The Liberal Party must have been looking forward to today's four federal byelections with particular glee, and to one in particular: Fort MacMurray-Athabasca.
The polls were pointing toward a victory for Liberal candidate Kyle Harrietha over Conservative candidate David Yurdiga, and by approximately a ten point margin. Instead, Yurdiga won by approximately that margin. The answer to the question "what went wrong?" will be very different for pollsters as it will for Liberals.
But what went wrong for the Liberals was essentially thus: despite pouring more party resources into Fort McMurray-Athabasca than the party has put into any single Alberta riding in decades -- Liberal leader Justin Trudeau made numerous visits to the riding -- the party was deprived of the Alberta breakthrough they were craving.
Make no mistake about it: they wanted this one. Not only is this riding historically a Conservative Party stronghold, but many of the central debates of Canadian politics -- especially those related to the construction of export pipelines -- will circle around this riding. The party who represents it in Parliament will have a great deal of moral and political capital in those debates.
Justin Trudeau -- who has tried to come out as both pro- and ant-pipeline at the same time -- mounted a charm offensive in Fort McMurray-Athabasca, hoping to win the votes of the citizens there despite his soggy position on the central issues.
Not even an arguably-botched decision on Temporary Foreign Workers -- one that will affect Fort McMurray quite drastically in time -- could turn the riding in favour of Trudeau and Harrietha.
There are numerous reasons for this. Just one: the north remembers. Alberta -- and Fort Mac residents in particular -- remember what was done to the western Canadian oilpatch the last time a guy named Trudeau was Prime Minister. The imposition of a made-in-Canada price for Canadian consumers was one thing. The denial of export permits was another, and when Eastern Canadian markets for western Canadian oil didn't materialize, it was this that was devastating. In opposing the Northern Gateway Pipeline, it certainly appears that Trudeau may be setting the stage for a repeat, even if he insists he is not.
If not for his father's National Energy Program, the oilsands likely would have come to fruition far sooner. And badly-needed infrastructure in the region would likely be complete by now.
Of course Trudeau will insist that he doesn't oppose the export of oilsands crude. He can point to his support of the Keystone XL pipeline to back him up there. Never mind that his ideological cohort in the White House has been denying the project for six years, and that Trudeau's incoherent position on the matter -- insisting that the project is only being held up by the Harper government's aggressive political stance on the issue, despite Barack Obama's rejection of bi-partisan missives from Congress -- is nakedly political.
Albertans would have far more respect for a leader who could simply take a position on the matter instead of trying to play both sides. Trudeau may think of Albertans as a bunch of rubes who need to know their place -- and he practically said as much in an interview on Quebec TV a few years ago -- but Alberta didn't build its economy by accident. Albertans can recognize a con game when they see it.
So while Liberals may well be content to bask in the glow of their two Ontario victories in this round of byelections, they'll try to spin even their Fort Mac defeat into some sort of triumph, and ignore the lesson they've just been taught:
Smiles won't be enough. Albertans can recognize a two-faced politician when they see one. And once they do all the charm in the world won't get them a foot in the door here.