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From faith to fear: Alberta election winds down with Tories in a dogfight

Alberta PC Party Leader Jim Prentice greets a supporter during a campaign stop in Calgary, Alta., Saturday, May 2, 2015.
Image Credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
May 03, 2015 - 4:28 PM

EDMONTON - Alberta voters deliver their verdict Tuesday in an election campaign born out of faith, now climaxing in fear.

It was supposed to be a 28-day victory lap for Premier Jim Prentice, who called the election a year earlier than mandated by law with 70 of the 87 legislature members in his Progressive Conservative tent.

But campaign polls have the Tories in a three-way dogfight, their four-decade dynasty threatened by the rival Wildrose on the right and the surging NDP to the left.

Political analysts say if Prentice wins majority government it will not be because of his campaign, but despite it.

"It really has become a campaign plagued by gaffes and process stories rather than vision and platform," says Bob Murray, vice president of research at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.

Prentice called the election last month to gain a mandate on his proposed budget, which he called a paradigm-altering, 10-year blueprint to diversify revenue and lessen dependence on volatile oil royalties.

It hiked dozens of taxes and fees while freezing or cutting spending across government and running up a debt for infrastructure that will hit $30-billion by the end of the decade.

On campaign doorsteps the budget galvanized the Opposition Wildrose party and its new leader Brian Jean, who criticized Prentice for not cutting deep enough while hiking taxes.

And it galvanized the NDP party and Leader Rachel Notley, who criticized Prentice for cutting too deep while hiking taxes.

Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley holds a can of orange Crush soda pop as she enters a campaign rally in Calgary, Alta., Saturday, May 2, 2015.
Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley holds a can of orange Crush soda pop as she enters a campaign rally in Calgary, Alta., Saturday, May 2, 2015.
Image Credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

"It was a budget that had something for everybody to hate," says Lori Williams, a policy studies professor with Mount Royal University in Calgary.

"Even though it has some very good elements and was good for working families, I think the number of increases in fees and the cuts made it a pretty unpopular budget."

Prentice has also had to deal with scandals, setbacks and rollbacks.

He promised to stay the course on the budget only to announce two major changes to it on the campaign trail. He pledged deeper cuts to boards, agencies, and commissions while reversing a $90-million cut to charity tax credits.

He has also had to ask Justice Minister Jonathan Denis to resign from cabinet over a court action involving Denis's estranged wife and was forced to address leaked text messages suggesting his party forced out Calgary-area candidate Jamie Lall before the campaign began.

Political analysts say win or lose, Notley has been the story of the campaign.

The NDP won just four seats and 10 per cent of the popular vote in the last election. Under Notley, the polls suggest the New Democrats could dominate Edmonton this time around and a even make a breakthrough in the Tory fortress that is Calgary.

Notley, a lawyer and daughter of former provincial NDP leader Grant Notley, soared in popularity after the leaders debate.

Williams says Notley's success has been her ability to trade barbs while keeping her message upbeat and optimistic.

"People just like her. They're calling her Rachel," says Williams.

The NDP rise has led to the re-launch of the Progressive Conservative fear campaign.

Political scientist Duane Bratt noted in the 2012 election, the PCs wooed progressives back to the fold by warning of how a Wildrose government would be intolerant of minorities and indifferent to the environment.

This time, Bratt says, the Tories seek to woo fiscal conservatives back by suggesting that an NDP administration would mean an economic apocalypse for Alberta.

"The PCs' job is to keep putting doubts in the minds (of voters)," says Bratt, with Mount Royal University.

"It worked in 2012. It worked before."


A look at some of the twists and turns during the Alberta election campaign:

April 7: Premier Jim Prentice announces in Edmonton that he has visited the lieutenant-governor to ask for a provincial election on May 5. Under Alberta law, an election wasn't supposed to be held until early 2016, but many believe Prentice hopes to take advantage of an opposition in disarray. He's running on a tough-love budget that increases taxes and runs a record $5-billion deficit.

April 8: The Prentice bus heads for Grande Cache, where the premier once worked as a coal miner. He talks of a need to get Alberta off the boom-and-bust economic cycle that is tied to oil prices. NDP Leader Rachel Notley holds rallies in Calgary and Lethbridge. Wildrose Leader Brian Jean visits Calgary, Kananaskis and Spruce Grove.

April 8: Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi criticizes Prentice for spending $30 million to hold an early election after refusing weeks earlier to restore $200,000 in funding for more child death investigations.

April 9: The Wildrose releases its economic plan. The party promises to cut 1/3 of government managers and half the managers in Alberta Health Services, mostly through attrition. The party would also slash government travel and advertising budgets, limit the use of consultants and roll back pay for politicians. Jean says that would save more than $2 billion in this budget year alone and help balance the budget by 2017.

April 10: Prentice challenges the Wildrose to specify which jobs the party would cut and which construction projects it would mothball under its proposed budget plan.

April 12: Prentice says it was disappointment with previous Progressive Conservative administrations in Alberta that ultimately led him to re-enter public life. "Albertans were disappointed and so was I.'' Prentice is the seventh person to serve as premier since the PCs took power in 1971.

April 13: Prentice acknowledges the level of public anger being directed at his party. "We will not make the mistakes of the past.''

April 13: Prentice says there will not be a provincial sales tax as long as he leads Alberta.

April 15: Prentice promises to axe boards and commissions and to demand wage freezes from unionized staff should his party win.

April 16: A Wildrose candidate apologizes for the way an old-fashioned pie auction was advertised in his constituency. The fundraiser invited supporters to take a break from calving, farming and the NHL playoffs to meet Rick Strankman, but made it clear it was a BYWP — Bring Your Wife's Pie event.

April 17: Notley says her government would be up front with people about school and hospital projects, with a public accounting system that would end political interference.

April 17: Half a dozen high-profile Alberta Tory cabinet ministers stand together to criticize a "disastrous'' Wildrose party fiscal plan they say would leave a funding gap of $29 billion.

April 17: Nominations close. The Progressive Conservatives and New Democrats are the only political parties with a full slate of 87 candidates. Elections Alberta says the Wildrose party has 86 candidates — it is not opposing Notley in her constituency. The Alberta Liberals have 56, the Alberta Party has 36 candidates, the Green Party 24, Social Credit six, the Communists two and there are 15 Independents.

April 19: Notley takes a page from former Tory premier Peter Lougheed as she unveils her party's election campaign platform in Edmonton. Notley says corporations that did well during the boom should be expected to shoulder more of the burden during lean times. The platform includes a plan to hike corporate taxes and review royalties. It later turns out that the party miscalculated and would take a year longer than announced to balance the budget.

April 21: Prentice rolls back on part of his proposed budget, cancelling his government's plan to reduce the charitable donation tax credit. "Today I need to admit that we've gotten one very important thing wrong in our budget proposal."

April 23: In a flinty televised debate, Prentice trades barbs with Notley and literally turns his back on the Wildrose Leader Jean. The highlight comes when Prentice incorrectly says the NDP want to raise Alberta's 10 per cent corporate tax rate to 20 per cent instead of the 12 per cent outlined in the NDP budget plan. He mock commiserates with Notley that "math is difficult" as she tries to set the record straight.

April 24: Pollsters and pundits say Notley was the clear debate winner, while Jean came off too wooden. Prentice acknowledges that Notley is a skilled debater, but questions how her party could afford its election promises.

April 24: Prentice dismisses the possibility of the political left surging to power, saying Alberta is "not an NDP province.'' Notley says "Albertans will decide what sort of province Alberta is.''

April 25: Alberta's justice minister steps down. Prentice says he learned that "legal proceedings have commenced between Jonathan Denis and his estranged wife." Prentice says he still has faith in Denis as a PC candidate.

April 27: Prentice attacks Notley for her promise to take a hands-off approach on two pipeline projects, Northern Gateway and Keystone XL, that would move Alberta oil to coastal waters for export.

April 28: Notley says Prentice is fearmongering when he accuses her of turning her back on the oil industry. Notley has said that if she wins the election, she would hold a review of the province's royalty structure to ensure that Albertans get a fair return for its non-renewable resources.

April 28: Alberta Liberal Leader David Swann tells a crowd at a seniors centre that if people can't vote Liberal, they should cast their ballot for someone other than the Tories. "After 44 years, they need to be kicked out," he says. "At the very least we need a stronger opposition."

April 29: Prentice says a PC election candidate convicted of soliciting a prostitute is acceptable because he owned up to what he did. But he says the party was correct in disqualifying another candidate who once had a restraining order against him in relation to his former girlfriend.

April 29: The CEO of Cenovus Energy, Brian Ferguson, says it would be a bad idea to review Alberta's royalty structure at a time when crude prices are down by half.

April 29: Prentice urges media to stop dwelling on the dismissed candidate and Denis and focus on core issues.

April 30: Notley, facing criticism that her candidates are inexperienced, says they reflect the diversity of Alberta's population.

April 30: Former premier Ralph Klein's daughter, Angie Klein, says her father may have led the Progressive Conservatives for 14 years, but it's time for a new government. She releases a YouTube video urging Albertans to vote for the NDP.

April 30: Calgary Mayor Nenshi says he thinks the PCs will win; he later adds he thinks a minority government is possible.

April 30: Prentice ratchets up warnings of an NDP-governed Alberta, bringing federal NDP Leader Tom Mulcair into the fray and saying the party has a "fundamental distrust of business.''

May 1: Notley dismisses allegations that Mulcair is playing any part in her campaign. She says she has not spoken with him for months.

News from © The Canadian Press, 2015
The Canadian Press

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