CANADA

Dustup in Alberta

As Ralph Klein tries to coast to victory, the campaign heats up

MARY NEMETH March 10 1997
CANADA

Dustup in Alberta

As Ralph Klein tries to coast to victory, the campaign heats up

MARY NEMETH March 10 1997

Dustup in Alberta

CANADA

As Ralph Klein tries to coast to victory, the campaign heats up

MARY NEMETH

Halfway through what began as a lacklustre campaign, sparks finally began to fly on the Alberta election trail. First, federal Reform party Leader Preston Manning challenged Premier Ralph Klein to clarify his position on distinct society status for Quebec—a distinctly unpopular notion in Alberta. Then, only hours after Manning’s Feb. 25 luncheon speech in Calgary, the attention shifted to an even more contentious issue: health care. Frustrated with staff reductions and wage rollbacks and what they say is the expanded use of unskilled workers in the health system, Alberta’s 12,000 registered nurses— who have been without a contract for almost a year—announced that they will hold a strike vote this week unless an agreement is reached in their demands for staffing and wage concessions. The next day, Klein was both booed and cheered when he faced a partisan crowd at a candidates’ debate in his own riding of Calgary Elbow—with much of the focus again on health-care cuts. And a day after that, a second union, representing auxiliary nursing personnel, announced that it, too, plans to hold a strike vote this week. Health care, says United Nurses of Alberta (UNA) president Heather Smith, “is a real Achilles heel for the government.”

But can the Tories be seriously wounded? Probably not—in spite of last week’s skirmishes, many political observers say Klein is heading for an even stronger majority when Albertans vote on March 11. Going into the campaign, the Conservatives held 54 seats, compared with 29 for the Liberals and none for the New Democrats. Polls now suggest that the election may come down to a contest to determine the size and composition of a reduced opposition. The fiercest battleground is in the once anti-Conservative stronghold of Edmonton—which failed to elect a single Tory in the 1993 election. But according to the latest Angus Reid poll, released last week, even in the provincial capital the Tories now enjoy 50 per cent support among decided voters—while provincewide they have 61 per cent, compared with the Liberals’ 25 and the NDP with just nine. “I would certainly be astounded,” says Roger Gibbins, a University of Calgary political scientist, “if it was anything but a fight to see who survives on the opposition side.”

Manning’s distinct society challenge is certainly expected to have little impact on the provincial campaign. There has been speculation that Klein intends to endorse the concept during future constitutional negotiations. Alberta’s once-mighty Social Credit party—now with only three-per-cent popular support—has sought to make hay of the issue, coming out firmly against any special status for Que bec. But last week, Klein flatly denied that distinct society is on his agenda—and he has also promised to hold a referendum before Alberta approves any future constitutional change. In fact, many analysts said that Manning’s manoeuvre was aimed more at Jean Charest, who has endorsed the concept of distinct society. By forcing Klein to deny that he has plans to back special status for Que-

bee, Manning may have dampened the prospects for any future collaboration between the premier and the federal Tory leader. “The point is to get Ralph to say things now that will make it more difficult for him to cozy up to Charest during the federal election,” says University of Lethbridge political scientist Peter McCormick. “Manning took away a bit of Ralph’s manoeuvring space.”

On the health-care front, the Tories may be a little more vulnerable—as Klein personally discovered last week. The premier has been keeping a relatively low profile during the campaign, running on the government’s record in eliminating the provincial deficit and posting a $2.2-billion surplus in 1996-1997. But he faces a challenge in his home riding from retired radiologist Harold Swanson, who ran unsuccessfully against Klein for the Tory nomination last fall before picking up the Liberal banner. Swanson was able to use the candidates’ debate to accuse the government of “systematically destroying our health care.” A day after the meeting in Calgary Elbow, Klein defended his budget-cutting record in a televised leadership debate. “I didn’t say it would be easy, but I did say it would be worth it,” said Klein. “And it is.” Not according to Liberal Leader Grant Mitchell, who took aim at the Tory cuts and argued that Alberta could be compassionate as well as competitive and entrepreneurial. And not according to NDP Leader Pam Barrett, who lambasted both the Tories for slashing too much—and the Liberals for inadequately opposing the government.

How the opposition vote is ultimately split could be the defining

moment of the election. In the past, Albertans have tended to elect large majority governments; when the Liberals won 32 of 83 seats in the 1993 vote—three members have since crossed the floor to the Tories—they actually formed, proportionally, the largest opposition Alberta has seen since 1955. According to Gibbins, “part of the reason for that is the opposition vote coalesced behind a single party.” The question now is whether that will happen again. With 19 ridings, Edmonton is the key to the opposition parties’ fortunes—or a Tory landslide. In the capital, the Liberals currently hold 16 of their seats, while before the 1993 election the NDP held 11. This year, most of the city’s ridings seem to be up for grabs, including the constituency of Edmonton/Riverview, created since the last election.

On a recent evening, New Democrat Donna Fong, 40, went door-to-door in Windsor Park. It is a relatively affluent neighborhood, but close to the University of Alberta and its affiliated hospital—and home to some of the professors and healthcare professionals disaffected with government budget cuts. Fong’s campaigning had mixed results. Although the candidate, a research manager at the university’s population research lab, gathered several pledges of support, she also encountered Tory and Liberal supporters. But there were also constituents who clearly intended to vote against Klein but had not yet decided—or would not say—which opposition party they would vote for. “The teachers are angry, the doctors are angry—I can’t believe Klein has the support he has,” said one, an anesthesiologist who expressed concerns about government cuts. “He may win, but I hope his majority is decimated.” That indecision could only be welcome news to Liberal candidate Linda Sloan, 36. President of the Staff Nurses Associations of Alberta, a union separate from the UNA, Sloan argues that the Grits have in fact been effective in opposition, that they have raised health-care concerns, fought privatization in health care, and forced the government to restore full kindergarten funding. She chose to run for the party, she says, in part because it balances fiscal and social responsibilities. But Sloan also notes that, compared to the NDP with no incumbents, the Liberals had an election machine “that was oiled and ready and in place to run a campaign to form the next government—or a strong opposition.”

The Tory candidate in Riverview, meanwhile, concedes that some people in the riding do have concerns about health care. And, Gwen Harris acknowledges, “we can’t have that lack of confidence—we value our health system so highly.” But the 51-year-old mediator maintains that most of those who have been ill have been very satisfied with their treatment. And, she argues, there is a lot of support for the government. “For the most part,” says Harris, “people will say, T like what was done—we had to get our spending in line with our earnings, although I might have some questions about how it was done.’ ”

In spite of the Tories’ popularity, much is still subject to change before election day. Gibbins, for one, suggests that the high level of support for Klein’s government may actually free some Tory supporters—confident of victory—to cast their ballots for a particularly strong opposition candidate in their riding. Other analysts note that media coverage generated by the opposition is bound to narrow the gap. Given the spread in the polls, though, it appears unlikely to change the direction of the campaign—and thwart Klein’s quest to form another government.

MARY NEMETH in Edmonton