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letter from alberta

Alberta Premier Alison Redford speaks at a news conference about the Keystone XL pipeline at the Canadian Embassy in Washington Nov. 14, 2011.

Expectations are high that the new year will bring big change in Alberta, but will voters deliver?

Politicians and pundits believe so.

"Alberta politics is undergoing a generation change and the premier, Alison Redford, represents the first expression of that change," said political scientist Chaldeans Mensah of Grant MacEwan University in Edmonton.

Ms. Redford was selected Progressive Conservative Party Leader in October and as one of her first moves as Premier, called for a 2012 election under new fixed-flexible election rules, which mandate that voters go to the polls between March 1 and May 31 every four years. Voting day is still up in the air, but all four main parties are well into election mode.

Tory party faithful put their 40-year dynasty on the line with Ms. Redford at the helm of the 68-member majority caucus.

The Liberals, currently the Official Opposition with eight MLAs, have gambled on a former Tory and outspoken former emergency room doctor, Raj Sherman, to lift up the struggling party. The often-quoted Wildrose Party Leader, Danielle Smith, aims not only to win a seat for herself, but to unseat the Tory government. Right now, her party has just four MLAs. The New Democrats, which have never been considered a threat in right-leaning Alberta, hope to increase party representation beyond their current two members in the legislature.

"I see that the next election will bring some dramatic political shifts," Prof. Mensah added. "It will bring in new blood in terms of new representatives, but as well it could see a change in the dynamics in terms of the composition of the opposition. Perhaps a new Official Opposition party. I think we're in a very momentous phase of Alberta politics right now."

In a year-end interview, Ms. Redford said when the legislature resumes sitting in February, there will be a throne speech, a budget as well as debate before she drops the writ.

"Let's put it all on the table, set the direction, reflect what our values are and then Albertans can decide," Ms. Redford said.

She has already brought in tough new drunk-driving rules, which divided her caucus and Albertans. She has promised a judicial inquiry into political influence in the health-care system, although some critics have accused her of failing to live up to a leadership campaign pledge by not yet ordering it. She has set out to set a new tone with Ottawa, to put Alberta in the national spotlight and act as a strong defender of the frequently maligned oil sands. She said environmental sustainability and monitoring initiatives will be rolled out over the next couple of months, though she wouldn't be more specific.

All of it, she believes, is in line with the mood of voters.

"What Albertans wanted to know is that we as a party understood that our responsibility is to lead and to set a direction and to make sure that we were reflecting the values of Albertans," Ms. Redford said.

Not surprisingly, Ms. Smith, who hopes to play spoiler, although polls have consistently painted the Wildrose Party as the somewhat distant second-place contender, doesn't buy it. She doesn't think Albertans will either.

"I think they're going to get a rude awakening in the next election," she said of the Tories. "I think the people are beginning to see that the change that Redford brought was not the change that they were looking for. We'll see how that plays out on an election night."

Ms. Smith said the Premier has already alienated left-leaning supporters by failing to keep her promises on issues such as health care and fixed elections.

"The shine is already coming off the penny from the perspective of conservatives," Ms. Smith said. "I think it's only a matter of time before progressives come to the same conclusion."

Prof. Mensah doesn't expect the New Democrats will fare well outside of Edmonton and he isn't prepared to call the Liberal Party dead. He does credit Dr. Sherman for steadying the Liberal ship, but says he doesn't have enough steam to make spectacular gains.

"He's given the party hope that they can rise up from the current doldrums they're in right now," Prof. Mensah said. "For Raj Sherman to be able to hold or improve, he needs to go beyond the Liberal support and hopefully entice people who normally don't participate in Alberta elections."

Meanwhile, Ms. Redford is quick to defend her record, pointing out that she's only had the province's top job for three months.

"It's just like when we go to a provincial election," Ms. Redford explained. "There's going to be political parties out there that say this is our plan for the future. Well, no one says to a political party two days after the election, 'Well, why haven't you done it? You've flip-flopped.' And this isn't actually different from that situation."