CANADA

What next?

Alberta's Tories search for an encore

MARY NEMETH November 4 1996
CANADA

What next?

Alberta's Tories search for an encore

MARY NEMETH November 4 1996

What next?

CANADA

Alberta's Tories search for an encore

A provincial election is not expected until next spring. But Alberta is already a hive of political activity, with riding associations across the province holding nomination meetings and politicians declaring their intentions. So far, eight Liberals and seven Conservatives—including some of the top guns in Premier Ralph Klein’s government—have announced that they will not seek re-election. The rest, along with the New Democrats who currently hold no seats in the Alberta legislature, are gearing up for a battle that will likely be fought on two key issues: health-care cuts and the government’s fiscal record. The Tories, meanwhile, face a critical question in the wake of their budget-balancing act. What do they offer the electorate as an encore?

Not that they appear too worried about their electoral chances. The Conservatives have remained popular throughout their austerity drive, and now appear to hold an almost unassailable lead in the polls. In the 1993 election, they won 51 of 83 seats with just 44 per cent of the popu-

lar vote. According to the most recent survey made public by the Angus Reid Group, Tory support among decided voters stands at 59 per cent, with the opposition Liberals well behind at 25 per cent and the New Democrats with 10 per cent. Much of the Tories’ popularity is based on their record: they have cut total program spending by 21 per cent—or $3.3 billion— since the 1992-1993 fiscal year. With the help of windfall oil, gas and corporate tax revenues, they balanced government books in 1994-1995—two years ahead of schedule. They have even posted $2.1 billion in surpluses over the past two years and applied that money against the province’s debt.

But Alberta’s health-care system remains the chink in the Tories’ armor. During its current term, the government has cut the health-care budget by 11 per cent— to $3.7 billion. And for more than a year, Angus Reid polls have found that health care is the top concern cited by Albertans. The opposition parties are certainly counting on the issue providing them with

campaign fodder. “I believe the Tories have hit the wall on health care, among other things,” said Liberal Leader Grant Mitchell last week, citing a challenge to Klein’s nomination in his own constituency and “his charter failing in his own party.”

Some form of health-care charter that would, among other things, have guaranteed access to certain medical procedures within set time limits was clearly meant to be a key part of the Tories’ next campaign platform. At a Conservative policy conference in September, though, delegates rejected the idea, citing concerns that such guarantees on medical services could leave the government open to legal action. But Klein remains aware of the importance of the health-care issue. In an interview last week, he said that Health Minister Halvar Jonson would announce a series of new initiatives this month, including a declaration of provincial health-care standards and principles in lieu of the charter idea.

In fact, the state of the province’s medical services haunted Klein’s own nomination meeting in early October. Challenging the premier in his riding of Calgary/Elbow was Dr. Harold Swanson, a longtime Tory and retired radiologist who worked for 36 years at Calgary’s Bow Valley Centre hospital—slated for closure next April. Swanson, who criticized the government’s health-care cuts, said last week he is concerned about growing waiting lists and a shortage of such specialists as neurosurgeons and cardiovascular surgeons in the city. He is also worried about the absence of a full-service downtown hospital and the consolidation of too many services at one of the other hospitals if Bow Valley is closed. “It’ll just be a catastrophe,” he says. Klein, who won the nomination by 838 votes to 320, claims that many of Swanson’s votes came from New Democrats and Liberals who bought Tory memberships for the occasion. Swanson counters that a large number of Conservatives voted for him and, in any event, he says that he succeeded in raising healthcare concerns.

Treasurer Jim Dinning and Justice Minister Brian Evans, meanwhile, are among Klein’s high-profile colleagues who have decided to leave politics after this term. Also opting for the private sector is Federal and Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Ken Rostad, who told reporters when announcing his impending departure that the government’s decision to eliminate MLA pensions in 1993, on the eve of its deficit-cutting campaign, had been an error—and that there should be some kind of compensation package. While eliminating pensions was a popular move, some analysts now question whether it will eventually hamper good government. “It makes the financial cost of staying in office long prohibitive,” says University of Calgary political scientist Roger Gibbins.

In Dinning’s case, he would have had a tough act to follow— the treasurer is credited with engineering the province’s fiscal recovery. Many observers are indeed wondering what the Tories expect to do next term. Klein says the government intends to stay the fiscal course while directing money saved as a result of lower interest payments on a shrinking provincial debt to high-priority areas such as health care and education. “The vision,” he says, “is really not an exciting one in a political context because it’s basically good housekeeping.” Of course, Alberta’s budget-cutting premier is not the only one who wants to tend the house—and the battle for control of the premises has only just begun.

MARY NEMETH