Five years ago, a friend went to the Conservative enclave of Calgary West and found a complex answer to a very simple question. (UPDATED: OCTOBER 1, 2012.)
If you want to understand what it means to be a Conservative in Calgary, go to Calgary West. Just mouth the words. CALGARY…WEST. Imagine anyone who’s never left Central Canada gagging on each syllable. It’s OK if that makes you smile. You can smile about that stuff here.
Calgary West is one of those disproportionately big urban ridings, which spreads out over 89 square km and holds just over a tenth of the city’s registered voters. On electoral maps, it’s shaped like an imbalanced pumping jack, boundaries pressed up against the city limit, zigzagging from Crowchild Trail west to Bow and Sarcee and Glenmore Trails.
In its first incarnation, when Bowness was a separate municipality and most of what now constitutes the district was ranching land, Calgary West was home to RB Bennett, the prime minister who invoked Section 98 of Canada’s Criminal Code in fear of Communist subversion. From 1993 to 1997, Stephen Harper was the MP. No electoral district in the country has produced two prime ministers. For a city with littlesignificant history, this is not an insignificant fact.
I was told, in the course of passing conversation, that Calgary West is so historically safe for Conservatives that they could run “Mickey Mouse,” “a sack of potatoes,” or “a rabbit with a pancake on its head” and never lose the seat. Instead they run Rob Anders.
It’s Anders’ allies who revel most in these analogies, that the Liberals and NDP are so God damn whipped out here you can be the MP who voted against Nelson Mandela’s honorary citizenship, you can be called a “foreign political saboteur” by CNN, you can be accused of everything from homophobia to incompetence to defrauding Canadian taxpayers—by opposition parties, by supporters in your district, by your longtime staff—hell, you can systematically alienate the campus Conservatives at your former University, if you’re Rob Anders you’ll never lose Calgary West. Googling his name spits back www.voteoutanders.com just beneath his official parliamentary page. The National Post’s Ottawa correspondent would write things like “In a Commons loaded with lightweights, Calgary West’s MP almost defies gravity.”
And you know what? Let the bleeding hearts disapprove! It only feeds the illusion he’s beatable. Anders is a legendary campaigner. “He lives it,” one of his friends from university told me. “It’s his hobby basically.” The cofounder of voteoutanders.com, who grew up in Calgary West and was then doing a Political Science doctoral work at The University of Toronto, was fascinated by Anders’ style: “He sends out explosive push/pull polls to identify the vote. He knows how to get them out.” Calgary’s enormously successful Mayor Dave Bronconnier was the first to take the bait in 1997. Since then, Conservatives have gone so far as to temporary leave their party and run against him as Liberals. (Before she became premier, Alison Redford unsuccessfully challenged Anders for the nominatoin.)In successive elections, his majority has gone from 51.79% to 54.04% to 55.90% to 58.71% in 57.36% to 62.20% last year. Because that is what it means be a Conservative in Calgary West.
THE PERFECT STORM
Because it’s an ever tricker term to define, when I say “Conservative,” unless there’s an adjective dangling out front, I mean the all-encompassing red/blue provincial/federal big tent/small tent “we weren’t raised to vote Liberal” notion of the term. I mean it as the essential all-defining Calgary thing. Deeper than oil and cowboys, deeper than whatever slick talker du jour tries to make it mean from one political moment to the next. The deepness itself is what I mean.
Calgary runs the gamut from Anders/Kenney Social Conservatives to Prentice/Dinning “Red Tory” moderates to bona fide democratic reformers like Diane Ablonczy. Being Conservative in Calgary isn’t supposed be complicated. Cut government. Lower taxes. Don’t piss away the taxes you collect. Listen to your grassroots. On January 23, 2006 Stephen Harper became the country’s 22nd Prime Minister—I remember standing on my balcony looking down at the Telus Convention Centre—the first words of his new reign beamed to every corner of Canada from a television inside. There was a moment of déjà vu. And then he actually said it. The unapologetic rejoinder to Preston Manning’s Reform forming salvo. The West was in.
“We finally had the government we wanted,” one of Harper’s former aides later told me. “For one day.”
In the days that followed, Harper would turn his back on long-time Calgary loyalists, giving one cabinet post to a Liberal MP, another to some Quebecer who hadn’t even been elected. He muzzled caucus. Tightened the party’s inner circle. Targeted the first budget directly at Quebec and Ontario. Flip flopped on Calgary-friendly “green” policy. And after specifically promising not to tax income trusts during the election campaign, his finance minister announced they would do exactly that. By extreme counts, the broken promise would cost Calgary’s oil sector $10 billion. If that wasn’t enough, it let Ontario-centred Real Estate trusts off the hook. On April 14, one of the city’s most popular MPs Jason Kenney flew back to ease tensions. He was heckled. Longtime members sent their membership cards to the PMO in shreds. When asked about the west’s first year “in,” Manning publicly remarked: “I was hoping to go faster, further.”
Ripples of discontent had spread much earlier, of course. In the 2004 provincial election, three Liberals won seats in three central Calgary ridings. In the months that followed, amutiny was launched against Ralph Klein, forcing a premature end to what even his most fervent apologists conceded was a farcical reign. The campaign to fill his throne was divisive. It was the first opportunity to vote for a provincial leader in a generation—members of opposing parties bought $5 memberships; some to vote against the social conservative candidate Ted Morton, others to vote specifically for Morton, hoping to drive disenchfranchised progressives left. It ended in a clear vote—against the most obvious next-in-line Jim Dinning. A Calgarian. That is to say, it was a specific vote by the rest of the province against Calgary itself. And then so there would be no mistake—in contrast to Harper who turned his back on long-time stalwarts—the new premier Ed Stelmach purged experienced Calgary MPs from cabinet in favour of those who had been loyal to his leadership campaign. “Conservatives are finally realizing that they’re damned if they do, damned if they don’t in this town,” a local federal party insider told me. “These guys win by such gigantic pluralities out here that they don’t have to worry about pissing everybody off.”
In the midst of it all, Dave Bronconnier, the Liberal who first lost to Anders, began testing just how alienated the Calgary Conservative really was. In a gambit straight out of Klein’s playbook, he went from community centre to community centre explaining how the city’s $5.4B infrastructure shortfall was actually the provincial Progressive Conservative government’s fault, how the rest of Alberta was taking Calgary’s money.
Stelmach took the bait. The two went to war. And the city’s impenetrable Conservative ring broke, first into a spiral, and then through the June by-election to fill Klein’s Calgary Elbow seat, a noose. Liberal MLAS were parachuted in to knock on Elbow doors. For the first time in anyone’s memory the doors weren’t slammed. Residents listened sympathetically. They’d nod in approval. Then apologize. “I just wasn’t raised to vote Liberal.” So, by-and-by, they just wouldn’t vote.
The local Conservative candidate, in his own desperate door knocking, resorted to telling residents he wanted to choke Stelmach. For the first time since Peter Lougheed became leader—and this is the single most significant fact of the story—not only was there was nobody the party could dispatch to help their candidate in Elbow, there was nobody they could send who wouldn’t make matters worse. Dinning made a token effort. Manning, who almost ran for the leadership himself—on an environmental agenda—had begun hosting a show earlier that month for the perennial Conservative punching bag the CBC. Lougheed’s 41-year-old son Joe lost a bid to become president at the party’s AGM. Thus the Summer of 2007 unofficially began with one less Conservative in provincial caucus—Federal party insiders were quick to note how Elbow overlaps with Harper’s riding of Calgary Southwest—and Ralph Klein, renowned for his candid leadership, gleefully shouting at reporters: “No comment! No comment! No comment!” At once anthemic and elliptical—and maybe even a point of punctuation.
THE MOST DEMOCRATIC THING
Anders, who is 34 [now 39], has now been an MP for a full decade [and-a-half]. Friends and supporters I spoke with have a tendency to laugh off his controversial record. “He’s just being Rob,” they’d tell me. “He was young when he said most of those things. Look at Hansard, the transcripts of parliamentary debate, he hasn’t said anything in more than a year.”
“That’s a good MP?” I’d ask. “Someone who contributes nothing?”
“Parliament’s full of dead wood. Why single Rob out?”
“I liked the guy at first,” a longtime Calgary West Electoral District president named Walter Wakula told me. “I keep waiting for him to mature into the job.”
“His reports were terrible, he didn’t tell us anything.”
While Wakula was president, Anders devised a private members bill, proposing to cut off aid to countries that didn’t practice religious freedom. “Not human rights,” Wakula said. “Specifically, religious freedom. Not only that, the bill actually hurt Canadian entrepreneurs because Export Development Canada gives out technical assistance for their business.” When he questioned Anders on the bill, Anders said: “it’s none of your business.”
Wakula, who [was then] 59 and looks a little bit like the former Dallas Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson, would meet informally for coffee with a small group of old Reformers called “The Wise Ones.” They’d discuss the trials and tribulations of Anders representation. As the meetings grew in size, a lawsuit was filed by James Istvanffy, Anders’ executive assistant and office manager since 1997, alleging the MP used taxpayer money to pay off personal loans. “The lawsuit was the final straw,” Wakula said. “Every time you turn around he’s in trouble.“
On June 15, 2006, the Wise Ones met with a larger group of Calgary West Conservatives, who expressed concern that the district might not be safe in the next election. The vitriol against Paul Martin’s corrupt Liberals couldn’t be counted on in the next election. And while Anders’ % of votes may have increased each time he ran, the % of overall Conservative votes had plummeted from the peak of 75.61% immediately preceding the Alliance/PC merger. Add the unpredictable shift in Calgary’s exploding population—an influx of citizens not raised to vote like lemmings—along with city-wide disappointment over Harper’s first year in power, and it suddenly seemed possible the seat could fall. “I was flabbergasted,” Wakula said.
HOW THIS WORKS
Whenever I asked how “this” works, I’d hear something almost like a mantra. “Voting isn’t the most democratic thing you can do,” party members kept telling me. “What people don’t understand about the democratic process is that out of 308 seats in this country, probably 180 of them are decided before any of us go to the polls and they’re decided by memberships. You have to get in at the EDA level.”Again and again, I was told that at both the provincial and federal level, constituency associations weren’t used for anything but an election machine, that the grassroots had become a convenience. That is to say, though Anders won’t lose a general election, his Electoral District Association can still hold a contest to determine whether he will be the candidate to run in that election. Which is exactly what they began to do. Four contestants ran for the nomination in 2004, which Anders won by a slim margin on the third ballot. Harper grandfathered incumbents leading into the 2006 election. But this time they’d have to fend for themselves. In August 2006, a nomination race was opened in Calgary West. Wakula entered, but was disqualified before it even began. And because no reason was given for the disqualification, he filed an appeal. His appeal was ignored, and in September, twelve Conservatives from Calgary West took their party—The Conservative Party of Canada—to court. Half were original Reform party members, including Anders former campaign manager Gary Peaker, as well as a longtime friend of The Anders family.
The Friends of Wakula came to be known in the media as “the disgruntled Conservatives of Calgary West.” As the case dragged, month after month, a figure eight between different courts, eventually from Appeals back to Queen’s Bench, the party refused to capitulate.
“Politics these days is war,” the Conservative party’s lawyer Gerry Chipeur said, at one point during the February 2 hearing, explaining why such internal disputes should not be opened up to the courts.
Citing a laundry list of cases involving the party versus its members that had in fact been opened to the courts, the members’ lawyer Rob Hawkes cracked: “it seems the Conservative party must like coming to court and spending money on lawyers.”
“God bless them,” the judge Jed Hawco ironically joked back.
After weeks of deliberation, Hawco issued a court order instructing the Conservative Party of Canada to restart the nomination process in Calgary West. A new vote had to take place by June 30. On May 27, an e-mail declared the race open, adding that “National Council reserves the right to cancel this process and declare another person to be the Party’s candidate as it sees fit.”
On June 5, Wakula pulled out. In an e-mail to his supporters, he wrote: “Contestants can not sell memberships and only people who were members 10 months ago are eligible to vote. Contestants will not get this membership list until the nomination process is nearly completed while Mr. Anders has had this list for over 10 months.”
The Post’s Ottawa correspondent, wrote: “What makes the Anders protection plan even more befuddling is the wide-open nomination process now going on in the party’s chronically weak Quebec region. It’s a good sign when party nominations are contested. It means there’s a prize worth fighting for and an expectation of victory. That’s why it’s so strange that a populist party like the Conservatives moved to aggressively protect their weakling in a party stronghold while quality candidates are forced to duke it out for long-shot seats.”
I asked Wakula if he had become jaded. “I’m jaded because they’re trying to run it from the centre,” he said. Then paused for a moment and let his mind drift to the days leading up to the Reform movement that had swept him into this new party. He shook his head. “It’s come full circle.”
POSTSCRIPT: AFTER THE CALGARY CONSERVATIVE (NENSHI AND REDFORD)
I met Bradley Chisholm in the basement of a downtown pub one night that April [five years ago]. The room was filled with lawyers, academics and a mish mash of community development types. It was one of the early meetings of the “Better Calgary” campaign. A sort of urban think tank. Half the group had come from Dinning’s campaign, the other half had spent their lives trying to defeat Conservatives in Calgary. Yet here they all were in this room, Liberal organizers and Conservative organizers completing each other’s sentences about building a more effective transit system and finding homes for the homeless. Earlier that month, a group of Conservative Calgary CEOs had announced a coalition to eradicate homelessness. The unspoken message was that maybe we won’t solve these problems through party politics anymore.
Chisholm, who is Better Calgary’s co-chair, had been in charge of Under 35 membership sales during Dinning’s leadership run. The son of a Saskatchewan MLA, he is a farm boy turned big city lawyer. In a party with strained rural/urban factions, this makes him a valuable commodity. He’s only 30 and is being wooed to run in one of the province’s biggest ridings. The current thinking goes that aging Calgary Provincial Conservative incumbents won’t run in another election. Because they’ve never faced a serious threat, they wouldn’t know how to run. Phone lists are ten years out of date. Everything has to be rebuilt from scratch. That’s how the trio of Liberals took seats in 2004. Consequently, a number of spots are expected to open up. This is a fast track to a cabinet position. But does a rising Conservatives actually take such a track anymore?
Who’s going to give up a $750,000 salary to be a Stelmach or Harper puppet, someone who can’t effectively lead a riding lest they get thrown out of caucus? How do you build your community when half the party wants to wallow in the 20-year-old injustice of NEP? “Our generation is not going to give up our lives,” said Chisholm. “We’re a little more fickle.” He’d recently attended the premier’s dinner in Calgary. “16,000 people paid $500 a plate,” he told me. “It was dead air. There was no energy in the room. The people at the these tables are confused.”
They can’t stand Stephane Dion, but are somehow more repulsed by the Conservative ads that attack him. They’d rather discuss policy than play the petty parlour game of EDA board rigging. They refuse to be spun to by their own leaders. They won’t apologize for leadership that admits it “wasn’t ready for the boom.” Most of all, they won’t endorse the culturally defeating notion of “politics as war.” They know being Conservative here is doomed to go round-and-round. But they won’t stop being Conservative. They will, however, change the ways that Conservatism is expressed. Joining local charities. Starting charities. Cutting out the middle man that is the political process. That is the most democratic thing you can do. And maybe the most conservative too.
When I first started following the case of Calgary West, I had asked a university friend of Rob Anders if there was a happy ending in any of this. The morning after the party lost Klein’s seat, I phoned her. “I’ve been thinking about your happy ending,” she said. She was energized. “This is one of the most youthful, dynamic, interesting, innovative, entrepreneurial jurisdictions in North America. The fact that we don’t have a proper political dialogue in opposition is not good for us. It’s important to have accountability in government. If we outgrow the hegemony one party stateness that’s been running the province, if we actually have a proper give and take in government, that’s fantastic news. Governments shouldn’t be afraid to have to be accountable. If you value democracy you should be thrilled by that.”
I asked Wakula if he thought a Conservative independent candidate could beat Anders. He thought for a moment. Then said, “we haven’t done the polling yet. But yes. I think so.”
“Maybe we have to create the splinter,” Chisholm said. “What’s happening now is a necessary process.” I asked him what a Conservative in this city is going to be?
He thought for a while. He had no answer. “The person who can finally articulate that will be very powerful.”
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*Originally published in Avenue magazine.