Alberta Progressive Conservative leader Alison Redford has moved to shore up her party base by announcing programs that will appeal to rural voters and seniors – two voting groups each party is fighting for in Alberta's election.
It also marks a break from Ms. Redford's campaign strategy to date. As polls have showed her party falling well back of Wildrose, she's turned from announcing things already in her budget to pitching new policies.
Speaking at a seniors' centre in the southern Alberta city of Lethbridge Wednesday morning, Ms. Redford announced a new $500 tax credit for seniors. Anyone over 65 would be able to claim the cost of sports or leisure programs, for a rebate of up to $50 under Alberta's 10 per cent flat tax. That program's (unbudgeted) cost is pegged at $24-million annually, beginning in 2013, but would vary dramatically based on participation.
Ms. Redford had, to date, been campaigning on programs included in her budget, passed just last month; the seniors initiative is new money, as was another on Wednesday for rural doctors.
"Announcements like today are, I think, what Albertans are looking for," the PC leader said. "They're looking for bold leadership, thinking ahead, building community and understanding that community sustainability, post-secondary education and supporting the healthcare system are all connected."
The announcements came after a poll the evening before showed Ms. Redford's party, at 30 per cent support among decided voters, well behind the right-wing Wildrose party, at 43 per cent. Wildrose has pledged an energy rebate in a bid to woo votes, and has focused that platform pledge at seniors in particular. Wildrose would also redirect funding to home care and introduce a "Kinship Palliative Care" program that would compensate people who provide end-of-life care for relatives, among several other initiatives.
The energy rebate, estimated at $300 annually by 2015, is the key piece for seniors, Wildrose leader Danielle Smith said.
"The Wildrose plan is better for seniors because we developed a framework for how we'd deal with future surpluses to allow for all Albertans, including Alberta seniors, to be able to share in a part of it," she said. "We don't think that the government should be dictating to people what they should do with their own money. We trust Albertans to be able to make their own decisions about what their priorities are."
While Ms. Redford made her announcement at the seniors' centre, dozens of participants were lawn bowling (on artificial turf laid out across a gym floor) and floor-curling. Many planned on voting PC already. (Lethbridge isn't among the most right-wing bastions of Alberta, and elected a Liberal in the last election four years ago. That same Liberal crossed the floor after Ms. Redford became premier, and is now running for the PCs.) "I think everything is balanced out quite good," said Vic Boychuk, 79, who applauded the tax credit announcement. "Everybody that plays like to come here," he said.
Another woman, Eva Deringer, 72, said she's backing the PCs and would donate any tax rebate back to the centre. "It's a social outlet. What is there to do at home? There's only so much cleaning and cooking you can do, you need human contact," she said. Ms. Redford then shuffled over to another seniors' centre for a party event.
The PCs, though, are far from the only party courting seniors, who typically have high voter turnout.
The New Democrats have pledged 1,500 long-term care beds, putting $100-million into home care and capping seniors' drug costs (paid for by raising income taxes, bitumen royalties and corporate taxes). "These changes could start today, and make a big difference in the every day lives of seniors and their families," NDP leader Brian Mason said in a statement Wednesday, when he was campaigning in Edmonton.
Liberal leader Raj Sherman, meanwhile has called for the creation of an Independent Seniors' Advocate, the doubling of funding for home care, increasing funding of long-term care, and lowering health wait times.
While in Lethbridge, Ms. Redford also announced a plan to expand a local pilot project that sees doctors complete part of their schooling outside of Edmonton and Calgary, the province's two medical schools. Currently, six medical students are completing part of their clerkship at the University of Lethbridge – Ms. Redford, if elected premier, would expand that to include another 28 spots to train medical students outside of the main cities. She estimated the cost of medical training, and a remote learning framework, would reach about $19-million annually.
University of Lethbridge president Mike Mahon endorsed the plan to help train doctors outside of major cities.
"What we find is students who are trained in the urban centres, either Edmonton or Calgary, simply don't move to rural Alberta once they become family physicians. This is why we have places like Milk River, just south of here, that simply don't have a doctor any more," he said Wednesday. "These are the kinds of programs that I think, going forward right across Canada, are going to be necessary if we want to continue to help maintain people's opportunities to live in rural Canada."
The promises are the latest this week to influence voters with new spending. The party leaders will debate on the evening of April 12, and Albertans go to the polls April 23.