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Mystery story: is there an opposition candidate who can win the Calgary Centre by-election?

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David Swann

At least as far as the opposition parties' chances go in the Calgary Centre by-election, successful political strategist Stephen Carter called it bang on in a recent Calgary Herald story: "Everything depends on the candidate."

So the question of the day is, is there an opposition candidate so strong he or she could actually defeat an apparent shoo-in Conservative in the Calgary Centre by-election, whenever Prime Minister Stephen Harper gets around to calling it? The answer is, as you shall see … maybe!

The conventional wisdom here in Alberta, of course, is that elections don't really matter, because Conservatives always win them. This is said to be especially so in federal elections in Calgary. So the real fight's for the nomination.

But as the old song says, it ain't necessarily so. Edmonton Strathcona MP Linda Duncan, the New Democratic Party's environment critic, has proved this, twice, if not in Calgary.

Unless there’s an earth-shattering surprise before Thursday, when Conservative nominations close, the Tories are going to go into this by-election without a star candidate that really glitters -- which, given the assumption they're going to win anyway, might be just the way Prime Minister Stephen Harper wants it.

As was argued in this space Monday, Joan Crockatt is the most credible Conservative candidate still standing, but neither she nor her principal challenger, Jon Lord, enjoys a particularly high profile or much of a track record as a campaigner. Either one, or any of the three or four others thought to be still interested in the race to replace former MP Lee Richardson, would be vulnerable to a good opposition candidate.

What's more, Calgary Centre may not be your Tory father's Calgary riding. Former prime minister and Progressive Conservative leader Joe Clark held Calgary Centre in 2000 against the Conservative Reform Alliance Party tsunami that swept across much of the Prairies that year -- leaving plenty of deadwood and other debris that's still lying around hereabouts.

Clark, often reviled here in his native province as a Red Tory, was buoyed by the large number of what used to be known as Young Urban Professionals living their Double Income No Kids lifestyles in the riding's high-rises, not to mention plenty of footloose folks from away who may have been used to voting NDP, Liberal or what have you when they were Down Home.

So as Interim federal Liberal Leader Bob Rae told reporters while flipping pancakes at a recent Calgary Stampede breakfast, these are just the kind of folks who are "open to a centrist, sensible and progressive" political party -- the one he had in mind, presumably, being his own.

And there are good reasons for the Liberals to try hard in this by-election. If they could somehow eke out a victory, they could claim with justice to be on their way back to their historical role as Canada's Natural Governing Party. By the same yardstick, if the New Democrats can win, they’ll arguably have made a big step forward in building the credibility they need to form the government in the next federal general election.

As of right now, however, the Liberals don't seem to have particularly spectacular candidates. Two have been given the green light by the party to contest the nomination: teacher Rahim Sajan and full-time conservationist Harvey Locke. Both are fine people, I am sure, but neither has a high profile or is known as a veteran campaigner.

Liberal nominations remain open, and at least one other candidate may be considering a run. Two have been advised they didn't make the cut.

The Greens, meanwhile, are expected to try again with communications consultant William Hamilton, likely with similar results as the last time.

Which brings us to the matter of the New Democratic Party, arguably the party with the most to gain in this game, and whatever it is that the Official Opposition is up to in Calgary Centre. As Kady O'Malley put it in an informative and amusing CBC political blog recently, the NDP "are playing remarkably coy; presumably, the party will field a candidate, but as yet, no names of likely suspects have surfaced."

This suggests that after kicking around names like former Calgary aldermen Joe Ceci and Bob Hawkesworth, the NDP has finally found a live one -- someone who would have plenty of credibility in the riding, and who could unite New Democrats, Liberals and Greens in a campaign that, in an off-year by-election, just might edge out a lacklustre Conservative candidate.

Opposition Leader Thomas Mulcair sure spent a lot of time hanging around the Calgary Stampede earlier this month, and presumably like Rae he was doing more than just flipping flapjacks. Moreover, on July 11 NDP House Leader Nathan Cullen hosted an "interactive workshop" in a Calgary church on how to use the Calgary Centre by-election to "give Stephen Harper a stinging message in his own backyard that his divisive politics aren’t going to cut it anymore."

The still-secret ingredient: a high-profile candidate who would appeal to Liberals, Greens and New Democrats alike.

There is such a person, of course. His name is David Swann, the former Alberta Liberal leader who always seemed to me to be more of a New Democrat than one of the Liberals he was trying to lead. Of course, he's still an Alberta Liberal MLA.

Swann is brave -- willing to go on humanitarian missions to Iraq, for example. He's got impeccable environmental credentials -- before getting into politics he was fired by the Alberta government from his job as Medical Officer of Health for Palliser Health and Headwaters Health Regions for daring to call for government action on air pollution. He's a physician who really gets it about the value of public health care in Canada, serving as the Alberta Liberals' health and environment critic in the Legislature.

He's also proved he can get elected -- repeatedly -- in essentially the same patch of turf as Calgary Centre, since his Calgary-Mountain View provincial riding right across the Bow River.

What's more, he's got to be deeply frustrated as a member of former Conservative Raj Sherman's small Alberta Liberal caucus -- where, recently, an issue sure to be dear to Swann's heart, the quality of food in seniors' residences, was left to a union and the far-right Wildrose Party to successfully fight with hardly a peep from the Liberals.

Finally, Swann conducts himself with respect and quiet dignity, even when he's taking annoying shots from bloggers like this one. He's so tall and craggy he's always reminded me of Abraham Lincoln, and he will you too!

I can't tell you if Swann will sign on as the NDP candidate -- but I can tell a heck of a lot of progressive Albertans of all stripes have been saying they wish he would. If he has been talking to them, the New Democrats should grab him and hang on for dear life. He's a Knee-Dipper at heart, anyway, and he's the kind of Albertan all Canadians could be proud to have in the House of Commons. He'd be proof the NDP was the kind of broad-based progressive movement Mulcair seems determined to build.

Indeed, Swann would be an invaluable addition to Prime Minister Mulcair's first cabinet.

Above all, it is said here, he could beat any of the candidates Harper's Conservatives are likely to put forward whenever that by-election takes place.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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