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Liberals have reason to campaign in Calgary by-elections, even if they’re sure to lose

The Calgary by-elections under way are not a test of Justin Trudeau's popularity in Alberta, which is probably just as well.

The Prime Minister has worked hard to expand the Liberal beachhead in the province. But turning that beachhead into a broad front will be no easy campaign.

The spate of federal by-elections to be held April 3 are a bit odd in that every one of them is in a safe riding. The Liberals should have no difficulty holding onto Montreal's Saint-Laurent (vacated by Stéphane Dion, who is becoming ambassador to Germany and the European Union), Ottawa-Vanier (which became vacant after the death of Mauril Bélanger, who had held the riding since 1995) and Markham-Thornhill (where John McCallum stepped down to become ambassador to China).

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On the same day, new MPs will be chosen for Calgary Heritage (Stephen Harper's old seat) and Calgary Midnapore (which Jason Kenney vacated to run for the leadership of the provincial Progressive Conservatives). Both are considered safe houses for the Tories. Stephanie Kusie, a former diplomat and executive director of the civic action group Common Sense Calgary, should prevail in Calgary Midnapore, while businessman Bob Benzen should be able to succeed Mr. Harper. The Conservatives received about two-thirds of votes cast in both ridings in the 2015 election.

That didn't stopped Mr. Trudeau from campaigning in Calgary last week for his candidates. It was Liberals, and not Conservatives, who delivered on the Trans Mountain pipeline, he claimed. It might be more accurate to say the Liberals completed a process started by the Conservatives, but let's not split hairs.

But Mr. Trudeau knows his appearance was mostly for show. Calgary Heritage and Calgary Mignapore are affluent ridings chock full of Conservative voters who are almost genetically programmed to hate Liberals.

With average household incomes in the six figures in both ridings, many voters will resent the Liberals' tax hike on upper-income Canadians. And the Liberals' demand that provincial governments impose a carbon tax is as unpopular with these voters as the carbon tax that the Notley government has imposed.

Some may interpret a reduced Conservative plurality as evidence of Tory weakness, but given the overwhelming popularity of Mr. Harper and Mr. Kenney, some erosion is inevitable. Barring a shocking upset, the Calgary by-elections will reveal nothing.

That isn't to say that the Liberals will make no gains in future Alberta by-elections, or in the general election of 2019. If the Conservatives and NDP choose weak leaders, ridings with younger or lower-income voters may well opt for the Grits.

But it is also possible that the Liberals could lose the four-seat foothold they have on the province, if the other parties choose well and if the carbon tax becomes a demonstrable drag on the Alberta economy.

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Antipathy to Liberals has deep roots in Alberta. It goes back to the 600,000 Americans who migrated north in the early years of the province, bringing their individualistic political values with them.

Liberals were, however, at least competitive until the federal election of 1945, when Social Credit practically swept Alberta. John Diefenbaker's Progressive Conservatives replaced Social Credit in 1958, taking every Alberta seat. Pierre Trudeau's national energy program of 1980, which stokes bitterness to this day, guaranteed that the province would remain a Liberal wasteland for another generation.

But politics is fluid, even in Alberta. Immigrants, whose vote can be unpredictable, make up 22 per cent of the working-age population. Younger voters are more likely to vote Liberal. And, regardless of how it got there, the NDP is governing provincially, the ultimate proof that in politics, you never can tell.

All of which is to say that Justin Trudeau has every reason to hope that Liberal fortunes could improve in the next federal election, and every reason to fear that they could worsen. But he and everyone else knows that the Calgary by-elections will serve as a harbinger of neither trend.

Video: Trudeau rallies Liberals in Calgary ahead of by-elections (The Canadian Press)
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About the Author
Writer-at-large

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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