First came the much anticipated budget—and the announcement that Alberta had not only finished the 1996-1997 fiscal year with a stunning $2.2-billion surplus, but could run an $800-million surplus next year. Then, as expected, the other shoe dropped. Minutes after Treasurer Jim Dinning tabled his document, Premier Ralph Klein ended rampant election speculation by telling the legislature that Albertans will go to the polls on March 11. Buoyed by the success of his tough budgetary policies, the good news of recent opinion polls and a provincial economy riding high on a resurgence of the oil and gas sector, Klein could not resist a parting, partisan jab at the opposition. Just before issuing the election call, he turned to the Liberal benches, unable to hide a grin. “So long,” said the premier, whose Tories hold 54 seats to the Liberals’ 29. “I don’t think we’ll be seeing each other again.”
The legislature instantly dissolved into momentary chaos as government members erupted into gales of laughter and the liberals shouted back catcalls. Given the political landscape as the 28-day campaign began, it was hardly surprising that Klein’s jibe ignited passions. Fuses had been short for days as observers wondered, will he or won’t he? When he finally did, Klein moved in the knowledge that, for now, many Albertans stand behind him. In fact, an Angus Reid poll on the eve of the election call gave the Tories 63-per-cent support, with the Liberals at 24 per cent and the New Democrats at 11 per cent. That prompted some analysts to project that, if those numbers hold, the Tories could win a landslide victory in the province’s 83-seat legislature—reminiscent of the 1970s when the party under Peter Lougheed ruled Alberta as a virtual one-party monopoly. “If Klein gets 60 per cent of the vote, he could win 80 seats,” says Paul McLoughlin, a veteran political analyst and publisher of Political Scan, an Edmonton-based newsletter. “It’s that simple.”
Are the Tories vulnerable? Maybe—and, ironically, thanks to a concept all but unknown in modem Canadian politics, governing with a surplus. The battle against the provincial deficit has been won, and the surplus is now earmarked to be applied against the province’s $4-billion net debt. But after four years of cutbacks and government
austerity, some Albertans are calling for the money to be plowed back into health care and social services. Liberal Leader Grant Mitchell is among them. Arguing that the province’s rosy economy is not the result of Tory budgeting—“Oil prices didn’t respond to a balanced budget,” he notes—Mitchell says that it is time for a more humane, and Liberal, government. “The election is about different values,” he declares. “This is a government concerned only about money and the bottom line—we want to focus on the needs of people.” For NDP Leader Pam Barrett, the election revolves around getting New Democrats back into the legislature after being shut out in the 1993 election. To this end, the party is focusing on 15 seats, most of them in Edmonton, that it believes are winnable. But last week, Barrett was not exactly brimming with confidence. While fielding reporters’ questions, she “implored” voters to elect at least four New Democrats so the party could get official status in the legislature. “Our primary concern is these guys [the Conservatives] winning in record numbers,” she said. “If they do, ideology will take over from what little common sense they have.”
Klein, meanwhile, says that his campaign will be based on his government’s record and a continuing commitment to a balanced budget without tax increases. In the past, he has responded to public pressure: in 1995, faced with swelling support for a strike by hospital laundry workers, he responded by cancelling some planned health-care cuts. But he now shows no signs of altering his course of using surplus money for debt reduction, and is not offering voters any new tax relief. Late last week, as the campaign got off to a low-key start, he promised nothing more than to fix some of the province’s highways. Albertans, Klein says, are not looking for anything fancy—“Just good common sense, good housekeeping and down-to-earth government.” If the polls are any indication, he just might be right.
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