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Alberta Conservative Leader Jim Prentice speaks during a campaign stop in Edmonton on Tuesday April 14, 2015. The vow to freeze wages sets Mr. Prentice on a collision course with the province’s public-sector employees at a time when his approval numbers have tumbled and the Tory campaign has fallen behind the opposition Wildrose Party and New Democrats in polls.Jason Franson/The Canadian Press

Jim Prentice's campaign for premier took a turn toward austerity as the Progressive Conservative Leader promised to freeze public-sector salaries until Alberta balances its budget.

The vow sets Mr. Prentice on a collision course with the province's public-sector employees at a time when his approval numbers have tumbled and the Tory campaign has fallen behind the opposition Wildrose Party and New Democrats in polls. Until Wednesday, the rookie leader had focused his message on seeking a mandate for tax increases and modest spending cuts as the province grapples with a record deficit.

Along with a pledge to freeze wages and hiring until the government tables a balanced budget, expected in the spring of 2018, Mr. Prentice vowed to cut a quarter of Alberta's 320 provincial agencies, boards and commissions by the end of the current fiscal year.

"There is significant duplication," Mr. Prentice said.

"Every dollar will help and every dollar will get us closer to our goal. A province of our size does not need this many boards and agencies."

Alberta is facing a $5-billion deficit over the next year, despite Mr. Prentice's plan to hike 59 taxes and fees if he is re-elected. Much of the shortfall was caused by a quick drop in oil prices and a languishing provincial economy.

Staffers on Mr. Prentice's campaign say that the announcement provides more details on $8.6-billion in cuts accounted for in the province's March 26 budget. That spending document was tabled less than two weeks before Mr. Prentice dissolved the legislature on April 7 and has been at the core of his campaign.

However, the promise of wage freezes came as a surprise to union leaders who had been in weekly meetings with the Tory government for months.

"The Premier just tossed a grenade at us," Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, said only moments after the campaign stop.

"That's probably the most irresponsible, unrealistic and unnecessarily aggressive thing I've heard come out of a premier's mouth in Alberta, ever, and that's saying something."

The majority of the collective agreements covering the province's 200,000 public employees come up for renegotiation before Alberta's budget is balanced.

Mr. Prentice has previously said his government will be moving toward a centralized bargaining system with the province's public-sector unions to ensure salary increases are kept to a minimum.

Guy Smith, the president of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, has flatly rejected signing any contract that includes years where wages don't grow. Despite Alberta having the highest-paid public workers in Canada, many accepted tough contracts over the past decade.

Mr. Prentice also said that he would extend public disclosure of salaries to managers working across the entire provincial government, including the province's health service and universities.

With the Tory Leader seemingly in a three-way race, Wildrose Leader Brian Jean warned that the austerity was only "soon-to-be broken promises" by Mr. Prentice.

NDP Leader Rachel Notley took aim at what the freeze would do to front-line services as the province's population continues to grow rapidly.

"This coming year, we'll see 12,000 new students coming into Alberta schools and the PCs refuse to hire any more teachers," she said. "Prentice now says there will be no new nurses for three years."

If Mr. Prentice wins and does attempt to freeze wages, he may face something few of his predecessors have worried about: strikes. Strict labour laws that barred many public workers from striking were revoked earlier this year after a decision by the Supreme Court of Canada.

"If he were ever to implement this policy, it would lead to years and years of unprecedented strike activity in this province," Mr. McGowan said.

"This is desperate talk from a desperate man."

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