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NDP and Liberal candidates in Edmonton by-election have similar appeal

Donna Wilson

The reasons are perfectly clear and quite understandable, but it's depressing nonetheless to see Alberta's provincial Liberals and New Democrats fighting so bitterly for a few scraps from the table at which the Tories and the Wildrosers get to dine.

But how else can we explain the spectacle of our province's two progressive parties with only nine Legislative seats between them battling it out in the Edmonton area's only Oct. 27 by-election for, in the final analysis, nothing much at all?

Oh well, at least the presence of the Alberta Party, which advocates pretty much identical policies to the other two, means neither the Liberals nor the NDP is likely to come in last. Now isn't that a comfort?

The selection of the thoughtful and knowledgeable Dr. Donna Wilson, the Liberals' candidate named yesterday in the effort theoretically to upset Premier Jim Prentice's applecart by knocking off his unelected health minister, former Edmonton mayor Stephen Mandel, seems specifically designed to undermine the NDP's thoughtful and knowledgeable candidate, Dr. Bob Turner.

But then, around here it's ever thus between the Libs and the Dippers. Probably in other parts of Canada too -- where the fight grows fiercer as the two parties' platforms converge.

Wilson is a Registered Nurse and a PhD nursing professor at the University of Alberta. Turner is a cancer doctor and a medical school professor at the University of Alberta. Either one of them knows far more about health care than Mandel, the grumpy former municipal politician and the obvious frontrunner in the normally safe Tory seat, will learn if he serves a decade as health minister.

Both are articulate. Both were picked, clearly, to appeal to exactly the same subset of voters -- progressives who are both committed to public health care and sick to death of the Progressive Conservative government now headed by Jim Prentice -- and just before that by Dave Hancock whose resignation made the by-election possible, and just before that by the notorious Alison Redford, whose record Prentice is striving to live down.

But, it's said here, the Liberal strategy has less to do with defeating the Tories (their stated aim, as with all the other Opposition parties) so much as defeating the New Democrats, who have been on a small roll lately in the Edmonton area, at least according to several pollsters.

If the Liberals under former Conservative Raj Sherman stumble here, they could reasonably expect to falter more seriously in the next general election, likely to take place in 2016 and for which the four by-elections to be fought on Oct. 27 are seen as a test.

So to stay in the game, despite the expected loss before the next general election of three of their caucus's five MLAs -- Kent Hehr and Darshan Kang to federal Liberal election races in Calgary, David Swann to retirement -- the party must show in can cut into the NDP vote. Wilson probably offers as good a chance as any candidate could for them to do that.

The NDP will not be helped by the distraction of a leadership race that won't be over until only 11 days before the vote in Edmonton-Whitemud, although it may be helped by the emerging sense, at least in this part of Alberta, it is the progressive party more likely to thrive when the dust has settled.

At least the new NDP leader -- whether it’s Edmonton-Strathcona MLA Rachel Notley or Edmonton-Calder MLA David Eggen -- will have the opportunity to campaign in the crucial hours before the by-election. (Sorry, but the winner of the leadership race is not going to be union leader Rod Loyola.)

Of the NDP's other two Edmonton area MLAs, Deron Bilous is also planning to stick around, and it’s not yet completely clear if retiring party Leader Brian Mason will run again. I'm betting he won’t.

Getting back to the Edmonton-Whitemud by-election, this sideshow between the Liberal and the NDP candidates will make it more likely for voters who are simply sick of the Tories to spend their vote on the Wildrose candidate, small-businessperson Tim Grover. Grover seems like a nice enough fellow, but he clearly lacks the health care horsepower of either Turner or Wilson.

But with the opposition vote likely to split three ways, by far the most probably outcome is for Mandel -- who despite his famed crankiness enjoys significant popularity in Edmonton from his two terms as mayor, which ended only last October when he chose not to run again -- to win easily.

So once again, it could be argued, the inability of Liberals and New Democrats to agree on anything except 90 per cent of their platforms will help keep a Conservative into power.

+ + +

Wildrose Party names two more candidates

The race in Edmonton-Whitemud, of course, is only one of four on Oct. 27. The other three are all in Calgary, including Premier Prentice's effort to get a Legislative seat of his own representing Calgary-Foothills.

Since my last commentary on the by-elections, the Opposition Wildrose Party has introduced its candidates to face off against Prentice and Calgary Police Sergeant Mike Ellis in Calgary-West.

They are Kathy Macdonald, an articulate 25-year veteran of the Calgary Police Service with the rank of constable, who will challenge Prentice, and Calgary public school trustee Sheila Taylor, who will face Ellis.

With the Wildrose Party by far the party most likely to challenge the government in Calgary, the selection of two strong female candidates makes a striking comparison to the four male PC candidates – two of whom, Mr. Mandel and Education Minister Gordon Dirks (running in Calgary-Elbow), are nearing 70.

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

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