Restless Alberta voters fueled the Liberal’s western resurgence

OPINION by Gillian Steward

The Liberal resurgence is bad news for the Conservatives in more ways than one.

Their western base may seem intact given the party’s popularity in Saskatchewan and Alberta. But that base is not what it used to be — so much so that whether the party is led by Stephen Harper or Jason Kenney, it may soon find itself painted into a very confined corner.

Their Alberta base in particular used to be a launching pad for lively and substantive opposition to the heavy hand of Central Canada that always seemed to hold sway whether the Liberals or Progressive Conservatives were in power.

But now that launching pad for conservatism, especially the Harper brand of conservatism, no longer has the heft it once had because Alberta voters can’t be counted on to always back the blue.

That’s what they used to do: solidly back conservatives during both provincial and federal elections. Many Albertans hoped this wall of blue would define the province as an outlier, as a place where people were tacking in a different, and better, direction than the rest of Canada.

As it grew into an resource-fuelled economic force to be reckoned with, Alberta spawned the Reform Party, which promoted fiscal and social conservatism along with more power for the west.

The Reformers went on to decimate the Progressive Conservatives and become the official opposition. They pushed the Chrétien Liberals to the right when it came to fiscal policy and social programs.

At the same time, Alberta Premier Ralph Klein pushed Reform policies at the provincial level and one by one, other provincial governments followed suit.

Eventually the Reformers morphed into the Conservatives, molded and led by Harper, and went on to defeat the mighty Liberal machine. Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, a good chunk of B.C., and Ontario backed the blue, and it looked as though it was a coalition that could last for many elections.

At long last, Alberta and the west had gained influence they had long sought.

But then something surprising happened.

Albertans grew increasingly irritated by the heavy hand of the provincial Progressive Conservatives who had controlled the reins of government for 44 years. They didn’t seem to care that the latest PC premier, Jim Prentice, had been a key member of Harper’s cabinet.

He was soundly rejected in favour of NDP leader Rachel Notley earlier this year. The NDP swept Edmonton and took most of the Calgary seats as well as those in smaller cities.

It was clear that conservatives could not take the Alberta electorate for granted anymore.

This became even more evident during the recent federal election campaign.

Whereas once conservatives could count on amassing substantial majorities in almost every riding in Alberta, urban voters began considering other options.

In the waning days of the campaign an Environics poll taken in Edmonton had Liberal and NDP voters outnumbering Conservatives in every riding.

In Calgary, polling showed that in half the seats combined Liberal and NDP voters outnumbered Conservatives.

This bleeding of the Conservative vote was on clear display on a Sunday when Justin Trudeau made a campaign stop in Calgary. Nearly 3,000 people were on hand, clearly excited to see the Liberal leader. As the hall filled up, hundreds of people sporting turbans, hijabs, dreadlocks, cowboy boots, and Calgary Flames shirts stood outside waiting for a glimpse of Trudeau.

There were no buses in sight. Everyone had arrived under their own steam.

Veteran Liberals were stunned. They had never seen anything like it in Calgary. Until a few weeks ago, few of them would have dared imagine that a Trudeau could ever pull in a crowd like that in the heart of Conservative country.

It was mostly the rural ridings where the Conservatives hung on to their substantial majorities. Older, rural Canadians formed the backbone of the Reform Party, and it seems that is where the Conservatives have now returned.

That doesn’t bode well for them in a country full of people who live and work in diverse, socially liberal, and burgeoning cities such as Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal.

The Conservatives are going to need a new approach if they want to escape the corner they have painted themselves into.

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