EDMONTON - The Alberta election campaign officially began March 26th, but in many ways, the campaign really won't start until Thursday night. At 6:30 to be precise.
That's when the leaders of the four main political parties will face each other for the first and only televised debate of the campaign.
It promises to be a crucial moment, perhaps pivotal. Really.
I know it's a cliché to say leaders' debates are important, that they mark a watershed moment when voters finally start paying attention to the campaign. Then there's the cliché of clichés: there might be a "knock out" punch delivered at some point, a "you had an option, sir (or ma'am)" moment.
But this time it's true.
If the public opinion polls are correct, the election race has become a too-close-to-call horse race between the ruling Progressive Conservatives and the upstart Wildrose. The race appears to be so close that the opposition parties, NDP and Liberals, could end up holding the balance of power in a minority government.
We haven't seen this kind of race since 1993 when the Liberals almost defeated the Tories or since 1971 when the Tories defeated the Social Credit. We haven't seen this much excitement heading into a leaders' debate since, well, ever.
The stakes are always highest for the front-runner in these debates and what's deliciously confusing is that this time we aren't sure who the front-runner is. Conservative Leader Alison Redford will have to defend her foot-dragging response to the "no-meet" committee and her definition of what makes up a public inquiry into health care, while Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith will no doubt find herself having to fend off attacks by Redford, who has called some Wildrose polices on social issues frightening.
All the leaders say they want to focus on policies and avoid personal attacks, but plenty of people will be tuning in to see how nasty it gets.
Tories are flirting with their first electoral loss in 41 years and the only person who can save them is Redford, tonight. The Wildrose is on the cusp of Alberta's first electoral upset in 41 years and tonight is Smith's opportunity to solidify the party's standing.
Liberals are facing a possible wipeout on election day and tonight is Raj Sherman's chance to reverse the negative momentum. The NDP could be a major player in a minority government and Brian Mason has to convince his supporters to get out and give him as many seats as possible.
Every vote will count. I know that's a cliché, too, but there are so many ridings where the winner will squeak by with just a few votes that your vote really will make a difference not only to what happens in your own riding but in the whole province.
And you really can't count on the public opinion polls to tell you what's going to happen because polls sometimes create unexpected reactions.
Just look at the provincial election of 1997. With 10 days left in the campaign a poll said the Klein Conservatives were set to sweep Edmonton and wipe out the Liberals in the city. Instead, Liberals won 15 seats and the Conservatives got just two. So, what happened to the big Tory breakthrough forecast by the poll? Was the poll wrong?
No, the poll was probably dead on. The Tories were indeed headed to a city sweep. However, when Edmontonians realized the size of the Tory juggernaut, they decided to vote strategically, according to Conservative analysts after the election.
There are signs the same could happen again, this time to blunt the rise of the Wildrose. A Leger poll this week showed support softening for the Wildrose and strengthening for the Tories.
I discovered the same in my own unscientific survey of lunch diners at the Commerce Place food court in downtown Edmonton on Wednesday, where voters such as Jordan Hodges were having second thoughts about the Wildrose.
He was all set to send a message to the Conservatives "who have been in power for a long time," but he was turned off by the Wildrose promise for $300 energy dividend cheques.
"I think that really could be better spent on things that have lasting value instead of just giving to people to spend wildly on whatever and fritter away in bits and pieces," said Hodges, while his friend (who didn't want to be named) nodded.
His friend, whom I'll call "Fred," said he normally votes Liberal, but this time he'll hold his nose and vote PC to head off a Wildrose majority.
Edmonton has a record of surprising the politicians and confounding the pundits. In 1986, the New Democrats came from nowhere to win 16 seats and become a strong, vocal opposition.
This election campaign is far from over. Heck, it's only getting started, Thursday night at 6:30.
(The 90-minute leaders' debate is live on Global and CTV as well as CPAC and SUNTV with a radio broadcast on CHED. CBC will play a tape delay after the hockey game.)
Edmonton Journal, Apr 12 2012
Byline: Graham Thomson
April 10, 2012
Dear Fellow Union Members:
Send a message to the Tories, yes! But do your research first!
Recent opinion polls are suggesting that the long-ruling Progressive Conservative party may be on the brink of an historic defeat at the hands of the upstart Wildrose party, led by the telegenic Danielle Smith.
The good news is that Albertans are finally finding the courage to stand up to a party that has been in power for far too long – a party that has become arrogant and which has consistently put the narrow interests of its corporate supporters (especially in the energy industry) ahead of the broader public interest.
The bad news is that many justifiably frustrated voters are turning to the Wildrose as an alternative without actually taking a close look at what the party stands for.
That’s why I’m sending this letter today. I know that many union members around the province are in a “throw-the-bums-out” mood. Frankly, so am I. But before any of our members decide they want to mark their “X” next to a Wildrose candidate, I want to make sure they understand exactly what a Wildrose government would mean to unions, working people and the things we value.
In particular, it’s important for union voters to familiarize themselves with the Wildrose’s positions on labour law, health care, public services, revenue, pensions and energy policy.
In each and every case, the Wildrose has staked out a position that is diametrically opposed to the positions embraced by the Alberta Federation of Labour and its affiliate unions. For example, we want to defend publicly funded and publicly delivered Medicare: they want to dismantle it in favour of American-style privatization.
Perhaps one of the biggest areas of divergence between Alberta’s labour movement and the Wildrose party has to do with labour law. We believe that the laws should be drafted in a way that allows Alberta’s to exercise their right to join a union and bargain collectively. The Wildrose party, on the other hand, wants to gut Alberta’s labour laws and replace them with the same kind of laws that U.S. Tea Party Republicans have used to weaken unions and undermine the collective strength of working people south of the border.
If elected, I’m convinced that Danielle Smith will become Canada’s Scott Walker, the Republican governor that launched an unprecedented attack on unions in Wisconsin about a year ago.
In an effort to help our members better understand the choices in this election, we’ve put together an Election Information Sheet that explains how the Tories have failed us and how the Wildrose threatens us.
I urge you to distribute either this letter by itself or with the attached fact sheet to as many of your activists and members as possible before Election Day on April 23. Please also encourage your members to visit the AFL’s election website at www.election2012.afl.org for more information.
We need to ensure that union voters are informed voters. And we need to do everything we can to stop Wisconsin from moving north.
Gil McGowan, President
'Muzzling' accusations fly
The Alberta election turned into a war of ideas Saturday, with accusations of hidden agendas, stifled opinions, retrograde notions and stolen platform planks.
In Calgary, Progressive Conservative Leader Alison Redford said the Wildrose party wanted to reopen contentious debates on social issues and suggested its candidates were being kept under wraps by the party, a comment that drew a quick rejoinder from Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith.
"I find it hilarious that the PC party, which pioneered muzzling of MLAs, is making accusations against other parties," Smith said in Cardston.
"The only muzzling I'm doing is of my two dogs."
The provincial election has marked the Wildrose party as a rising force, with recent polls showing it solidly in the lead and potentially poised to end the Tories' 41-year reign in power on election day on April 23.
But in recent days, Wildrose has come under fire from its opponents over the issues of "conscience rights" - the ability of civil servants and health professionals to refuse to provide services for moral reasons - and delisting abortion from medicare payments.
Smith has pledged her party won't force women to pay for abortions themselves, a position she has held in the past. However, she left open the possibility that the issue of abortion funding could come forward through a citizeninitiated vote.
Redford questioned why "some pretty basic human rights that were determined in this province about 20 years ago" are being looked at by Wildrose.
"Albertans know what their rights are, and those are rights that have already been determined by courts well before today," said Redford when asked about delisting abortion.
"I find it odd this is becoming part of the conversation. It does trouble me. I don't think it's what Albertans want to be talking about ... some of these issues are settled. The fact that they're percolating bothers me. It bothers me as a woman."
The issue flared up when a letter sent by Wildrose chief administrative officer Jeffrey Trynchy to a Calgary writer this week indicated the party favoured a referendum on delisting abortion. Smith said the statement was incorrect and suggested it was unlikely the issue could even make it through the process to become the subject of a vote.
Redford said she understood that some Wildrose candidates were being muzzled and suggested trust between local candidates and voters would be a key issue in the campaign.
Wildrose Airdrie candidate Rob Anderson said the party's candidates are encouraged to take part in forums and can talk to the media, although they are supposed to check in with the campaign war room before doing interviews.
When asked if any of her candidates with controversial resumes or socially conservative views were being told to keep quiet about those topics, Smith deflected the question.
"One of the things we have come to terms with as a party is that we focus on the things in which we all agree," she said.
"In our party, we have people with a broad range of perspectives, but we don't spend all our time sitting around talking about contentious moral issues. We know Albertans aren't interested in having debates that could stand to rip our province apart. We want to focus on things that will unite us."
Redford announced Saturday morning that a re-elected Progressive Conservative government would introduce a $500 tax credit for children's physical activity at a cost of $36 million and double the current funding for amateur sport from $10 million to $20 million.
"We're investing in the families and the organizations and the staff that are running sports teams and running athletic organizations," she told reporters at the Talisman Centre, with her daughter Sarah, who turned 10 on Saturday, and her husband Glen Jermyn beside her.
But the tax credit matches a promise made by the frontrunning Wildrose, which last week announced its own $500 culture, arts and sports tax credit for children at an estimated cost of $30 million. The party has also pledged a $2,000 children's tax credit at a cost of $130 million.
Liberal Leader Raj Sherman laughingly accused the Tories of more "plagiarism" a day after Redford promised a teachers' tax credit that matched an earlier Liberal promise. The Liberal platform calls for amateur sports funding to rise to $25 million.
Sherman promised Saturday a three-year guarantee against defects in labour and materials, five years on defects in the building envelope and a 10-year warranty against structural defects on new houses and condominiums.
Those guarantees would be among the strongest in Canada, he said.
"Right now, the muffler on your car and your blender has a better warranty than most homes," said Sherman.
Sherman said many homebuilders already do offer warranties on construction.
"There are some, fly-bynighters, who come into the boom and slap up homes really quickly with low quality," he said.
But Redford said the Liberal plan was based on actions already being taken by the PC government. Last month, Municipal Affairs Minister Doug Griffiths said legislation on warranties would be presented in the fall sitting of the legislature.
In Edmonton, NDP Leader Brian Mason again accused both the PCs and the Wildrose of having concealed intentions to pursue private health care.
"I don't think we can trust the Progressive Conservatives to protect our public health-care system. They've repeatedly tried to privatize it, they're talking about it behind closed doors, they're doing it again."
"I think their plans and intentions are similar to the Wildrose, however I think that they, from experience, have realized that they don't want to talk about that in the election because it will cost them votes."
Edmonton Journal, Tues Apr 10 2012
Byline: James Wood and Keith Gerein
Thursday's TV debate shapes up as key to victory, experts say
The provincial election race is tightening, according to a new poll that puts the Wildrose and Progressive Conservatives in a statistical dead heat with the vote less than two weeks away.
Popular support among decided voters has the Wildrose at 36 per cent compared with 34 per cent for the Conservatives, setting up the possibility of a minority government, suggests the Leger Marketing poll conducted over the Easter weekend.
The NDP and Liberals are trailing at about 13 per cent each, followed by the Alberta party at three per cent and the EverGreen party at one per cent.
The poll, commissioned by the Calgary Herald and Edmonton Journal, shows support for the Wildrose has dropped six percentage points in recent days in the wake of media reports on the party's position on so-called social conscience issues and several major Tory platform announcements.
"It's possible the people who told us they would vote Wildrose started to look at the platform more closely," Leger Marketing vice-president Ian Large said Monday.
"Maybe they are seeing things in there that they don't actually agree with or, more to the point, they are seeing things in the PC platform they do agree with."
He said it's too early to tell if the Wildrose has reached a plateau in its support base. Most of the party's decline has occurred outside of Calgary and Edmonton. Just last week, the Wildrose had a 24-point lead outside the two cities, while the PCs and Wildrose are now neck-and-neck.
Political science professor Chaldeans Mensah says the poll suggests the election could be decided on the basis of which leader, Tory Alison Redford, or Wildrose Danielle Smith, performs best in Thursday's televised debate and in the final days of the campaign.
Smith and Redford are virtually tied for who would make the best premier - well ahead of NDP Leader Brian Mason and Liberal Raj Sherman - although Smith has much stronger support in Calgary while Redford rules in Edmonton.
"This situation is really raising all kinds of scenarios, including the potential for a minority government," said Mensah, who teaches at Edmonton's Grant MacEwan University.
He said the prospect of a minority government could cause "a great deal of consternation and fear" among conservative voters because it could leave the NDP or Liberals holding the balance of power.
"It certainly looks like a very split electorate right now," he said. "I sense there is a desire for change in the electorate, but there is also an element of uncertainty about whether to endorse the offer of change from the Wildrose."
Mason told the Herald editorial board on Monday some voters are having second thoughts after the Wildrose surge. "People are angry with the Conservatives and they are looking at the Wildrose and have gone, parked their votes there - and as some of them drill down a bit more into the Wildrose policy . . . they become concerned and they withdraw their support," said Mason, who wasn't aware of the poll results at the time.
The poll suggests 57 per cent of Albertans want to change their government and less than three in 10 want to keep the Tories in power after the April 23 vote.
While 20 per cent of the electorate remains undecided, those who are leaning are split almost equally on whether to vote for the Tories or Wildrose.
The online poll of 902 eligible voters conducted April 5 to 8 suggests a majority of Albertans support the PC promise of 140 new health-care clinics (68 per cent) and $2.4 billion in school construction (67 per cent).
It also shows 63 per cent backing for pledges by the Wildrose, Liberals and NDP to eliminate school fees, something the Tories oppose.
But support was mixed for the Wildrose plan to pay out energy dividends to Albertans, if the province records a budget surplus.
The pledge drew slightly more opposition than support (46 per cent to 43 per cent) although about threequarters of Albertans who plan to vote Wildrose liked the idea.
A Liberal promise to eliminate university and college tuition fees sometime after 2025 was rejected by 57 per cent of voters and backed by 30 per cent.
"It's a nice idea, but for most people it's too far in the distant future to get their heads around," Large said.
Mensah said Tory promises from last week appear to be aimed at the coalition of blue and red PCs who elected her as leader, while the Wildrose has slid off track over the debate of social conservatism issues.
While they have some disaffected Tories who like their fiscal policies and will not switch back, they have to hang on to the Conservatives who have just recently become disenchanted with the Tories over perceptions of a culture of entitlement, he added.
"We're beginning to see, as the latest poll shows, they are having difficulty consolidating (their support) and they're in a deadlock with the Tory party, which could produce an outcome with which both parties are going to be unhappy," Mensah said.
A margin of error is not generally reported for non-random online surveys, but Large said a probability sample of 902 eligible voters would result in a maximum margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points, 19 times out of 20, although the margin is higher for regional findings.
DO YOU BELIEVE THAT THE CURRENT PROGRESSIVE CONSERVATIVE GOVERNMENT SHOULD BE RE-ELECTED OR WOULD YOU PREFER TO HAVE A NEW GOVERNMENT?
57% NEW GOVERNMENT
14% DON'T KNOW
Calgary Herald, Tues Apr 10 2012
Byline: Darcy Henton, with files from James Wood
Televised forum offers chance to change voters' minds
Alberta's provincial politicians are preparing for a rough and tumble two weeks as the election campaign passes the midway point and party leaders set their sights on what could be a critical TV debate Thursday.
At stake is the future of the 41-year Progressive Conservative dynasty, as well as the possibility of a new Wildrose government, while the Liberals and NDP jostle for attention amid the bitter battle between the front-running parties.
The first half of a hard-fought campaign has seen opinion polls tilt in favour of Danielle Smith's Wildrose party, putting Alison Redford's long-governing Progressive Conservatives in the unfamiliar position of running second.
But politicians and observers say nothing is settled yet, and are expecting a gruelling home stretch before voters go to the polls April 23.
"The last two weeks of the election could just be a wild ride," said David Taras, a political analyst at Mount Royal University.
"The big question overhanging the election (is) whether people have already made their decision."
And, for that reason, the leaders' debate could be critical, Taras added. "I think people are open still and I think the debate can be decisive," he said.
Leger Marketing vice-president Ian Large said over the past few months, Albertans have seen Wildrose come from well back in the polls to where the party could actually be fighting to form a majority government.
"That's the more significant move," Large said. "It's not where the numbers stand to-day, it's the speed with which they've gotten here."
But Tory officials, who want to extend the party's 41 years at the provincial helm, have also taken note of the rapid movement in the polls and aren't discouraged.
"When polls move that fast, I have to believe that it's a re-action as opposed to long-term decision making," said Susan Elliott, PC campaign manager.
There's also a lot of undecided voters and Elliott expects Albertans will now be taking a hard look at the differences between the parties.
"Albertans are taking a really careful, intelligent, thoughtful look at the options and they haven't settled their minds yet," Elliott said.
But Wildrose's Airdrie candidate Rob Anderson believes that when people more fully examine his party and its policies, they will like what they see.
"That's already happening," Anderson said. "All Albertans want is good government. They want a government that's going to balance the books, isn't going to raise taxes, isn't going to be irresponsible in slashing them, is just going to govern very thoughtfully and make sure that the priorities are taken care of."
One key opportunity where the parties can distinguish themselves comes Thursday night with the televised leaders' debate.
"It's pretty important," said pollster Marc Henry of Think-HQ Public Affairs in Calgary. "When you are behind, you've got to take every opportunity that you can and this is obviously high profile."
Neither Smith nor Redford campaigned on a quiet Easter Sunday.
Liberal Leader Raj Sherman spoke with media Sunday afternoon as the party con-firmed it would field a full slate of candidates.
In Edmonton, NDP Leader Brian Mason spent Sun-day afternoon practising for the leaders' debate. He said he hopes it will be free of the nastiness and personal attacks that characterized the early days of the campaign.
Mason's goal is to get out his party's message, "so people have a clear idea of what the NDP stands for."
Sherman, who's going to be talking about community and families in the coming week, said he's looking forward to the debate.
"Albertans will look at all the leaders side by side and have a chance to see whose ideas they can trust," Sherman said.
Edmonton Journal, Mon Apr 9 2012
Byline: Tony Seskus
Push for competition won't bring two tiers, Smith says
Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith fended off accusations Friday that her party's push for more competitive health care would create a two-tiered system that would see top doctors move to private facilities and wealthy patients receive better care.
Smith said the system already features private operators, including family physicians and clinics that do cataract surgery.
Her party wants to encourage more independent facilities, creating a greater mix of public and private that would create incentives among all providers to reduce costs and bring wait times down, she said.
"If we can have additional choice in our health-care system, it will create best practices that can filter into the public hospital environment so they can become higher performing," she said at Calgary's Fountains of Mission seniors home.
"I look at this as saving our public health-care system. Our priority is to have a public system that works. But in the meantime, we can't afford to have our seniors waiting years for the system to magically get its act together doing the same things it's always done."
Rival parties jumped on the Wildrose position, arguing the health-care system should not be forced to survive in a competitive market.
NDP Leader Brian Mason said he's so concerned by Smith's approach that his party will make the defence of public health care the focus of its election campaign.
"This is going be the thrust and the theme of our campaign from now on. We need to make sure that this election is about health care," Mason said in Edmonton.
"Danielle Smith has thrown down the gauntlet, and we'll pick it up."
Voters can't trust Conservative Leader Alison Redford to protect public health care, given the track record of previous Tory premiers such as Ralph Klein and Ed Stelmach, Mason said.
"This PC party, to its very marrow, believes in private health care. All (Redford) will say is that she wants publicly funded health care," Mason said. "What does she mean? She means that we will use taxpayers' money to fund their friends in private business to deliver health care."
Liberal Leader Raj Sherman said he's also worried about the PC and Wildrose platforms.
It's clear both right-of-centre parties don't understand how the health system really works, he said.
Redford denied her party has a hidden agenda for further privatization. Alberta already has a system in which doctors can have their own offices "but that's about as far as we go," she said. The Tories are planning more long-term and continuing care with different types of accommodation, yet every senior will receive the same level of health services in those facilities, Redford said. Earlier this week, she argued the Wildrose approach of encouraging more private delivery and competition goes too far.
"What does competition look like in a system like that? You're going to end up with a system where people are going to find opportunities to create a different set of health services for people that can afford to pay, and people that can't afford to pay are going to end up suffering."
Smith said the Wildrose plan would ensure medical treatments are publicly funded, no matter where they are done.
Private operators wouldn't be allowed any extra billing and would be paid for procedures at the same rate as the cost in a public hospital.
Some health policy experts suggest there would be nothing to stop private clinics from offering patients nonmedical services that could accompany their surgery. This would allow the clinics to make extra money, potentially letting them pay doctors and nurses more than the public system offers.
They also tend to focus on the easiest, cheapest types of procedures, leaving the more complicated and costlier surgery to hospitals, some experts say. They also may not pay union wages.
This leads to concerns such advantages will push the top doctors and nurses to work at independent clinics.
"There's not enough frontline staff as it is. Opening a private, shadow system would only take those limited resources away from public system," said Guy Smith, president of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees.
His union represents between 35,000 and 40,000 health-care workers in the public sector.
"I think it's a very dangerous move for the Wildrose to do this, but at least they're showing their true colours."
Smith said her expectation is that many health practitioners would wind up working for both public and private operators.
She said a number of doctors want more surgical time than they receive in hospitals and would welcome the opportunity for more. As well, part-time nurses could get additional hours at private facilities.
Political scientist John Church, who studies health-care policy at the University of Alberta, questioned if costs and quality can be controlled under the Wildrose policy.
He also wants to know if it would actually lead to quicker access to a new range of services.
Even if capacity is added, and competition is encouraged through public and private delivery, there's still a limited supply of health-care workers, Church said.
Becoming overly reliant on private operators can be a problem, he added, if the company suddenly goes out of business or other complications ensue.
Edmonton Journal, Sat Apr 7 2012
Byline: Keith Gerein and Marta Gold and Kelly Cryderman
Party setting up as single choice on left, not the far left
If you're feeling a bit harried watching the Alberta election campaign, I invite you to take a deep breath and relax.
Focus on something placid and peaceful and as removed as possible from the daily election grind, something or rather someone like NDP Leader Brian Mason.
In a campaign that has so many parties frantically fighting for their political lives, Mason seems to be floating above the fray. It's as if the Natural Law party has re-turned to politics with promises of yogic flying but this time it actually works.
In the first week of the campaign, when other parties ex-changed mud and innuendoes, Mason said in an open letter, "I'm concerned about the negative personal tone that has developed in the first five days of this campaign."
A clever tactic. By sending the letter to reporters, Mason was hoping to get some media coverage. In that light, a letter that attacked the political gamesmanship and cynicism of the other leaders was itself something cynical - but in the nicest way possible.
"In a province that already has the lowest voter turn-out rates in Canada, where fewer than half of the electorate votes, we must strive to give Albertans a reason to vote," wrote Mason, expressing a sentiment nobody could argue. "Let's have a vigorous, but fair debate this election."
Mason, the peacemaker, received plaudits and headlines. He's also getting a big boost in support, according to the latest public opinion poll from Leger Marketing.
The NDP might be running in a distant third place at 8.5 per cent of decided voters across Alberta, but in Edmonton the NDP is in a competitive third place. In the capital city, the PCs are in front with 37 per cent, the Wildrose has 25 per cent and the NDP has 20 per cent, which puts them ahead of the Liberals at 12 per cent and the Alberta Party at four per cent. The margin of error for the city survey is 5.5 per cent, which means the numbers could be much higher or lower for the parties. But it also means because the NDP support is concentrated in Edmonton, the NDP could be in second place in the city. Toss in the unknown factor of vote splitting and the NDP contention that they're a player in ridings across the city doesn't seem as far-fetched as it did when the campaign started.
The PCs are frantic because they could lose government, the Liberals are frantic because they might lose official Opposition status, and the Wildrose is a bit frantic because it doesn't want to blow its lead.
Mason is the one leader who seems to be genuinely enjoying himself. He is arguably one of the best-performing MLAs in the legislature, if not the best, and he's the only current leader of a political party who has been through an election campaign at the helm. The NDP has been performing consistently well in public opinion polls the past year, and both Mason and fellow NDP MLA Rachel Not-ley are seen as virtually bullet-proof in their home ridings. The party has high hopes to win more seats in Edmonton, including Edmonton-Manning and Edmonton-Calder.
New Democrats are horning in on traditional Liberal territory by being less stridently political and more politically pragmatic. Mason wants the oilsands to be more environ-mentally responsible but he's not anti-oilsands. In fact, he's stopped calling them the "tar sands." He's not a fan of the Keystone pipeline or the Gate-way pipeline but only because he wants the bitumen from the oilsands upgraded here in Alberta rather than exported to the U.S. and China.
Among other things, Mason would freeze tuition fees for post-secondary students, cover basic dental costs for children under 18, cap seniors' drug costs at $25 a month and regulate electricity rates to lower people's power bills. Most of all, though, the NDP is setting itself up as the one true alternative on the left, but not the far left.
And that could pay off in a big way, depending on how the election plays out. And this election could play out in so many interesting ways. The Wildrose could walk away with it and crush the PCs, or the PCs could bounce back if voters get cold feet. But what happens if nobody wins a majority? What happens if we end up with a minority government? For the first time in decades, that is a real possibility. In that case, the third-place party could hold the balance of power. And, right now, the NDP is in third place, according to the Leger poll.
If the Liberal vote collapsed and the NDP got five or six seats, for example, and the PCs/Wildrose were in a tie with roughly 41 seats each, the NDP would hold the balance of power. Suddenly, Mason would be in a position to force the governing party to look at his ideas for dental care and a tuition freeze, if not his more lofty ambitions to stop the bitumen pipelines.
"I can't deny having had some thoughts with respect to it," Mason acknowledged on the campaign trail this week, "but I really want to concentrate on getting as many NDP MLAs elected as possible at this stage."
When pressed on the issue about possibly holding the balance of power, Mason suggested the NDP would be the party that ends up in a virtual tie with the Wildrose. "Maybe the Conservatives will hold the balance of power," he said with an impish grin.
Mason is not really expecting to win the election or finish a close second. But he is expecting his party to be a winner on election night by picking up more seats and maybe, just maybe, having some real influence over government policy, whether that government hap-pens to be PC or Wildrose.
That's why Mason is enjoying himself so much.
Edmonton Journal, Sat Apr 7 2012
Byline: Graham Thomson
During the ongoing provincial election campaign, I'm unlikely to agree very often with Liberal Leader Raj Sherman. But on the subject of third-party advertising, Sherman is one of the few party bosses who gets it.
After the 2008 campaign, the Tory government passed a law making it so difficult for third parties — unions, professional groups, taxpayers' organizations and industry associations — to take out ads, that the new rules amount to a ban on advertising by anyone other than registered parties and registered candidates.
That is downright anti-democratic. There is no more important time than a campaign to hear from anyone and everyone with a point of view. But the Tory bill has the effect of making elections a monopoly for politicians.
Under the law, third parties can still spend enough money to buy ads big enough to attract voters' attention. The catch is that the reporting requirements for who donated and how much, are so onerous that few organizations will have the time and resources to jump through all the hoops.
The Alberta law was a response to ads taken out by a union front-organization called Albertans for Change. During the 2008 campaign, the Alberta Federation of Labour, the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, the Health Services Association of Alberta, the United Nurses of Alberta and the Alberta Building Trades Council got together to spend an estimated $2 million of members' dues on ads aimed at unseating the Tory government.
Needless to say, the ads didn't have their intended impact. Nonetheless, the Tories didn't want to face such concerted opposition from unions again.
This time around, unions could still spend $2 million appealing to Albertans to end the Tories' 41-year reign, but to do so they would have to first prove the money came from freewill donations given by individual union members (rather than lump sums from the unions' general operating funds) and that each donation was knowingly given for the purposes of buying political ads. On top of that, the name and address of any member giving more than $375 would have to be made public.
These rules apply to all third parties, not just unions, but the likelihood of unions being able to solicit enough extra funds from individual members to repeat 2008's campaign is very remote.
Elections Alberta recently sent stern letters to groups such as the Alberta Medical Association, warning them that if they engage in third-party advertising without registering with the government first and complying with pages of regulations, they run the risk of incurring fines of up to $100,000.
Premier Alison Redford explained that she supported this ban because she doesn't want a situation where citizens' organizations "are driving a policy agenda independently from what political parties are doing."
Really? I would have thought in a democracy that is exactly what we would want — independent organizations speaking up with policy ideas when they don't think the political parties and their candidates are doing an adequate job. It is dangerous, in fact, to leave the policy agenda to the parties and their candidates alone.
There is no better time for third parties to speak up than during election campaigns, when the greatest number of citizens are paying attention. Sherman gets that.
He's in favour of transparency from third parties. They should declare who is sponsoring their ads and make the names of donors public. But he objects to rules that make it all but impossible for Albertans who aren't affiliated with parties to raise issues important to them. "This is a democratic country the last time I checked," he told reporters Sunday, "and there's something called freedom of speech."
Edmonton Sun, Thurs Apr 5 2012
Byline: Lorne Gunter
In the Harry Potter stories, characters are too afraid to utter the name of the villain, Voldemort.
Something similar appears to be happening in the Alberta election when it comes to two key issues related to the oil sands: upgrading and royalties.
Albertans clearly want to talk about these issues, but for some reason, most of our politicians seem unable or unwilling to speak.
Consider the results of two recent polls:
A Leger Marketing poll shows that about 60 per cent of Albertans don't think they're getting fair value for the sale of our province's collectively-owned energy resources. A ThinkHQ poll shows an even greater majority (81 per cent) would support some kind of government intervention to encourage upgrading and discourage raw bitumen exports.
Despite the clear weight of public opinion, only one of the five parties contesting the race (the NDP) says it would even consider increasing royalty rates. Most are also silent on the subject of upgrading.
Why the remarkable disconnect between what voters want and what parties are willing to offer? The answer can be summed up in two words: power and fear.
Everyone knows that oil and gas is Alberta's most powerful industry – and they have aggressively used that power to get a sweetheart deal for themselves.
They've also used their power to make sure that it's industry – not ordinary Albertans or their elected representatives – who decide how and when to develop our province's resources.
It was the industry, for example, that actually wrote the oilsands royalty regime that Ralph Klein implemented in mid-90s – a regime which, in most important respects, is still in place today.
How sweet is the deal? Oil companies pay a token royalty of as little as one per cent on gross revenues until all of a project's costs are paid off. Even after pay-out, royalties are dramatically lower than rates in other jurisdictions.
No other industry in Canada enjoys this kind of special treatment. It means developers get their main input – bitumen – virtually free.
To put it another way, it means that ordinary Albertans (who own the bitumen) are actually paying for the construction of all those oilsands facilities (in the form of foregone revenues).
In a similar way, the energy industry has been successful in discouraging government from implementing policies aimed a increasing value-added production – even though such measures were instrumental in creating Alberta's successful petrochemical industry in the 70s and 80s.
To defend the status quo they've created, the industry and its defenders employ several fear-based arguments. For example, they say that ultra-low royalties are needed to attract investment to a high-cost sector like the oilsands. This argument may have carried some weight when the oilsands were a marginal industry and oil was trading at $15 a barrel, as it was when the current royalty regime was introduced in 1997. But should we continue the giveaways when oil is trading at $100 a barrel and the industry is making profits of $32 billion a year, as it did in 2010?
The industry also argues that their prescription of low royalties, limited government oversight and quick project approvals (a strategy recently embraced with gusto by the Harper government) means "jobs, jobs, jobs" as far as the eye can see.
But this strategy has several obvious downsides. For example, it means that more and more potential jobs in upgrading will be sent down the pipeline to place like Texas and China. It also means that the province doesn't get the revenue it needs for things like high-quality health care and education and care for seniors and the kids of working parents.
Ever wonder why Alberta, Canada's wealthiest province, is running multi-billion deficits and saying it can't afford to maintain middle-of-the-road spending on vital public services? Or why the Heritage Fund is worth less on a per capita basis today than when it was established 35 years ago?
That's what happens when you sell your most important assets for a song. So why won't Alberta politicians speak out and demand a better deal on royalties and jobs?
The problem is that they are taking their cue from Ed Stelmach when they should be looking for inspiration in bolder (and much more successful) former Conservative premiers like Peter Lougheed and Newfoundland's Danny Williams.
Unlike Stelmach – who didn't fight back when a recession-induced slowdown in investment was used by industry as proof that royalties should never be raised– Lougheed and Williams both understood that you have to bargain the best possible deal with energy companies, not simply cater to their every whim.
As Lougheed famously said, Albertans need to think like owners. Owners know that sometimes they need to accept less. But they also know that, when conditions improve, they can and should demand more. Anything less would amount to being played for a sucker.
These are the keys to breaking the spell that has rendered most of our politicians mute: they need to remember that Albertans, not oil companies, are the owners of their resources and they have to find the will to bargain hard on behalf of the people they represent.
Gil McGowan is president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, representing 145,000 unionized Alberta workers.
Edmonton Journal, Wed Apr 4 2012
Byline: Gil McGowan
First week assessments of the campaign all depend on perspective
EDMONTON - After a dozen years in provincial politics, NDP Leader Brian Mason said he's noticed something new and unusual about the Conservatives this election campaign.
"They seem as nervous as a cat in a room full of rocking chairs," Mason said Sunday before door-knocking with the NDP's Edmonton-Manning candidate Cindy Olsen. "They're really uptight. They're nervous — because they might lose."
"I'm glad that we have a competitive election. That's really a good thing, a very positive thing," he said. "I don't think we're well-served by dynasties that get elected with massive majorities election after election."
Across town at his Edmonton-Meadowlark headquarters Sunday afternoon, Liberal Leader Raj Sherman compared the Tories to a former champion boxer.
"I liken the PCs to Mike Tyson," Sherman said.
"Everyone thought Mike Tyson was invincible, and you know what, he got knocked out. He got complacent and arrogant and he got mean and he got knocked out by a good guy."
When asked who would knock out the Tories, Sherman said, "I believe the good guys are Albertans."
Sherman said a series of unforeseen challenges have shaken the Conservatives, including a tweet from a staffer questioning the childlessness of Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith, who later disclosed her private family struggles with fertility in response.
"The PCs are panicking," Sherman said. "They're crumbling. Their party was already divided with the advent of the Wildrose and now currently with the Gary Mar fiasco, with the no-pay committee, the party's already divided and they're in panic mode."
University of Alberta political scientist Jim Lightbody agreed, but he said it's not the Liberals and NDP giving the Conservatives their toughest challenge since Laurence Decore's Liberals in the 1980s.
"The Wildrose is a well-organized, well-financed, well-strategized campaign organization," Lightbody said.
"It's been a long time since (the Conservatives) have had to fight for a victory. In a very real sense, this is uncharted territory for the organization. They're used to mailing it in."
Lightbody said miscalculations and unexpected events such as Alison Redford appointing Tory leadership rival Mar as trade representative in Asia and allegations of illegal party contributions have shaken the Conservatives.
"They're reeling; they had the left, right and a couple to the solar plexus and what they're going to do is panic."
However, PC party Leader Alison Redford had a different view, saying Sunday she was "excited" about the first week of campaigning.
Reporters in Calgary asked whether she felt as if her party has been put on the defensive.
"It's been an odd campaign like that for everyone," Redford said. "I think if you look at all of the different campaigns, people have had days where they've been trying to find their feet."
She added a lot of Albertans she meets tell her they're not sure what party to vote for, but are still engaged in the provincial election campaign. She suggested that bodes well for a higher voter turnout this election.
"That's a good thing because I think that is a change in the electorate," she said. "They're genuinely considering what their choices are."
Only 41 per cent of eligible Alberta voters cast a ballot in the 2008 election.
Redford noted the first round of larger Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped (AISH) cheques are being sent out this month. She said one of the reasons she wanted to pass a budget before calling an election is to help some of Alberta's most vulnerable citizens with a $400 a month boost.
"It is a vital program that supports over 44,000 Albertans and impacts their families."
She said voters should watch this week for Progressive Conservative announcements on health care, seniors and long-term care.
The campaign is "actually turning into what it should be now, which is a really viable debate between different perspectives," she added.
Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith spent a quieter day in her riding of Highwood, where she celebrated her 41st birthday with campaign staff in High River.
Edmonton Journal, Mon Apr 2 2012
Byline: Bill Mah