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Foreign influence had nothing to do with Tory Joan Crockatt's Calgary Centre election defeat in 2015

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Joan Crockatt. Image: David Climenhaga

"Millions in foreign funds spent in 2015 federal election to defeat Harper government, report alleges," a headline in the National Post screeched yesterday. Whoo! Sounds serious!

And it could be true, I suppose, although the newspaper founded by Conrad Black to serve as his ideological hobbyhorse, a role it fulfills to this day, is pulling your leg when it leaves the impression its source is a serious "report" from, perhaps, a disinterested academic, a government department or a police agency.

In fact, as the story under the headline eventually explains, it's "a document filed last week with Elections Canada and obtained in part by the Calgary Herald."

And while the title of the document contains the phrase "foreign influence in the 2015 federal election” -- which is a sexy claim in the aftermath of the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president and the allegations the Russians must have had something to do with that -- you'll be disappointed if you're looking for the paw-prints of Russian President Vladimir V. Putin.

Naw, this is an allegation that environmental non-governmental organizations from the good ole U.S.A. "worked with each other" to bypass Canada's strict election spending limits to advocate that Canadians vote for someone -- nay, anyone -- other than former prime minister Stephen Harper and his minions.

I don't have to tell you that such claims in a democracy where we enjoy free speech are going to be difficult to prove at the best of times -- especially if "working together" adds up to saying the same thing at the same time, and at the same time a large number of other Canadians, this blogger included, were also saying the same thing.

The claim apparently made in this document seems to be both tenuous and tendentious, although I'm sure Elections Canada will look at it seriously. The foreign money it mentions supposedly came from $1.5 million in donations from the U.S.-based Tides Foundation to a raft of unnamed third parties, some of which was used to "spawn" Leadnow, a progressive activist organization that, if nothing else, is one of Canada's leading producers of emails.

The "36-page report" (double spaced? — Ed.) in which this claim is made, was submitted by an entity called Canada Decides, an organization you've never heard of before that has no Internet presence. Postmedia says it lists three directors, one of whom is Joan Crockatt.

Crockatt, in turn, was briefly the Harper Conservative MP for the riding of Calgary Centre, a former Conservative stronghold now held by Liberal Kent Hehr, who is Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's minister of veterans' affairs.

In other words, if anything, the "report" touted so vigorously by the National Post and other Postmedia publications is a complaint by an unsuccessful candidate who lost a hotly contested election not so many months before after a single poorly received term in office. It should be considered in that light.

What's more, no one has released the actual report, so we have to take Postmedia's word for what it says. The claims the agenda-ridden media company makes for the document cannot be checked or analyzed.

Now, I am compelled to say in the interest of full disclosure that Crockatt was also briefly my supervisor at the Calgary Herald many years ago, where she was for a spell the editorial page editor and later managing editor. So it is also interesting that the original scoop about the report of the grandly named organization, in which she apparently plays a significant role, appeared in the pages of same Calgary Herald.

Crockatt has her strengths, but it is not just my opinion that she was not a particularly good candidate. The Globe and Mail, Canada's self-described National Newspaper declared her just before the 2012 by-election to be "polarizing." The same National Post called her the same thing a few days later.

Anyone who follows Alberta politics -- whether or not they agree with Crockatt or support her as a candidate -- would be hard pressed to deny the truth of The Globe's and the Post's assessments of her candidacy.

The by-election she won came about when popular Conservative MP Lee Richardson resigned to join then Alberta premier Alison Redford as principal secretary. (Not a good career move, as it turned out.) In the lead-up to the vote, Crockatt, then well known for her social media commentary, opposed Redford's Progressive Conservatives to support the Opposition Wildrose Party. That would have driven a certain amount of support from her in the by-election, which took place on November 26, 2012.

She was faced by a strong Liberal candidate, Harvey Locke, and an equally strong Green candidate, Chris Turner, both well-known environmentalists in an increasingly green-tinged riding. Calgary Centre, while conservative, had leaned more recently toward the pink side of the Tories. Indeed, from 2000 to 2004, electors there chose former Prime Minister Joe Clark, who was not exactly a flaming social conservative or pure laine market fundamentalist like the Canadian Alliance holdovers who mostly dominated Tory seats in Alberta in that time frame.

In the event, Crockatt won by a plurality of only 1,200 votes in an election in which her opponents split deeply between the Liberal and the Greens. Turnout was less than 30 per cent.

In preparation for the 2015 general election, the Liberals did their homework. They recruited Hehr, an extremely popular and successful former Alberta Liberal MLA. He may have been restricted to a motorized wheelchair as a result of being struck by a bullet fired through a car he was riding in when he was 21, but he is in many ways still the highly competitive jock he was before that disaster.

A lot of people just love Hehr. He is an admirable, personable and hard-working politician, who has succeeded in the face of great personal challenges. The Greens' Turner chose not to run and the NDP ran a lacklustre candidate. So Hehr had the field to himself as Crockatt's principal challenger.

Add to that the fact Harper's Conservatives ran a terrible, divisive campaign that hit exactly the wrong note with Canadians.

Hehr's strengths as a campaigner, and Crockatt's weaknesses, meant the result was never in doubt in Calgary Centre in 2015. Turnout was better than 70 per cent.

Foreign money in Canadian federal and provincial elections may be a problem, and tighter control of third-party spending is not a bad idea. Indeed, it should include donations from Canadian subsidiaries of foreign corporations, and cash from "political action committees" like Alberta Progressive Conservative Leader Jason Kenney's slush fund at "Alberta Can't Wait."

But for the 2015 vote that caused Crockatt to be shown the door to be characterized now as the result of foreign interference is a bit rich. Leadnow may have gotten results some places, but Canadian voters who are being spun this yarn can rest assured it had very little to do with Hehr's success.

It may suit Crockatt and the nameless, numberless Alberta Conservative MPs who are now suggesting something different, but it was a great Liberal candidate, Hehr, and a great Liberal campaign, Trudeau's, that won the election of 2015 in Calgary Centre. Claims to the contrary are codswallop.

This so-called report -- which no unbiased source has actually seen -- sounds like nothing more than sour grapes.

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

 Image: David Climenhaga

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