CALGARY — Premier Alison Redford dropped the writ Monday on what is expected to be Alberta’s most contentious election in decades, as oil-rich Alberta grapples with how to manage its resources in the face of an increasingly hostile central Canada.
After 41 years of majority rule, the Progressive Conservatives are facing a well-organized, well-funded scrap against the right-leaning Wildrose Party, led by former journalist Danielle Smith. a win on April 23 would likely confirm the PCs as Canada’s longest-running provincial political dynasty.
“This election will be a defining moment where we will decide what we want the future to be and how we want to conduct ourselves,” Ms. Redford said on the steps of the Alberta legislature on Monday morning.
Ms. Smith — who took over a rag-tag team of libertarians and fiscal conservatives in 2009 — has transformed the party into the de facto opposition, although it currently holds only four of the Alberta legislature’s 83 seats, half as many as the Alberta Liberal Party.
On Monday, she targetted Ms. Redford’s drive for a national energy strategy, which revealed regional rivalries when Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty complained Canada’s resource-driven ‘‘petro-dollar” was bad for his province.
“I have no idea what her national energy policy looks like. I think she’s engaging in a lot of bafflegab and double talk,” Ms. Smith said. “Alberta cannot be engaging in some kind of pan-Canadian, multi-jurisdictional national energy policy. we will not end up faring well when the two principal parties in confederation, Ontario and Quebec, are expressing hostility to the oil sands.”
Some poll numbers show the Wildrose may be gaining enough support to form the official opposition, if not topple the ruling PCs altogether.
“This is important to Albertans because it’s the first time in a generation that there will be a contest,” said Barry Cooper, a political science professor with the University of Calgary.
“This matters to the rest of the country because the policies of the current government and the proposed polices of the Wildrose, if they form government, are somewhat different.”
Albertans are still railing about the funding that went to MLAs who sat on a committee that rarely met. The chair of the “no meet” panel, Ray Prins, announced he would not seek re-election last Tuesday.
Then there’s the recently released report from Elections Alberta, which announced it had found 23 examples of illegal campaign funding from tax-payer funded institutions — although it refused to disclose to which party the money had gone, or who would be facing sanctions.
Redford defended Elections Alberta’s secrecy when she spoke to Postmedia last week.
“The discussion was to avoid exactly these sorts of circumstances where you start to see these sort of McCarthyism approaches to ongoing investigations,” she told reporters
Ed Kaiser/Edmonton Journal
Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith unveils her new campaign bus last week outside the Legislature in Edmonton.
Gary Mar, who was bested by Redford during the PC’s October leadership campaign, remains suspended from his far-flung job as Asian envoy as he faces an investigation into a fundraiser he held in Edmonton earlier in the year.
And the Tories are likely to continue to take flak for their budget, passed last week, that increased government spending, pulls $3.7-billion from the Sustainability Fund, and still relies on an optimistic forecast of oil revenues from a predicted oil price of $105-per barrel.
Ms. Redford downplayed the news as environmentalist spin, while Ms. Smith went on the attack.
“I haven’t had a Chiquita product since December, and I plan to keep it that way until they rescind what they said about the oil sands,” she said Monday.
There was also criticism of the Tory budget passed last week, which increased government spending, pulled $3.7-billion from the dwindling Sustainability Fund and still relied on an optimistic forecast of oil revenues from a predicted price of $105-per barrel.
“Oil is at 100 bucks a barrel, that is as good as it gets, and we’ve got a deficit. where did the money go?” asked Liberal opposition leader Dr. Raj Sherman.
Mr. Cooper also said gold-plated payouts for retiring MLAs would continue to dog the PC party. For example, the retiring Speaker is expected to receive a $1.3-million severance.
“The Conservatives have just done so much wrong that you’re not exaggerating when you point it out and it’s very hard to defend some of these things,” said mr. Cooper, a political scientist and former senior fellow with the Fraser Institute.
Dr. Sherman, who said he disagrees with Ms. Smith’s policies, but believes her to be honest, was more blunt: “They really are now the party of corruption. The PC stands for party of corruption,” he said. “You gotta throw these bums out.”
Both the PCs and the Wildrose have launched attack ads. The Tories this month released a radio spot in Calgary trashing Ms. Smith’s opposition to tougher drunk driving laws: “Danielle Smith and the Wildrose: not worth the risk,” it stated.
Wildrose responded with a video ad that exploited Ms. Redford’s record since taking over the leadership of the PCs in October.
Ms. Redford’s campaign strategist, Stephen Carter, oversaw her successful leadership campaign in October and was a key player in Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi’s win. He said Monday the competition in this election would be good for Alberta.
“I’m glad it’s going to be an election. I don’t like elections where everyone assumes the outcome is gong to be a PC (government). That’s not how elections should be done,” mr. Carter said. “I think it’s going to be a fascinating campaign. we have multiple parties with very different opinions of where things should go.”
National Post, with files from Postmedia