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The uphill battle facing Alberta Liberals

Alberta Liberal candidate Kent Hehr talks to voter Jan Pugh on the steps of her Calgary home.

Chris Bolin/chris bolin The Globe and Mail

As Kent Hehr sets out on another day of door-knocking in an eclectic inner-city neighbourhood in Calgary, he stops to chat with homeless people killing time at a bus stop.

Passersby stop to shake his hand. One driver pulls over and rushes to pledge her support based on the advice of her 11-year-old son, who was wowed by Mr. Hehr's presentation to his democracy class.

But when Mr. Hehr – who has used a wheelchair since a drive-by shooting in 1991 left him paralyzed – rolls up to Jan Pugh's doorstep, he's in for a rough ride.

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"You know, I'm still making my decision," said Ms. Pugh, a 45-year-old mother who works from home and voted Liberal in the 2008 election.

Most polls show the newcomer Wildrose Party outpacing the long-governing Progressive Conservatives, and she's torn: vote for the local candidate she likes best or whoever will go on to represent the winning party.

"How are you going to make a difference in Alberta if it goes PC or Wildrose?" Ms. Pugh asks. "Unfortunately, it's not going Liberal."

In any other election, the popular and affable Mr. Hehr would probably be a shoo-in. But lately it has been tough to be a Liberal in Alberta.

The current premier, Alison Redford, is widely considered a red Tory, and after the new poll, renewed her appeal to centrists to support her party instead of the Liberals. Persuading Liberal supporters to buy PC memberships and vote for her is how she won the leadership last fall.

Meanwhile, the polls still have the Liberals in a distant battle for third with the NDP, meaning they stand to lose their long-standing position as Official Opposition. At dissolution, the Liberals had eight sitting MLAs, and as of Wednesday, were still four candidates shy of a full slate. The bleakest observers predict the Liberals will be wiped off the electoral map on April 23.

"If they even maintain a handful of seats, it will be seen to be a moral victory," said Bruce Cameron, a Calgary pollster with Return on Insight. "Their future is in doubt."

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Ms. Redford is hoping to extend 41 years of Tory rule by opening a big tent.

But if Leader Raj Sherman is worried about the pundits and the polls, the former emergency room doctor and Tory-turned-Liberal doesn't show it. He still talks like a winner, and counts himself among other underdog victors such as Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi and the "good guy" (presumably Canadian boxer Lennox Lewis) who knocked out his intimidating opponent, Mike Tyson.

Dr. Sherman calls on all "progressives" to get behind the Liberals: "We are a true centrist party."

He accused the NDP of lacking an economic plan, and the two front-runners of making funding pledges they can't keep – or at least not without raising taxes or making cuts.

The Liberals say they would increase taxes for large corporations and the richest individuals to finance pricey promises, which so far include fixing health care, slashing tuition, forgiving student loans, hiking homecare investments for seniors and balancing the books.

Talk of tax increases is generally considered sacrilege in Alberta, but Dr. Sherman disagrees.

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"Albertans are okay with paying more taxes," he said. "...They hate having their tax dollars wasted."

In Calgary-Buffalo, where Mr. Hehr is the incumbent, voter turnout in 2008 was among the lowest in the province at just 30 per cent. Mr. Hehr took the seat from the PCs by 937 votes.

Internal polling by the parties puts Mr. Hehr in the lead, but barely. Wildrose candidate and former radio talk show host Mike Blanchard is making a persuasive pitch.

"The Liberals have been in opposition in Alberta for 90 years, so you'd think they'd get good at it by now," he said. "If you want effective representation in the [legislature]and you're tired of what you're seeing with the Conservative government, then Wildrose is your only option."

Mr. Hehr is aware of the polls. He even suggested that, after election day, what's left of the PCs, Liberals and other centrist and left-leaning parties might have to consider a merger.

But for now, he's focused on securing Ms. Pugh's vote.

"I have much more influence than a backbench MLA of the government," he said. "I have direct access to cabinet ministers. I know you're concerned about my impact."

Then, he made one final appeal: "It's the ideas that matter."


The 'firewall' manifesto at the heart of the Wildrose

In 2001, premier Ralph Klein received a five-point manifesto urging him to assume more provincial control in response to growing unease with the federal Liberal government.

The missive quickly became known as the "firewall letter."

"It is imperative to take the initiative, to build firewalls around Alberta, to limit the extent to which an aggressive and hostile federal government can encroach upon legitimate provincial jurisdiction," the authors wrote.

Three Tory premiers didn't adopt it. But the Wildrose Party's 2011 constitution and campaign policy book indicate that, if elected, it would pick up the torch.

Firewall letter:

Withdraw from the Canada Pension Plan to create an Alberta Pension Plan offering the same benefits at lower cost while giving Alberta control over the investment fund.

Wildrose policy:

Withdraw from the Canada Pension Plan and create an Alberta Pension Plan to offer at minimum the same benefits and take control of the investment fund.

Firewall letter:

Collect revenue from personal income tax, as the province does for corporate income tax.

Wildrose policy:

Collect the Alberta personal income tax.

Firewall letter:

Start preparing to let the contract with the RCMP run out in 2012 and create a provincial police force.

Wildrose policy:

Explore the feasibility of a provincial force.

Firewall letter:

Resume provincial responsibility for health-care policy, with each province raising its own revenue. Take all possible measures to reduce the financial drain on Alberta from Canada's tax-and-transfer system.

Wildrose policy:

Compel the federal government to negotiate a more equitable equalization payment system. Whether it be through the transfer of tax points, a cap on net equalization transfers from Alberta, removing natural resource revenues from the equalization formula, or challenging the current formula, a Wildrose government would try to keep more of Albertans' tax dollars in the province.

Firewall letter:

Force Senate reform back onto the national agenda in a provincial referendum.

Wildrose policy:

Institute legislation allowing Albertans to call for a binding referendum on a matter of significant public concern and hold elections for Alberta senators.

Dawn Walton

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