When Alberta Premier Alison Redford delivers her first budget in 2012, it won't be balanced, but she says it also won't be one her rivals can run on.
"I'm quite sure that over the next two or three months other political parties will use the budget and say it is somehow a wedge issue," Redford said in a year-end interview. "[But] I'm pretty confident Albertans will see a budget that reflects their values.
"The thing that will define our party compared to other parties is how we are prepared to manage through that [budget]. Are we going to be ideological about it, or are we going to think about how we're investing in the future of the province?"
Redford, who staged a late-night, upset win in the Tory leadership vote in October, will have been premier for about four months when her Progressive Conservative government brings down a budget, probably in February. A general election is likely just weeks away after that.
Under a law passed recently by Redford's government, a vote must be held sometime between March 1 and May 31, meaning Redford could launch the campaign as early as Feb. 2.
Reform key to campaign
When she does, she will be campaigning on reform and on readdressing many of the decisions of her predecessor.
Since taking over from Ed Stelmach, Redford has either overhauled or signalled plans to change numerous unpopular policies that gave traction to Tory opponents. Those steps have won her praise, but also led to further criticism that she is a waffling promise-breaker.
The key change followed up a leadership promise Redford made to hold an independent inquiry into allegations that doctors had been intimidated and stripped of authority for speaking out on poor patient care. Stelmach had consistently rejected such a hearing as unnecessary.
New legislation passed in the fall creates a review panel under the Health Quality Council, although political opponents have taken Redford to task for failing to ensure the panel is led by a judge, as she promised.
Redford has also signalled she plans to revamp legislation that critics say gives cabinet arbitrary power to seize private land for broader land-use planning, leaving landowners with little compensation or recourse through the courts. Redford has already struck a committee to get public input on what the amendments should look like.
The premier also tried to defuse another unpopular issue with new rules that give landowners more rights and compensation if the government takes their land for a highway or reservoir.
She has put on hold two extensive north-south power lines — projects Stelmach had insisted needed to be built. Critics have said the lines, built with taxpayer money, would simply allow power companies to sell excess power to the United States at a huge profit.
An independent panel is now reviewing whether the lines are needed. However, Redford was criticized for allowing a third line near Edmonton to go ahead, even though critics say it, too, lacks proof the power is needed.
Nevertheless, the budget remains the sticking point as Alberta heads towards a vote.
The province has run multibillion-dollar budget deficits since heady financial times crashed with the global recession of 2008. The government has used billions of dollars from its Sustainability Fund to avoid sinking deep into debt. Redford says it will do so again in 2012-13. The political fallout is expected to be the wild card on the campaign trail.
The Tories currently hold a huge majority in the legislature and have been in power for 40 years, but the rival Wildrose party is running second in opinion polls.
Under leader Danielle Smith, Wildrose has positioned itself to the right on a platform of financial prudence and accountability. Smith says a government on track to hit $40 billion in public spending next year has lost its ability to prioritize spending and make tough decisions.
Redford agrees a lot is on the line.
"A budget is always important for a province. It does define a leader," she said. "I'm not trying to be cute with the budget. I've been pretty clear that we're going to have a deficit.
"These are tough economic times. The [last] budget did leave us with a deficit. We've got to manage through that and I'm still fully committed to balancing the budget in 2013-14."
She said Albertans are savvy enough to see beyond the bottom line and she intends to "continue to do what I think Albertans want us to do, which is to support and to give a hand up to vulnerable people."
"Albertans are smart. They don't want sound bites and they don't want ideological one-liners. They want thoughtfulness, they want some consideration around how ideas tie together."