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Alberta Liberals turn back the clock to press NDP on power prices

Once a major prop for the Alberta Liberals' 1993 election campaign, Laurence Decore's debt clock has been repurposed as a way to measure the cumulative difference in electricity costs between Alberta and the rest of the country since 2001.

Vying for status as the go-to, non-conservative option for voters, the Alberta Liberals are reaching back to their glory days.

On Saturday, the party rolled out its old debt clock, a prop used frequently by former leader Laurence Decore to strong effect two decades ago. Now, the VCR-generation device has been reprogrammed as a "shock clock," showing the accumulation of Alberta power prices over the national average.

With it, the Liberals announced three moves they'd take to lower power prices – a key platform issue of the New Democrats, a party polls show the Liberals are battling for third-party status.

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Alberta has Canada's only deregulated power system, and it's volatile – prices doubled in a January blip that sent prices soaring. Angry voters sent in copies of bills to their MLAs.

"Deregulation of electricity has not been accompanied by the promised reduction in prices," Liberal Leader Raj Sherman said in a statement. His plan would beef up administrators, add penalties to companies caught withholding power to boost prices and change rules so that, the Liberals say, homeowners can lock in at lower prices.

"We will save you money," Dr. Sherman said.

The clock will be familiar to Albertans who remember the 1993 election, the last time the Tories faced a serious challenge. Mr. Decore was rarely seen without it, reminding voters how the PCs had sent Alberta's debt levels soaring. The province is now debt-free, prompting the clock's new focus.

The clock itself was sold at a party fundraiser in 2008 to Corey Hogan, who paid $900 for it. Mr. Hogan is now the Liberal campaign manager.

The move also marks a shift of attention for the Liberals. Electricity has by no means been their issue lately; instead, it's the NDP that has been most outspoken about volatility. The New Democrats would regulate prices and make corporations pay for new transmission lines (as they used to) instead of splitting the cost with ratepayers.

As the issue has been thrust into the spotlight, industry groups have been quick to defend their record, noting that wholesale prices remain low: an average six cents per kilowatt-hour so far in 2012. It's not much consolation to homeowners who paid 15 cents per kilowatt-hour in January.

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Since 2001, the Liberals say, residential consumer electricity costs have consistently been above the national average. The cumulative difference – about $2.2-billion, according the party's calculations – is what the clock is counting.

Dr. Sherman's party appears on pace to win only a handful of seats, including several competitive races in Edmonton, where the well-organized NDP – whose leader also put in a strong debate performance – are a chief opponent. Dr. Sherman's own riding is in west Edmonton.

Helped by the clock, the Liberals won 32 seats and 40 per cent of the popular vote in 1993. The PCs won 51 seats, a majority, with 44 per cent of the vote.

Some forget, however, where the Liberal surge came from. The PCs drew virtually the same percentage of the vote in 1993 as they had in 1989. The NDP, however, went from 26 per cent of the vote to 11 per cent, losing all 16 of their seats and not having a single candidate elected.

The clock, as such, is the Liberals' NDP-killer. Now, with the PCs and Wildrose jockeying for position on the right, the Liberals hope it will work again.

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