Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Albertans have reason to feel they are being used

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The Sunday morning that Stephen Harper called this election, CBC Newsworld called me up. The nice Newsworld folk were asking pundits across the country for a quick comment on the election mood in their regions. "Tell us, what are the most interesting races in Alberta?" I was asked.

I had to laugh. Oh, there are some ridings worth watching. The Liberals have a strong and credible challenger, lawyer and consumer advocate Jim Wachowich, taking on Laurie Hawn, the parliamentary secretary for defence, and the giant-killer who defeated Liberal deputy prime minister Anne McLellan last time around.

The New Democrats are running their star candidate, Ray Martin, a former leader of the provincial NDP, against lacklustre Conservative backbencher Peter Goldring.

And NDP firebrand Linda Duncan, one of the province's most outspoken environmental activists will likely give Conservative caucus chair Rahim Jaffer a good run for his money in a riding with a lot of with university students and greenies.

Yet as much as we in the media love a good horse race, this is shaping up to be one of the dullest elections in recent memory, with every likelihood that Albertans will once again return a straight slate of Conservative candidates.

It's not that Albertans are so enamoured of Stephen Harper. For years, the plaintive cry in this parts was "The West wants in." But somehow, electing a prime minister from Calgary didn't give Albertans quite the feeling of inclusion they were longing for. Many of Harper's most loyal Reform supporters have felt betrayed by their leader, exasperated at his flip-flops on ideological matters.

Harper's decision to defy the spirit, if not the letter, of his fixed election law is just the most recent provocation. Many in the oil patch and the Calgary investment community felt sandbagged by the Conservative's about-face on the issue of income trusts, a policy reversal that hit the energy sector particularly hard.

Others have been disturbed by Harper's replication of the old Mulroney policy of currying favour with voters in Quebec. Courting the soft sovereigntist vote might be a brilliant strategy, but it doesn't play well in the Alberta heartland.

Despite the strong Alberta economy, and the overflowing Alberta treasury, there is a widespread sense around here that Albertans are still getting the short end of the stick, when it comes to Confederation.

Numbers released prior to the election call by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation explain some of that feeling. Between June 2 and Sept. 4, the Conservative government announced -- or re-announced -- about $15 billion in pre-election spending.

Edmonton and northern Alberta received approximately $8.8 million -- about one-half of one per cent of this largesse, with $7.1 million to metro Edmonton.

Nova Scotia, on the other hand, received $890 million in federal government grants, transfers, and pledges between June 2 and Sept. 4, according to the CTF's numbers. Given the entire population of Nova Scotia is a tad smaller than that of metro Edmonton, it apparently costs about a hundred times as much to buy a vote in Nova Scotia as it does in Alberta's capital.

As for Quebec, over that same three-month time period, the Harper government announced, re-announced, or pledged a staggering $5.5 billion in spending. Ontario got even more -- including one big provincial infrastructure grant worth $6.2 billion.

Nonetheless, come election day, expect the majority of Alberta voters to vote Conservative. There's no credible right-wing party to attract the disillusioned Reform-era voters. And Stéphane Dion, despite valiant and repeated visits to Alberta, has yet to convince voters that his Green Shift carbon tax program isn't just a wealth transfer to funnel Alberta tax dollars to other parts of the country.

It's a shame, because thousands of Albertans are deeply concerned about global warming, and about the local environmental impacts of the oil and gas industries.

Dion, along with NDP leader Jack Layton, should have been able to appeal to those votes. But the perception that they are purposely, and strategically, pitting this province against the rest of the country, is winning them few friends here.

The Greens, invigorated by fiesty leader Elizabeth May, may pick up a bigger percentage of the popular vote this time, but they won't be winning any seats. No, the top candidate this time out will be none of the above.

Albertans are suffering election fatigue. We've gone to the polls twice in the last 11 months, in municipal and provincial elections. With the regional economy strong, with Albertans too prosperous and too busy working to think much about politics, look for Alberta to have one of the lower voter turnouts on record. In this horse race, the smart money's on ennui.

Paula Simons is a member of the editorial board at the Edmonton Journal.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 21, 2008 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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