The electors of Alberta have more than two weeks to consider critically both of the parties that have a real prospect of forming the next government: the Progressive Conservatives and the Wildrose Party. Neither is a model of good fiscal policy.
Perhaps the Conservative government, led by Premier Alison Redford, thought that its over-optimistic, over-generous pre-election budget, delivered in February, was politically shrewd, a loosening of the purse strings that could be corrected later. But the shaky standing of the Conservatives in the polls suggests that the voters are not naive.
For its part, the Wildrose Party has responded with the offer of a gimmicky $300 Alberta Energy Dividend for every Albertan, like Ralph Klein's one-time $400 "prosperity bonus" when he was premier in 2005. Indeed, the label chosen by Danielle Smith, the Wildrose Leader, echoes a still earlier premier, William Aberhart, who in the 1930s proposed a $25-a-month "basic dividend" based on the crank economics of the original social credit movement.
Ms. Smith's idea is closer to Aberhart's than to Mr. Klein's, because it is to continue as long as there is a surplus. She says that her party, "unlike the Redford government," trusts Albertans "to make their own spending decisions." If so, why not just let them make decisions by taxing less, rather than passing money through an indirect route?
Neither major party in Alberta is communicating a sense of seriousness about the future. With a glut of crude oil on the Gulf Coast and an abundance of natural gas in the United States – a country that may be at last achieving energy independence – Alberta may need to rethink where its major markets are really going to be. Ms. Redford is right to be working toward a Canadian energy strategy, which is mainly about facilitating the export of oil and gas to East Asia – but China itself is rich in undeveloped shale natural gas. This election campaign is doing little to turn Albertans' minds to these long-term matters.
Ms. Redford, who has some Red Tory connections, appears to have been elected Leader partly because of the support of short-term Conservative members, who may not vote for her in the general election. Ms. Smith and the Wildrose Party have drawn away many social conservatives and economic libertarians (itself a paradoxical combination) from the perennially governing party. Whoever wins this election, the familiar, broadly based, centre-right Progressive Conservative coalition is unlikely to emerge intact.