastic drop in the price of oil over the past year that’s prompting oilpatch giants to show employees the door?

Harper also said the Alberta budget deficit had increased since the NDP took over. The government hasn’t even produced a budget yet. And again, the drop in the price of oil reduces government revenue no matter which party is in power. Besides, the NDP is dealing with a deficit it inherited from the PC regime.

In August, only two months after the NDP had been elected, Harper told an audience in Quebec that the NDP government “was a disaster.”

In Harper’s world, the new Alberta NDP government is to blame for a sluggish provincial economy. But he is blameless for a sluggish national economy that he has presided over for nine years. According to him, that’s the fault of international forces over which he has no control.

There were other signs that Harper feels edgy in Calgary. Both NDP leader Thomas Mulcair and Liberal leader Justin Trudeau paid a visit to Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi. Harper did not.

Mulcair and Trudeau obviously knew that being seen with Calgary’s popular and progressive mayor would help their cause. Harper was no doubt still incensed by Nenshi’s remarks earlier this month in which he called the federal government’s response to the Syrian refugee crisis “disgraceful.”

Surprisingly, Justin Trudeau looked most at home in Calgary. He even came to Calgary’s defence during the debate, slamming Harper for letting the city down by pushing environmental policies that make it harder for pipelines to gain public approval.

Calgary-based independent pollster Janet Brown told the Calgary Herald: “Trudeau more than Harper was playing the role of hometown candidate. I think Trudeau talked about Calgary more than the PM did.”

This could be because the Liberals have a good chance of winning three Calgary seats even though there hasn’t been a Liberal elected in Calgary since Pierre Trudeau was prime minister.

The current Trudeau looked young, energetic and optimistic compared to Mulcair and Harper, something that goes over well in a city with a high proportion of young adults. And it didn’t hurt that he took to the Bow River that runs right through the centre of Calgary for a photo op in a red canoe. Hard to imagine Harper or Mulcair navigating the river that easily.

Who would have imagined even a few years ago that Harper would find his party neck and neck with the NDP and the Liberals. And no one would have dared speculate that the NDP would control the reins of government in Alberta. And surely Harper never foresaw that a Trudeau could be popular in Calgary; or that he might lose his grip on government to a member of that family.

On Oct. 19 the Conservatives will likely win the most seats in Alberta. But it’s no longer the safe and secure home territory it once was for Stephen Harper.

He will definitely need to keep his elbows up for the rest of the campaign.

Gillian Steward is a Calgary writer and journalist, and former managing editor of The Calgary Herald. This column originally appeared in The Toronto Star.