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NDP strength in Calgary-Foothills riding could rattle federal Tory narrative

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Bob Hawkesworth

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So, what happens if the Alberta NDP wins the Calgary-Foothills byelection on Sept. 3, or for that matter, if they even come a respectable second?

Wouldn't that, at the very least, damage the oft-repeated conservative claim here in Alberta that the election of the Notley Government was a fluke, a mistake, the product of a perfect storm, and something about which Albertans are already suffering serious buyers' remorse?

That narrative is not only a key plank in the Opposition Wildrose Party's long-term strategy for the provincial election that will roll around circa 2019, but is essential to the federal Conservative Party's effort to hang onto power right now notwithstanding Prime Minister Stephen Harper's widespread unpopularity among voters, including plenty of soft small-c conservatives.

Don't take a chance on Thomas Mulcair and the NDP, the prime minister tells us, pointing to supposed dangers and disasters perpetrated by Alberta New Democrats -- who will have been in power for all of four months when the by-election to replace the petulant Progressive Conservative premier Jim Prentice, who quit on election night as soon as he realized which way the wind was blowing, rolls around next week.

We all know that Harper's friends in the oilpatch would very much like it if Alberta's record-low energy royalties were never reviewed, at least until all the oil and gas were gone along with the corporations that made a mess extracting it. But it's a bit of a stretch trying to blame the world’s low oil prices on NDP plans for a mere review, instead of, say, the likes of the PM's pals in the Saudi royal family.

Well, any old port in a storm of your own creation, I guess. It was Harper and his supporters who wanted us to be an energy superpower and to heck with Ontario’s manufacturing sector, and now we're all getting a stern lesson in the dangers of putting all of one's economic eggs in a single proverbial basket.

It should surprise no one that Harper would like us all to imagine the Alberta NDP government is a disaster.

But it's sure not going to do Harper's efforts to persuade voters in other parts of Canada who would very much like to see the door slam behind the PM that they'd be taking a big chance voting for the NDP if supposedly still-conservative Albertans do it again on Sept. 3 and elect Bob Hawkesworth.

And while that's far from a certainty, it’s certainly a possibility, as several factors suggest.

First of all, there was the poll by ThinkHQ at the start of July that suggested, despite the political right’s best efforts to describe the May 5 election as a fluke, that in fact Notley's policy course remains pretty popular and, as the reliably conservative Calgary Sun's political columnist put it, the honeymoon isn't over yet.

"For a honeymoon to end, you have to really mess things up, and a recent taking of the political temperature finds Premier Notley's numbers are not going cold after all the early moves made by her government," summarized columnist Rick Bell at the time.

Then there was the demon-dialler poll of voters in the riding by Mainstreet Technologies, released last Friday by the Calgary Herald, that showed Wildrose candidate Prasad Panda, an engineer and poll company executive, leading Hawkesworth, but only barely, and by less than the survey's margin of error.

With Panda polling at 29 per cent on Aug. 18, when Mainstreet's machines were dialling demonically, compared with Hawkesworth's 26 per cent, chances are potentially quite good supporters of other centrist parties will move to the NDP to block the Wildrose Party, which still suffers from the image of being a radical rural rump. What's more, PC candidate Blair Houston was polling strongly at 20 per cent in the riding, which traditionally has elected PCs with ease.

Liberal Ali Bin Zahid, Green Party leader Janet Keeping and Alberta Party candidate Mark Taylor will also be on the ballot on Sept. 3.

So notwithstanding all the usual caveats about demon-dialler technology, the Mainstreet poll at least suggests Hawkesworth has the potential to slip into the lead. It indicates he has the highest percentage of voters who are sure to make the effort to vote. And it's no certainty that some moderate PCs who still want to slap their former party's wrist won't vote NDP to accomplish that goal, rather than the still-unpalatable Wildrose. In addition, if elected, a former MLA and experienced city councillor like Hawkesworth will likely find his way into Notley's cabinet, which is seldom a bad thing from a local voter's perspective.

So I'd say the outcome of the Sept. 3 vote is far from a sure thing.

This may explain why Notley is campaigning hard for Hawkesworth, who represented several nearby neighbourhoods in Calgary's northwest on city council for 24 years, instead of benignly neglecting the by-election as premiers are wont to do when their party's candidates appear doomed.

An NDP victory in Calgary-Foothills may still seem like a long shot. But if Hawkesworth and the NDP do come from slightly behind to pull off a victory on Thursday, the idea winds of change really are blowing in Canada, and blowing from the west as the prevailing winds in this country tend to do, will be increasingly hard for federal Conservatives to just blow off!

Indeed, those winds may soon be blowing like a virtual Chinook!

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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