National Column: Alberta byelection focused on energy

by Chantal Hebert – Toronto Star

In past Parliaments, the choice of a new MP for the Alberta riding of Medicine Hat-Cardston-Warner on Monday would have been a bit of a non-event.

The seat is a Conservative stronghold. MP Jim Hillyer, who died suddenly earlier this year, won with 69 per cent of the vote in last year’s election.

One has to go back to 1968 and Pierre Trudeau’s first campaign for the last time a Liberal held the seat. The experiment ended four years later and was never repeated.

This seat is definitely not a bellwether riding. But it is located at ground zero of the Conservative war against carbon pricing, in a province that has been road-testing its first-ever NDP government.

The byelection is taking place just as Justin Trudeau has declared his intention to set a national floor price on carbon.

While the result Monday night will not change the dynamics in the House of Commons, each of the main parties has a dog of sorts in this fight.

The New Democrats are not bracing for bad news Monday. That’s because they already know they are going to have a bad night.

As of Friday, there was no heads-up about an imminent byelection vote on the federal party’s website. Beverly Waege, the party’s candidate, came relatively late to the campaign and, by all appearances, whatever national support she is getting is either minimal or extraordinarily discreet.

Waege ran provincially in 2015, but if Premier Rachal Notley has put boots on the ground to support her former candidate, her foot soldiers are treading softly.

More than anything, this byelection has illustrated the dysfunctional nature of the relationship between the federal NDP opposition and Alberta’s New Democrat government.

While Thomas Mulcair and his caucus have been pushing in the Commons for more stringent carbon reduction measures, Notley has made her support for Trudeau’s climate change agenda contingent on the approval of more pipelines to take Alberta’s oil to tidewater.

As a lame duck leader, Mulcair is not in a position to campaign effectively on his party’s behalf. This week, B.C. MP Peter Julian took the first step toward running to succeed him. He withdrew from his role as the party’s House leader. But Julian is not the best ambassador the federal NDP would want to send to Medicine Hat, for he is no friend of pipelines.

One of the most prominent items on his website is a call to arms against Enbridge’s Northern Gateway project.

The Liberals finished second in Medicine Hat last year, almost doubling their 2011 score. To put that in perspective, they were still 50 points behind the Conservatives. In theory, they are campaigning in the face of an even stronger headwind this fall.

Polls report that two-thirds of Albertans are against Trudeau’s carbon pricing plan and, at the provincial level, the Conservatives are enjoying a revival in voting intentions. The Prairies is the only region in the country where the federal Liberals do not hold a lead on the competition.

But that did not stop Trudeau from drawing a big crowd on a stop to the riding last week. His visit was the highlight of the campaign.

Depending on who you ask, at least 1,000 people and as many as double that number showed up to see the first prime minister to set foot in the riding since Kim Campbell in the mid-1990s. Only a handful of them were there to protest the carbon tax.

The upside of having a political rock star as leader is that a party never needs to fear failing to fill a hall. The downside is that it is not a given that curiosity translates into votes.

If only by proxy, carbon pricing is on Monday’s byelection ballot.

The Liberals will take any uptick in support as a gift. This is a riding populated by some of the harshest critics of their climate-change approach.

By comparison, the Conservatives, who declared an all-out war on carbon pricing at both the Alberta and the federal level, are essentially preaching to the converted.

They can only hope for a big victory since, to continue to win ridings like Medicine Hat on those terms in the future, they may have to sacrifice candidates in a lot of other ridings.

Chantal Hebert is a national affairs writer.
Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

Copyright: 2016-Torstar Syndication Services

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