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Alberta Exchange, April 2: Are voters ready for a change?

Alberta Exchange is a twice weekly e-mail conversation on the provincial election featuring The Globe's top political minds. Today, columnists Gary Mason and John Ibbitson chat with Alberta correspondent Josh Wingrove about the first week of the campaign.

Gary Mason: With the first week of the Alberta election in the books, I think it's fair to say, fellows, that it wasn't what most people were expecting. As first weeks of election campaigns go, it was just about perfect for Wildrose. They had polls going their way and issues. The premier had to flip-flop on the no-meet committee controversy, which looked bad. But mostly she and her Progressive Conservative party seemed to be on the defensive almost from the start. We'll operate from the assumption that this is a two-horse race. Guys, what do the Tories do to try and capture some momentum as we head into Week 2 of the campaign?

Josh Wingrove: So far they don't really seem to be doing much differently – keep calm, carry on. I think they're waiting for the pendulum to swing back as people scrutinize Wildrose – in particular, its platform and roster of candidates. All that said, Redford thinks she can win if it's an election about issues. She's making an announcement here shortly in Strathmore, Alta., so maybe they'll switch it up.

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John Ibbitson: There are really only two or three kinds of elections. That is to say, there only a couple of overriding themes that determine their outcome, regardless of where the election is being held or who's involved. That's why political parties obsess over these so-called ballot questions. One question might be: Who do you trust to mind the store? Another might be: Is it time for a change? You are both closer to this election than I am. Is a ballot question emerging after Week One, and if so, what is it?

GM: Well, I'll want Josh's take on this as well but the ballot question to me is change. Is it time for a change in government? It seems to me that is really what Wildrose has built its whole campaign around and it is using a basket full of Tory dirty laundry and scandals to demonstrate why it's time to throw the bums out. And given that the Tories have been in power here for 41 years there is quite a basket of material that Wildrose has to work with. Obviously, there are some side issues, like what kind of Alberta do you want to live in? Danielle Smith's almost retro version of the province or the one of Alison Redford's larger ambitions. But in the end I think the ballot question is pretty simple: Is it time for a change? Josh, what's your take?

JW: Yeah, change is pretty much it. And a question of whether Wildrose is too much change. Redford is casting herself as, I guess, moderate change – an overhauled PC party. For Wildrose supporters, they see it as time to turf an entitled and out-of-touch government. For PC supporters, they warn about the Wildrose platform, saying the province needs to invest. Of course, Wildrosers might say that's just another word for spending.

GM: Minutes ago, Wildrose leader Danielle Smith announced that, if elected, she will give Albertans $300 dividends from the province's oil riches. It echoes back to the 'Ralph bucks' that were much derided during the Klein era. John, you're an experienced political observer, do these kinds of political 'bribes' work?

JI: A bribe is exactly what they are, Gary, and the answer is: It depends on how much voters need the bribe. Look, you can go to an Ontario voter and say: We need to invest more in education, to prepare our children for the jobs of tomorrow; you can go to an Albertan voter and say: We need to build up our Heritage Fund so that we don't squander the current boom. If the voter is feeling economically secure – she's meeting her mortgage payments; her job is safe – she'll vote for a party that promises to invest in the future. But if she's economically stressed, or if she doesn't trust the politicians to invest wisely, she'll say: "Gimme the money." In that sense, I guess this election will tell all of us a lot about how voters in Alberta feel these days.

JW: Yeah. I blew my Ralph bucks on a TV, if I recall. Not exactly investment but it was awesome at the time. They're certainly popular. Ms. Redford has already dismissed it, saying Wildrose's pledges so far don't add up. If you, as they say they would, roll out tax credits, rebates and try to grow Heritage Fund to $200-billion, something's gotta give – Wildrose says it will defer infrastructure spending slightly, but Redford says it will go farther. All that said, we have Canada's lowest taxes here already and the economy is booming. We don't have a PST. But Albertans carry, on average, more consumer debt than any other province's residents. So maybe people want the cash.

GM: There was a popular perception coming into this election that this was a two-stager for Wildrose ... that they would form the official opposition in this election, setting themselves up to become government in the following campaign. Now, it's looking like they could form government. John, Josh, should we expect their policies to start getting extra scrutiny from here on in?

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JI: Yes, the media will really start to burrow into Wildrose, now. This will be good news for the PCs. Whether it's the Layton surge in Quebec last May, or the sudden rise of the NDP in Ontario in 1990, sudden surges by parties formerly in the wings initially make voters giddy, and so you get a frenzy of rising support. The NDP climbed so fast in the last week of the federal election that even the Conservatives were starting to get scared. But if the surge comes too soon, then reaction can set it as all guns are trained on the new arrivals. In that sense, it would be much, much better for Wildrose if this was the last week of the campaign.

GM: Josh, you agree?

JW: Put it this way: earlier last week, with everything going their way, Wildrose didn't seem ecstatic. Cautiously optimistic, sure, but you clearly wonder about the effect of such a spike – whether that's scrutiny, or Liberal voters sliding to the PCs just to stop Wildrose, or whatnot. It means digging into Ms. Smith's record, in particular a tumultuous run as a school board trustee, now that Ms. Redford's record has been combed through for a year, dating back to her leadership race. The other thing it has done is scare PCs, so they won't be caught napping. Nonetheless, Gary has said it before – who would you rather be right now? Hard not to choose Wildrose's position. They're driving the campaign agenda at the moment.

GM: Well, guys, as they say, 'Hold on to your Stetsons, or Smithbilts in Alberta.' I think this election is only going to get wilder.

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