EDMONTON - Alberta Premier Alison Redford dropped the writ Monday on an election campaign between two right-centre heavyweights who both promise to build bridges with Ottawa and not tinker with the cash-cow oilsands.
"We thought we'd call an election today," Redford said Monday as she walked down the front legislature steps with members of her caucus under grey morning skies and chilly spring temperatures.
"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."
Redford, seeking her first public mandate as premier, is sending voters to the polls April 23.
Minutes before her public announcement, she made the walk down the legislature's third-floor marble hallway, past the portraits of the province's previous premiers, to Lt.-Gov. Don Ethell's office, where she asked him to sign the writ dissolving the government and calling the election.
"I've been here so many times to see you, but never like this," Redford laughed as she shook hands with Ethell, who presided over her swearing-in ceremony as premier in October.
Ethell also signed off on a senator-in-waiting ballot to be held at the same time as the election.
At her first campaign event, Redford struck an optimistic tone.
"We have a tremendous economy in this province and we have a wonderful quality of life," she said. "I don't want this to be a campaign about fear. I want this to be a campaign about hope."
Redford's Progressive Conservatives are gunning for a 12th consecutive majority dating back to 1971, but it promises to be a bitter fight.
After years of smashing opponents on the left side of the political spectrum, the Tories are being challenged on the right.
The Wildrose party under leader Danielle Smith has grown in popularity in recent years by staking claim to the traditional Tory turf of balanced budgets and landowner rights. They argue the Conservatives have become profligate spenders, running up billions of dollars in budget deficits in recent years despite oil hovering at US$100 a barrel.
"I think Albertans understand that this party does not deserve another majority and they are looking for another party for whom to cast their vote," Smith said at the legislature. "We are going to offer some positive ideas for change."
With the Tories and Wildrose running one-two respectively in recent polls, voters may end up electing a centre-right government and a centre-right opposition.
Both parties have staked claim on similar constituencies. Both promise not to change oilsands royalties, the billions of dollars that flow into public coffers each year from oil and gas producers.
The Tories are learning from bitter experience. Former premier Ed Stelmach tried to increase royalties when he first took over, but the discontent from oil companies led some to leave the province and created political rancour in Calgary for the PCs.
Smith agreed Albertans are getting their fair share of oil money.
"We have $11 billion coming in (a year) in resource revenues," she said. "The problem is a spending issue. This isn't a problem that's going to be solved with trying to hit the industry with higher taxes."
Both sides have also sent signals that they want to work with Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservative government.
That's a U-turn of sorts. Alberta conservative politicians have traditionally won favour by promising to fight federal incursions into what they see as areas of provincial responsibility — especially when it comes to petro profits.
Most of those battles, however, have been with Liberal governments.
Redford and Smith have signalled they want to work with Harper to develop resources for the benefit of all. Redford has been discussing a national energy strategy with other Canadian leaders, while Smith is pitching a pipeline to eastern refineries.
While Redford's team is still considered the one to beat, its Achilles heel is political baggage. The Tories have struggled in recent weeks with allegations of influence peddling by the government's Asia trade representative and the revelation that politicians have been paid for years to work on a committee that doesn't meet.
Doctors have assailed Redford for failing to call a public inquiry into allegations of intimidation in the health-care system. She's even faced fire over the election call itself, breaking a promise to fix a date and opting instead for a three-month window.
At dissolution, the Tories held 67 of the legislature's 83 seats, the Liberals had eight, the Wildrose four, the NDP 2 and the Alberta party one. There was one Independent.
There will be 87 seats up for grabs this time due to boundary redistribution in a growing province of 3.7 million. There are more seats in Calgary, one extra in Edmonton and an added one in the Fort McMurray oilsands area.
To the left of the Tories, things are fragmented.
The Liberals under new leader Raj Sherman have 73 candidates in hand, but expect to run a full slate by voting day. They are promising to balance the books by increasing taxes on the wealthy, while cutting tuition for students, reducing the size of government and adding more long-term care beds to reduce long wait lines for health care.
"The central message is trust," Sherman said after the election call. "Who do Albertans trust to fix health care, to fix education, to get rid of school fees, lower post-secondary tuition?
"If a leader cannot fix health care, you cannot govern this province. It's the No. 1 spending issue. Every other ministry's spending depends on health care."
Brian Mason's New Democrats were the first party to field a full slate and are hoping to ride the NDP's popularity in the last federal election. The party promises to fight for fixes to health care. It also plans to push for a re-regulated electricity system to reduce Albertans' power bills.
"They can talk all they want about being new and improved with a different leader, but underneath the new paint job, it's the same old Conservative party, taking care of the same old Conservative friends," Mason said. "It hasn't changed and still can't be trusted with the things that matter most to Albertans."
Glenn Taylor's upstart Alberta Party has 26 candidates and is running on a centrist platform of more democratic transparency, reduced red tape for business and health care that focuses on prevention rather than just treatment.
The Tories are looking to make history. A win would ensure they have the longest continuously serving government in Canada at 44 years.
The only sure thing is turnover. A quarter of the members of the legislature, including many senior Tories such as Speaker Ken Kowalski and former premier Ed Stelmach, are not running.
All parties are hoping for a better turnout.
Voter percentages have been dropping in recent campaigns and hit an all-time low of 41 per cent in the 2008 campaign.
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