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When it comes to the economic record, it will be tough for the Alberta Toies to put distance between their shiny new Tory selves and the old Tories of the past 10 years, who lurched from deficit to deficit despite periods of $100-a-barrel oil, double current prices.Jason Franson/The Canadian Press

In the Alberta election campaign, Jim Prentice's Progressive Conservatives are fighting formidable rivals – themselves.

When it comes to the economic record, it will be tough for them to put distance between their shiny new Tory selves and the old Tories of the past 10 years, who lurched from deficit to deficit despite periods of $100-a-barrel oil, double current prices.

Mr. Prentice called the election on Tuesday for May 5.

Despite his talk of "tough choices" and the need for a whole new approach to governing, Mr. Prentice is really asking for voters to hit reboot for at least the fourth time on his party, which has shown amazing ability to survive its own foibles.

In the early 1990s, Ralph Klein promised a new era for the Tories marked by deep cuts to spending and public services, then fat budget surpluses and cash payouts. In the past decade, Ed Stelmach offered ideas for the spoils of oil booms to be shared by more than just those connected to the energy industry. Alison Redford ascended to the throne as a fresh new face for the party with plans to change the conversation, and turn the oil sands into a national imperative. Each departed earlier than planned.

Now, with the province stung by a 50-per-cent skid in world crude prices since last summer, Mr. Prentice says he wants Albertans to disembark from the oil-revenue "roller coaster" that has made investment in schools, hospitals and other infrastructure, as well as contributions to the province's rainy-day fund, moving targets.

Evoking the halcyon days of Mr. Klein and Peter Lougheed, he said it is time to think long-term, a decade hence, to put Alberta back on solid footing. He criticized the government for being bloated, with too many middle men, managers and consultants. Before announcing his budget last month, he said Albertans have to take responsibility for the province's financial pickle – they enjoyed the best of everything without paying the full freight.

It is as if another party had sneaked into the legislature some years ago, messed up the finances, and now a whole new crew has arrived with all the tools necessary for a complete overhaul. The question is, will the budget Mr. Prentice's PCs delivered last month be the fix they think is needed?

For all the government's talk of a new way to manage the coffers, the 2015-16 financial plan plays to the squishy middle. Those on the right of the political spectrum have railed against the $1.5-billion of new and increased taxes and user fees – which will go up each year – and no heavy spending cuts. Its $5-billion deficit and hefty borrowing are sacrilege for those who pine for the tight-fistedness of the Klein era.

There's no shortage of criticism from the left, either. Corporations are spared any new tax or royalty burdens and once again, it appears education and health-care services will be stretched thinner.

It is clear that oil is a very volatile commodity on which to base a public budget. This year alone, Mr. Prentice sees a $7-billion swoon in revenues that all his new levies come nowhere close to replacing. Further, he has pledged to cut energy's contribution to total budget revenues by half of current levels by 2019-20. Without a sales tax and without major reductions in total spending.

The idea is to put some reliable amounts of oil money in the Alberta Heritage Savings Trust Fund, a piggy bank that has gone wanting when energy-industry activity goes through a slowdown.

Here is the rub: With each new leader, the Alberta Tories have promised better fiscal management, once in a while through the lens of a change in accounting presentation. Since 2005-06, though, the government's record is about as mixed as possible: five surpluses and five deficits.

The shortfalls began with the financial crisis of 2008-09, and continued through 2012-13, a period covered by two premiers who had new visions that are now disparaged.

Mr. Prentice says he is focused on the future, having proclaimed after his leadership victory last year Alberta was "under new management."

It is going to be interesting watching him and his party seek to hammer home the message that everything is new and improved, armed with a budget that projects two more sizable annual deficits.

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