PC support falters as Alberta’s election campaign begins

OPINION by Gillian Steward

Not that long ago, Alberta Premier Jim Prentice and his Progressive Conservatives were so sure that the just-called election would be a slam-dunk for them. Their most vocal and active opposition — the Wildrose party — seemed down for the count after most of their MLAs and party leader Danielle Smith were lured over to the Prentice team. Opposition parties more to the left of centre were weak and fractured.

But surprisingly a lot has changed in the past weeks, and that election may not be such a dunk for the Prentice PCs after all.

The first signs of trouble started to bubble up during the last week of March when the government presented its budget for the coming year. For months Prentice had been warning Albertans about a tough budget; the plunge in the price of oil had shot a big hole in revenues that required dire cuts to public services. Alberta needs to stop relying on resource revenues so it is not so vulnerable to oil and gas price swings was another oft-repeated mantra.

But in the end the budget is a mishmash of measures that raise revenue through dozens of user-pay fees on such things as cigarettes and car registration, a so-called health tax destined not for hospitals but for general revenues, and minuscule adjustments to the provincial flat tax so the wealthy pay more, but not much more than they did before. The government also adopted a stand-still approach on health care and education spending even though the population will rise and inflation will continue.

There will be no increase in corporate taxes or resource royalties. But there is a projected $5-billion deficit.

There are plans in the budget for putting away more resource revenue in the Heritage Savings Trust Fund in the future, but of course everything depends on the price of oil and no one seems to know where that is going to go. There was no mention of a royalty review, a carbon tax, or increases in corporate taxes should the price of oil go up.

The budget appeared to make everyone angry. Some were incensed by the user-pay fees which they saw as disguised tax increases. Others were incensed by the huge deficit. Even though the cuts to public services weren’t as dire as forecast, some people said they were yet another blow to struggling hospitals and schools. And the fact there was no increase in corporate taxes infuriated others.

Maybe it was just a coincidence, but within two days of the budget, former Wildrose leader Danielle Smith was rejected as the PC candidate for her riding, as were two other Wildrose floor-crossers in other parts of the province — even though Prentice and several PC cabinet ministers had campaigned for them. No doubt a lot of Wildrosers bought PC memberships just so they could vote against the turncoats.

On the same day the Wildrose elected a new leader — Brian Jean — who was once a Conservative MP for the Fort McMurray region. The leadership rally erupted into hoots and cheers when it was announced that Smith had been defeated. Jean gave a fiery speech and everyone went home happy.

Within a few days two public opinion polls were released that showed the Prentice PCs and the Wildrose in a dead heat with the NDP set to sweep Edmonton.

The automated telephone poll of 3,000 Albertans by Mainstreet Technologies found that the PCs and Wildrose were tied at 30 per cent of decided voters. That is an astounding drop for the PCs who were sitting with 44 per cent support less than four months ago.

An Insights West online poll of 600 Albertans found the PCs have the support of 31 per cent of decided voters with the Wildrose at 27 per cent. The poll also found that 60 per cent of Albertans don’t like the budget and disapprove of Prentice’s performance.

Prentice called his election on April 7, even though according to Alberta’s fixed election date law it shouldn’t be held until next year. At the time this article went to press, a Forum Research poll predicted a small Wildrose majority. It also placed the NDP ahead of the PCs.

Polls can be very misleading but it’s clear things are not going as smoothly as Prentice hoped they would.

Gillian Steward is a Calgary writer and journalist, and former managing editor of the Calgary Herald. A version of this column originally appeared in the Toronto Star.