The writ for the Alberta election has dropped, with voters heading to the polls on May 29 in what could be a squeaker of a result.
United Conservative Leader Danielle Smith and New Democrat Leader Rachel Notley both kicked off their campaigns Monday in Calgary.
Calgary is expected to be a key battleground in the race, given polls suggest Notley’s NDP could retain its dominance in Edmonton while Smith’s UCP could keep control in rural areas and smaller centres.
Both parties have been unofficially campaigning for weeks, with both leaders appearing at rallies over the weekend and the NDP releasing a campaign song.
Smith launched her party’s campaign by promising a UCP government would create an eight per cent new tax bracket for people who make less than $60,000 per year.
Smith said this new tax bracket would save $760 per year for Albertans earning more than $60,000 per year. She said Albertans earning less than $60,000 would see a 20 per cent reduction to their provincial tax bill if her party is re-elected.
“This permanent $1-billion tax cut will provide meaningful timely tax relief to Albertans at a time when they need it,” Smith said at an announcement in suburban Calgary.
“It will result in real and significant savings that can be put toward housing, life’s other necessities, planning for the future or whatever else is a priority for you.”
Chief electoral officer Glen Resler said in a release that nearly 20,000 election officers are being recruited to run polls in the 87 constituencies across the province.
It’s expected to be a two-party race between the UCP and NDP, with no other parties holding seats in the legislature, leaving the Liberals, Alberta Party and Greens among other groups fighting to break out from the margins.
Both the UCP and NDP are campaigning on economic stability, promising rules to save more of Alberta’s petro-bounty while also fully funding education and improving the health system.
It would be a tightrope path to victory for Notley, who is angling to become the first premier to serve broken terms. She led the NDP to victory over the Progressive Conservatives in 2015, only to have the PCs join forces with their right-centre rival Wildrose Party to win government under Jason Kenney with the UCP in 2019.
The NDP need to win most of the 26 seats in traditionally conservative Calgary to overcome expected UCP wins elsewhere.
Smith has warned voters that a second Notley term means a replay of tax hikes and spending increases, despite low oil prices during the NDP’s term, resulting in multi-billion-dollar budget deficits and spiraling taxpayer-supported debt.
That oil price bust during the Notley years has swung to a petro boom under the UCP, allowing Smith to hike spending virtually across the board in the February budget while also recording a $2.4-billion surplus
The NDP says the UCP tax paradise was a mirage given its backdoor measures — including hiking user fees, clawing back ticket revenue from police and de-indexing personal income tax rates — led to higher costs for families, notably in sky-high auto insurance rates.
Smith’s UCP also carries the baggage of multiple scandals and controversies under both Smith and her predecessor Jason Kenney.
Under Kenney, the UCP went to war with the health profession, tearing up the master working agreement with physicians and seeking wage cuts to nurses during the COVID-19 pandemic. The government also fired the elections official investigating the party.
During the pandemic, Kenney invoked the ire of the far right wing of his party over vaccine mandates and health restrictions, leading to a membership uprising that effectively forced Kenney out last fall due to a tepid 51 per cent show of support at a leadership review.
Enter Smith, a former Wildrose Party leader turned radio talk show host and an ardent supporter of the anti-vax movement. She questioned mainstream science and provoked controversy when she said early-stage cancer patients must take responsibility for their illness.
As premier, she fired the board of Alberta Health Services and the chief medical officer of health, blaming them for overwhelmed hospitals during the pandemic. She called those unvaccinated against COVID-19 the most discriminated group she has seen in her lifetime.
Most recently, she has been under fire for taking an active role in court cases over COVID-19 health violations, urging justice officials to consider whether they are worth pursuing. The provincial ethics commissioner is also investigating a phone call in which Smith is overheard offering to assist an accused with his upcoming criminal trial tied to a border blockade against pandemic measures.
—Bill Graveland and Colette Derworiz, The Canadian Press