March 27, 2012 2:03 pm

Tory stronghold of Calgary under attack during Alberta election campaign

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CALGARY – The two front-runners in Alberta’s election campaign have already taken pains to make it clear that the province’s oil capital is no more or less important than any other region.

Danielle Smith and her Wildrose party and Premier Alison Redford and her team of Progressive Conservatives wasted little time after the writ was dropped to race south to Calgary to begin figuratively thumping each other with campaign signs.

Redford’s Tories had already launched radio attack ads on Smith that aired in the Calgary market weeks before the April 23 vote was called.

“I think every constituency in this election is going to matter and that’s the perspective that we’re taking,” Redford, who is running in Calgary-Elbow, said Tuesday.

“The world changed, we called an election, and from that moment in time we’re going to take seriously every vote that we would like to attract to support our party, whether that’s in Calgary or Edmonton.”

Smith, running in Highwood just south of Calgary, agreed.

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“I think it’s important for us to win a significant number of seats in every region of this province,” she said. “We’re aiming for 44-plus seats. We’re not looking to win a couple of seats – we’re looking to form government.”

Nevertheless, Calgary, with its streams of oil money and its downtown head offices in buildings that scrape the sky, is the key cheque-signer and influence-maker of the campaign.

It has 25 of the 87 ridings – more than any other region.

Calgary traditionally sets the tone for Tory politics. The two most successful Tory premiers to date, Peter Lougheed and Ralph Klein, hailed from Cowtown, while the two comparative busts – Don Getty and Ed Stelmach – were from Edmonton and area.

Calgary has been the Tory Fortress of Solitude since the party first took power in 1971.

While Edmonton has, in recent decades, bounced around in its support for the Liberals, Tories and NDP, Calgary has been steady Conservative for 11 consecutive majorities.

But those crushing victories always came against forces from the left-centre.

The time around, there is a new suitor, one that is even further right than the Tories on the political spectrum. The Wildrose has made gains promising no new taxes, a balanced budget, cutting waste under the legislature dome in Edmonton, and, most importantly, no tinkering with oilsands royalties.

“Calgary is a complete tossup in terms of support right now. If anything the Wildrose is slightly ahead,” said Peter McCormick, a political scientist from the University of Lethbridge.

“Calgary has always been the fortress that sent a solid block of MLAs to Edmonton, but this election, if it turns out to be a really close race, it will be Edmonton that saves this Conservative government and Calgary is the first thing to fall.

“It’s an incredible flip in Alberta politics.”

Recent history has shown that while Calgary can’t necessarily win a party an election, it can go a long way to making sure it loses.

Stelmach learned that about four years ago when, early on as premier, he decided to tinker with and even increase oil royalties – the billions of dollars paid yearly to the province by oil companies for extraction rights.

The blowback hit the Tories like an express train. Jobs fled. Oil companies began drilling elsewhere. Stelmach’s name was mud in Calgary and despite a series of make-good royalty changes, his goof was one of the underlying reasons why he was turfed out last year in a reported caucus putsch.

Smith is making sure history doesn’t repeat itself. Asked Monday if Albertans are getting their fair share of oil royalties, she was unequivocal – yes.

Recent pre-election polls suggest while the Tories are No.1, the Wildrose is second and gaining quickly.

Both sides are sending a raft of new candidates into the fray in Calgary.

The Wildrose, coming off a merger just weeks before the 2008 campaign, ran 61 candidates provincewide the last time around but has a full slate ready to go now.

It had four members in the legislature at dissolution, three of them disaffected floor-crossers from the Tories

Heather Forsyth is running again in Calgary-Fish Creek, while Paul Hinman, the only elected Wildrose MLA, is trying to keep his seat in Calgary-Glenmore. Rob Anderson is aiming for re-election in Airdrie, on the city’s northern outskirts.

Redford is running on a promise of change and her slate of Calgary candidates reflects that. There are new faces in half the ridings, including former journalist Sandra Jansen and Ken Hughes, one of Redford’s inner circle and the former head of Alberta Health Services.

Raj Sherman, leader of the Opposition Liberals and a former Tory himself, said the battle for the right could split the vote and see a party with centrist alternatives come up the middle to win.

“Our internal polling shows us that we’re going to contest in a lot of ridings that we previously didn’t have a chance in, because the Wildrose is going to steal half of the Conservative vote,” said Sherman.

“I think there’s a very distinct possibility that there will be a minority government.

“The PCs are going to fall.”

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