After four decades in power, their traditional base fractured by defections on the right, Alberta's governing Progressive Conservatives suddenly find themselves underdogs in Monday's election, trailing the Wildrose Party. There is a mood for change in Alberta. The question is, which party best represents change: The upstart Wildrose under leader Danielle Smith, with its populist brand of conservatism? Or, odd as it may sound, the Conservatives under Premier Alison Redford?
The answer is surprising. As a change agent, Wildrose is remarkably change-averse.
The party shows no leadership with regard to Alberta's critical oil-sands industry. Its main policy document barely mentions the oil sands (and then only to complain about public funding for two "anti-oil-sands documentaries"). Ms. Redford, by contrast, is more positive; her Canadian Energy Strategy would facilitate the shipment of oil-sands oil to Asia, the U.S. and Central Canada; she also promises to help fund oil-sands extraction technology.
In health care, the Conservatives are also more constructive and imaginative. They promise 140 family care clinics, where not only doctors, but nurses can provide services, an innovation that will relieve the pressure on emergency wards. They also talk about "fast-track" emergency rooms, where obvious ailments will be diverted for quick treatment. In response, Wildrose promises wait-time guarantees, failing which the procedures will be done out of province or in private facilities – sort of a hangman's approach to health care.
Clearly, these policies do not account for the surge in Wildrose support. This is a party that failed to elect a single MLA in the 2008 election. Now, polls suggest it will form the next government. So what, then, is behind its rise?
Some of it may relate to its adoption of "Alberta first" or "firewall" rhetoric. Despite Alberta's enormous, and growing, economic might in Canada, and its considerable political influence nationally – with a Conservative government led by a Calgary MP – Wildrose has still found fertile ground with the insular little Alberta narrative.
But Wildrose's growth began, not coincidentally, when the province was hit hard by falling energy prices in 2008-9. Government spending had jumped, public sector pay greatly outpacing the rest of the country. Then, the Alberta government saw a projected $8.5-billion surplus evaporate, and instead posted a $1.4-billion deficit. The government responded to the recession by joining the worldwide consensus in favour of stimulative spending.
The Conservative record on fiscal policy, then, is the central issue in the current campaign.
Wildrose has been campaigning with a "debt clock" and has launched fierce rhetorical attacks over Conservative "mismanagement." Its leader, Ms. Smith, is an effective communicator and a fresh face, but there's little fresh in Wildrose's response on fiscal policy; many of its ideas come from the halcyon era of King Ralph.
In the 1990s, Progressive Conservative premier Ralph Klein was a leader among Canada's first ministers in deficit reduction. His government introduced balanced budget legislation in 1995. By 2004, he was able to announce that Alberta was "debt-free" and, awash with energy royalties, his government awarded Albertans a $400 "prosperity bonus" (popularly known as "Ralph bucks").
For its part, Wildrose promises to restore the balanced budget legislation, and – yes – to pay Albertans energy dividends, now called "Dani dollars." The party projects these payments as totalling $12,000 for an Alberta family of four over the next eight years.
As for Alison Redford, she has been the Premier for only six months, but is answerable for one budget, which saw nearly every ministry receive increases; health-care spending went up by 7 per cent. More restraint should have been shown.
Even with such increases, defended as necessary in a province that leads the country in population growth, the Conservative budget still projects Alberta's deficit will be eliminated in 2013-14, with a $5.2-billion surplus in 2014-15. This will be achieved without any new taxes, or even any user fee increases. Instead, Alberta will accomplish it from an expanding tax base through population increases and resource royalties expected to nearly double from 2011-15.
The Conservatives have signalled their intent to save more, not just by replenishing the rainy day Sustainability Fund that was used to maintain Alberta's debt-free status, but possibly also to build up the Heritage Fund. As a TD analysis of the budget put it, "having to make a choice between saving for tomorrow or spending today is a challenge that other provinces in Canada could only dream of."
Wildrose's message of change, then, is concerned less with what Alberta can be, than with what Alberta was. It is a political response to a fiscal dilemma that has all the trappings of a failure of confidence. Canada needs Alberta to step up, not step back. The Conservatives have ruled for a very long time, but they have a new leader and are the party that speaks for the best kind of change. It is time for a big Alberta on the national stage.