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Alison Redford's Progressive Conservatives are going camping. They'll fan out this summer in tents and RVs to visit agricultural fairs, rodeos and the like. This would hardly be notable for a typical PC party, with its rural roots, but Ms. Redford's team is not the PC party of old. It is, ever more, a party of city slickers.
As such, with tongue planted in cheek, Ms. Redford admits camping isn't quite second nature for her. In contrast, she called Municipal Affairs Minister Doug Griffiths' camping habits "shockingly simple."
"I think I'd probably go with the Winnebago," she said, laughing after mentioning the new summer travel plan "concept" to reporters.
But, humour aside, the rural-urban political divide in Alberta remains acute. Ms. Redford relies politically on the two big cities, where she does well, where the majority of seats are and where the Official Opposition Wildrose Party has struggled. The big cities are Alberta's electoral battleground. And – before the caucus Winnebago trek – Ms. Redford and Mr. Griffiths are about to rewrite the rules for them.
The province is close to a deal on a so-called Big City Charter, granting special powers to Edmonton and Calgary. It's something the cities have long pushed for. "It's necessary from the point of view recognizing the different challenges that Edmonton and Calgary face, versus other parts of the province," said Edmonton Mayor Stephen Mandel, citing light-rail transit, policing and social services as high-cost programs that only major cities bear the brunt of. A charter will give "a more clear definition of what our role is going to be. I think right now it's a bit helter-skelter," Mr. Mandel said.
Mr. Mandel and Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi met with Ms. Redford last Friday, a private meeting meant to hash out the final frame of the charter. Mr. Mandel hopes a charter will be signed within three weeks, before municipal elections this fall. The charter will be more or less a framework, setting out a new "relationship" between the two levels of government. Any talk about money – including funding for pro sports arenas, which groups in each city want but which Ms. Redford has declined to support – will be next.
Ms. Redford has said charter talks are going well, but warned that any new money will likely come with strings attached. "We think it's important to be able to acknowledge the fact we have two cities in this province that are much larger than other communities. But we also know that every city has its unique situation," she said.
Those other cities are now watching closely. Mr. Griffiths, the minister, has worked to quell fears among the rural base. The talks also come as the province overhauls its Municipal Governance Act. "This is not ever going to be creating different classes of municipalities," Mr. Griffiths said, adding: "The charter is really about a new relationship."
Lacombe Mayor Steve Christie, a former PC candidate who represents mid-sized cities with the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association, said mid-sized cities are watching cautiously. "I don't think there is widespread panic. I think there [are] definitely eyes peeled," he said.
All this comes as polls have shown Ms. Redford's numbers dropping, with the difference picked up by the New Democrats, who one poll showed surging in Edmonton, and the Official Opposition Wildrose Party, who are the PCs' chief rival in Calgary. In the final week of last year's spring election, Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith sparred with both Mr. Mandel and Mr. Nenshi and, in the end, had a poor showing in the big cities, clearing the way for Ms. Redford's majority government.
Ms. Redford, as such, needs the two big cities, and is closing in on a deal their mayors have been looking for. A final deal could take a few years, leaving it to be concluded around the time of the next provincial election. "We'll begin to define over the next few years – because it will take a bit of time – all the various ingredients," said Mr. Mandel, who is expected to announce next week whether he'll seek re-election. Mr. Nenshi (who declined to discuss charter negotiations) is expected to win another term.
With a framework in place, it'll be up to Ms. Redford and her team to convince mid-size cities that they don't have second-class status. With that, the Winnebagos will hit the highway, ahead of the next fight – over just how much money the charter, and the seat-rich cities, can get from the province.
Josh Wingrove is The Globe's legislative reporter in Edmonton.