Rural ridings probably not what Liberals think

Soon after Michael Ignatieff became federal Liberal Party leader, he pronounced that he was going to engage the rural community of Canada, his point being that he wanted to address rural issues and heal the so-called rural-urban split. Politically, that move was designed to prop up rural Liberal MPs in Ontario which is that federal party’s power base. It was also aimed at rural western Canada and rural Quebec, where federal Liberals have basically been extinct for many years.

Federal Liberals in rural Quebec have not had much luck in that province, only during the Pierre Trudeau years did they have a significant number of rural seats. Ridings outside of Montreal have usually gone to Creditiste’s in the ‘60s and then the Bloc, with a smattering of conservatives ever since. Federal Liberals are usually perceived as an urban party and are supported overwhelmingly by the English-speaking and ethnic community in Montreal.

In the west, Liberals have a checkered history. They elect a few MPs usually in the Vancouver area, many times it’s because voters are voting for the person and not the party. Ralph Goodale of Saskatchewan is the best example of that anomaly. It would be unlikely for that seat to remain Liberal once he retires.

Alberta does see the occasional federal Liberal – even that rare species, an NDP member. But the margins are usually razor thin at best. That’s not to say Liberal voters don’t exist in Alberta. Voting results usually indicate that in many areas there is a consistent 25 per cent of the population that votes Liberal. If NDP and Green votes are added in, it is likely Alberta would have more Liberal MPs. Political observers always find that hard to believe seeing the province as a conservative fortress.

It’s a curious thing in Alberta, almost no one will admit to being a Liberal, mostly because it is neither socially-acceptable or politically-correct, yet Liberals receive a solid chunk of the votes. It reminds one of the many years of Social Credit governments in Alberta and BC. In both cases polls showed few people admitted voting for that party, yet those governments were constantly being re-elected with majorities.

The federal Liberal braintrust probably reads those numbers and sees some hope in Alberta. There is hope if NDP and Green voters would just vote Liberal. Such a coalition has happened before. Former PM Joe Clark managed to get elected in Calgary Centre as a lonely federal Progressive Conservative when Liberal and NDP voters and disgruntled red Tories joined to elect him. However, once he retired – the riding returned to the conservative camp.

Liberal leader Ignatieff has visited the prairie provinces in some organizational capacity and has pronounced that he is listening to the concerns of rural voters. It’s unlikely leader Ignatieff would know the difference between a cow and a doorknob, so most Liberal rural and agriculture policies have been created for him by Liberal party strategists.

The underlying factor for not just the Liberals but other parties is that many have no understanding of what a rural riding is anymore. Canada is a highly urbanized society, with Alberta being the most highly urbanized of all provinces (yes it is). Most so-called rural ridings include either large towns or a piece of the suburban areas of the large cities. That means voters in those areas are more linked to urban issues than the fate of farmers and ranchers. For instance a resident of a High River sub-division who commutes to Calgary to work everyday only sees the rural area only as scenic landscape.

The reality is the economic problems of rural areas, (that being anything outside of Calgary and Edmonton as most political commentators see it) are the same as those in the two main cities of Alberta. When the energy industry booms in the city, it booms in the countryside. Sure a depressed agriculture economy affects a lot of areas but as the actual farming population declines so does their impact.

Even so-called rural MPs get caught up in the economic reality – most would rather see a manufacturing plant open up in their ridings with a couple of hundred jobs than to do anything of consequence for the agriculture economy. Federal Liberals and their leader will soon figure that out again.