* Region's booming energy sector drawing economic migrants
* Election is high-profile referendum on Harper's policies
By Jeffrey Jones
CALGARY, Alberta, Nov 22 A hotly contested
by-election in Canada's oil capital is proving troublesome for
Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government as other parties chip
away at support in a region his Conservatives have long taken
The result in the Calgary Centre voting district will not
alter the balance of power in Ottawa, where the government has a
comfortable majority. But it is highlighting how views in urban
Alberta are diversifying as more people from across the country
relocate to take advantage of a robust economy.
A loss in Monday's vote could force the Harper Conservatives
to rethink strategy in the next federal election in 2015 after
years of focusing efforts on other parts of Canada where results
have been far less certain.
The campaign, where the Conservatives and Liberals are
running first and second, is the highest-profile referendum yet
of the Harper government's policies since it won its majority in
2011, thanks in part to taking every seat in Alberta but one.
A victory by Conservative candidate Joan Crockatt would show
the Liberals and New Democrats, which are the official
opposition, can not fight the Conservatives and each other, said
David Taras, political scientist at Mount Royal University.
"But if the Liberal wins, it's going to break the
psychological sonic barrier in Calgary. A Liberal hasn't won
here in 45 years and it would give the Liberals a tremendous
psychological boost," Taras said.
"It would also worry the Tories. This is home-field
advantage for the Conservatives, the back yard. They take it for
granted," he said.
Several national issues are playing out in the district of
125,000 people in a city of 1.1 million that serves as
headquarters for the nation's energy sector.
The contentious $15.1 billion bid for Nexen Inc by
Chinese state-owned oil company CNOOC Ltd, the Conservatives'
strong promotion of increased oil exports and the environmental
impact of oil sands output have all played out in debates.
Crockatt, a right-wing political pundit and former
journalist, has proven to be a somewhat divisive figure,
prompting some long-term party members who are more moderate to
urge support for the Liberal candidate, lawyer and
environmentalist Harvey Locke.
Crockatt has come under fire for being a no-show at many of
the public debates, and Locke has been forced to deal with some
anti-Alberta remarks by some of the party's national figures.
Chris Turner of the Green Party, an author, is running third
but appears to be gaining support.
CONSERVATIVES ON DEFENSIVE
All parties have devoted large resources to the race,
dispatching political big names to accompany the candidates as
they knock on doors and attend events with polls showing the
Conservative seat as vulnerable.
Voters in Calgary and throughout Alberta have surprised
pollsters in recent years by electing candidates that do not
exemplify the western Canadian province's image as being on the
far right of the political spectrum.
Two years ago, Calgarians elected Naheed Nenshi, a
politically moderate Muslim, as mayor over a candidate closely
aligned with Conservatives, and Nenshi remains popular.
The mayor chastised Crockatt last week for avoiding public
debates, especially one on municipal issues.
Last spring, Alberta re-elected Premier Alison Redford's
Progressive Conservatives to the provincial legislature after
many polls had predicted a win for the Wildrose party, which is
politically and socially to the right.
A recent Forum poll showed Crockatt ahead with 35 percent,
down from 48 percent in late October, and Locke holding steady
at 30 percent. Turner has climbed to 25 percent support from 11
percent in October. The Nov. 17 survey of 403 voters had a 5
percent margin of error.
The Liberals' support has been surprising as the federal
party has been in the woods in Alberta since 1980, when the
government of Pierre Trudeau instituted a National Energy
Program that penalized the energy sector, which contributes most
to the provincial coffers.
However, since the poll was conducted, David McGuinty, the
Liberals' natural resources critic in Ottawa, accused
Conservative politicians from Alberta of shilling for the oil
industry and said they should "go back to Alberta."
McGuinty quickly resigned his post, and the Liberals
distanced themselves from the remarks, but Crockatt seized on
them as being indicative of the party's thinking.
Potentially damaging as well, two-year-old comments by
Liberal leadership hopeful Justin Trudeau, saying Canada was "in
bad shape right now because Albertans are controlling our
community and social democratic agenda" were exhumed Thursday.
It is not yet known whether voters in Calgary Centre will
look past the remarks, or fear that a long-standing East-West
divide cannot be fixed.