Toronto Globe and Mail | November 15, 2000

Anne McLellan gets set to spit in the Alberta wind

By Jeffrey Simpson

EDMONTON --  If there were justice in politics, the Minister of Justice would win her Edmonton West seat. But this is Alberta, she is Anne McLellan, and the Canadian Alliance has her squarely in its sights.

So do other people, because, in this post-materialist age, debates about values often trump the economic ones. Young offenders, gay rights, gun control, crime prevention, abortion laws, parole policy -- they all stick to a minister of justice.

Ms. McLellan is feisty, competent, cheerful, yet beleaguered. She has never won Edmonton West by much -- 11 votes in 1993, 1,145 in 1997. If she wins in 2000, it will be by less than last time.

Edmonton West has been portrayed in certain media reports as the battleground for those opposed to gun control, the National Firearms Association and that ilk. A convenient story line, to be sure, but quite false. The gun crowd may be making as much noise as their weapons, but to no discernible effect.

Edmonton West is overwhelmingly urban and quite polyglot. Gun control is way down the list of priorities in such a riding, but sufficiently worried is Alliance standard-bearer Betty Unger of being labelled the gun-lobby candidate that she discounts the lobby's influence. Ms. McLellan, predictably enough, insists the lobby has no influence at all.

A look around the riding shows more McLellan signs, a busier Liberal committee room, a better organization and, of course, a candidate with much higher name recognition. Ms. McLellan was highly respected as minister of natural resources by the mavens in the Alberta oil patch. She's used her clout to direct federal dollars to Edmonton. By rights, she should win on merit and performance.

But, as we said, this is Alberta, a province like no other in Canada in its political quasi-unanimity. Polls suggest that 60 per cent of Albertans prefer the Alliance, 25 per cent the Liberals. Spitting into that wind borders on the hopeless, as Ms. McLellan, ministerial colleague David Kilgour in another Edmonton riding and Conservative Leader Joe Clark in Calgary Centre may all discover.

When Alberta falls, it does so hard, and invariably to the political right. No other province has offered such a unidimensional voting pattern for so long.

Consider the evidence and pardon the string of numbers, but they do convey Alberta's one-sided view of politics. Here are the margins by which Albertans have voted: 1958, Conservatives 17-0; 1962, Conservatives 15-2; 1963, Conservatives 14-3; 1965, Conservatives 15-2; 1968, Conservatives 15-4; 1972, Conservatives 19-0; 1974, Conservatives, 19-0; 1979, Conservatives 21-0; 1980, Conservatives, 21-0; 1984, Conservatives 21-0; 1988, Conservatives 25-1; 1993, Reform, 22-4; 1997, Reform 24-2.

Ms. McLellan was one of those two survivors in 1997, so that, by definition, she became one of Reform's favourite targets in the House of Commons. That she became Minister of Justice, a position for which she was well-qualified (having served at the University of Alberta law school), offered her Reform critics a juicy opportunity. Reform and now the Alliance have tried to make a meal of the Liberals' alleged "soft on crime" policies that have left Canadians prey to a crime wave.

This has been, and remains, political demagoguery as practiced most recently and stridently by Alliance Leader Stockwell Day. The facts -- these never get in the way of demagogues -- are that violent crime rates have been dropping for eight consecutive years.

Reading the newspapers, including the "quality" ones, or listening to the Alliance, Canadians might not realize that their country is safer than it has been for a very long while. But editors apparently believe that crime sells newspapers, and the Alliance obviously thinks it can scare Canadians with steamy stories that mix up the role of courts and government, highlight exceptional cases and confuse them with the norm, generally playing to fear rather than reason.

Ms. McLellan became an obvious target for these misrepresentations. That she was forced to defend a Liberal government led by a Prime Minister of dwindling political utility has compounded her problem.

Finance Minister Paul Martin has campaigned for her once. The Prime Minister will be returning this week, for all the good his visit will do. Mr. Martin is one of Ms. McLellan's best friends in caucus. If she needs him, he will come again in the campaign's final week. Watch for Mr. Martin in Edmonton a few days before the vote.