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Teetering Tories

Conservatives in Alberta aren't supporting the PCs, but opposition parties are failing to take advantage

Patrick McGee - July 30, 2007

It's byelection night in Alberta, June 12, and Kevin Taft, the provincial Liberal leader, is all smiles. He thanks his supporters, who "thought about the issues and came back with such a resounding success," and exclaims, "How sweet it is!" to the cheering crowd. Just a week prior Taft had said the Calgary-Elbow riding was only of minor significance. But tonight he senses the euphoria in the air as he calls out, "This is a very exciting night!"

As a confident Taft anticipated a Craig Cheffins win over PC candidate Brian Heninger--the first Liberal victory in the riding since its creation 36 years ago--he went on to compare the performance of Alberta's Grits to triathlete Simon Whitfield, the Sydney Olympics gold medalist. Like Whitfield, Taft elucidated, the Liberals were just out to do their best. It was only as the race went on, and they saw how their efforts were paying off, that they realized they might actually beat out the competition.

But that's about as far as the metaphor goes: while Whitfield had competitors in his race, commentators noted that the Liberals merely won by default, as conservative voters staged a stay-at-home protest."I don't think that was about a Liberal win at all," says Sandra Houston, provincial secretary for the NDP. "The Liberals got less votes this time than they did in 2004." Considering the 36 per cent voter turnout, she thinks Calgary-

Elbow's symbolic status was seized upon by Calgarians eager to send Premier Ed Stelmach a strong message, "without costing him the entire government."

The numbers tell the same story. In 2004, 52 per cent of eligible voters cast their ballots and the Conservatives took more than half, leaving the Liberals 4,938 votes--or 37 per cent of the popular vote. In June, while their share of the total vote surged to 45 per cent, the Liberals won only 4,801 votes. In this election, even as conservatives gave the PCs the cold shoulder, support for liberals still declined.

Paul Hinman, leader of the Alberta Alliance, sees the election as a big disappointment for everyone. "Who lost the most? The Tories. Who lost the next most? The Liberals," he argues. Hinman says the stats "speak volumes." The Tories are losing popularity, but no other party has been able to capture the wayward votes, he says.

The trend in Alberta is either to vote conservative or not at all, adds Bruce Cameron, president of the polling firm Cameron Strategy. Noting that approval for Kevin Taft's leadership hasn't significantly improved, he suggests the byelection "really was a referendum on Ed Stelmach's leadership for the people of Elbow." With an unpopular premier who just doesn't "get" Calgary, he concludes "the PC brand is in trouble," and before the opposition figures out how to capitalize on that, the Tories must draw in their conservative base. "It's not too late, necessarily, but the clock is ticking, and it's ticking very quickly," he warns. "If this current trend continued, there would not be a safe seat in Calgary."

Yet it was byelection night, too, in Drumheller-Stettler on June 12, and Conservative candidate Jack Hayden swept the polls to garner almost 60 per cent of the vote. Liberal candidate Tom Dooley managed to steal a few votes away from the NDP to take 14 per cent.

More articles by Patrick McGee