Alison Redford, policy-wonk lawyer that she is, wanted an Alberta election about issues – the stark differences between the visions of the Progressive Conservative Leader and her chief opponent, Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith. That was, Ms. Redford believed, the way she'd cruise to an easy win.
For three days, she had gone about a front-runner's campaign, visiting the oil sands, a manufacturing firm, a honey farm, three Tim Hortons, and talking policy. But she's not the front-runner anymore. Instead, she's in a dead heat and policy's on the backburner.
Her incumbent PCs have sunk and Wildrose has surged, largely by branding Ms. Redford as a big spender from a party of overpaid MLAs. Even though wealthy Alberta is set to return to surplus next year, has low tax rates, no provincial sales tax and no provincial debt, voters still cling to an ethos of independence and frugality – and react viscerally to the notion of waste.
No issue got more traction than an all-party, PC-led committee of Alberta MLAs, each paid at least $1,000 a month despite not meeting since 2008. Voters are angry about it. Wildrose cleaned up as Ms. Redford's party bled credibility and support – and finally, on Thursday, she acted.
In what Ms. Smith and observers call a desperation move, Ms. Redford has pledged her MLAs will pay back all fees received for a committee that didn't meet dating back to 2008. If they don't pay it all back, dating back to 2008, she says she'll kick them out of the party.
She also took aim at the "transition allowances," lucrative lump-sum pensions that MLAs receive. If elected, Ms. Redford says she will cancel them going forward, though not retroactively. She also pledged to not accept her own, giving up an estimated $182,000 she'd have been entitled to so far.
Ms. Redford acknowledged what many already knew: Her party didn't appreciate the scale of the controversy, didn't move quickly enough and was getting hammered for it.
"I made a mistake on these issues, and now I'm fixing them," she said Thursday at one campaign stop. Her goal was clear: "I hope we can now get on to talking about other issues that matter to Albertans in this campaign."
Maybe, but Wildrose has gained ground, and dismissed Ms. Redford's recent effort to move past the MLA pay issue. "It's clearly full panic mode," Ms. Smith said, calling it "remarkable that it took a drastic drop in the polls to convince Ms. Redford to do the right thing."
MLA pay is one of the main topics on doorsteps early on in the province's election campaign. "They should have given it back right away," said Iris Preece, a Calgary voter who bumped into Ms. Smith at a campaign stop Thursday and pledged her support. Ms. Redford's team is only too aware.
"We got spanked pretty hard on this MLA compensation," PC campaign strategist Stephen Carter said. "Transition allowance takes us a little bit further than people thought we would go, and I think that that's going to matter."
Polls show voters think Ms. Redford, of all party leaders, is the most competent, trustworthy and best suited to represent Alberta, but say Ms. Smith is more likable. Therein lies Ms. Redford's hope – a return to policy, on which the parties couldn't be further apart, and a referendum on leadership. She hopes Thursday's announcement will get them there, if it's not too late.
"You don't get that upside of a really bold move when you do it step by step, kicking and screaming right along," said Duane Bratt, head of the department of policy studies at Calgary's Mount Royal University. "I think, clearly, they're scared."