Premier Jim Prentice dropped the writ a year early for an election that will send Albertans to the polls on May 5.
By law, the province was not slated to hold a vote until the spring of 2016, but Prentice told cheering supporters in Edmonton on Tuesday that his plan to remake the economy demands an endorsement from the people.
“Tough choices need to be made and our province needs a realistic plan to the immediate challenges that we face and also for the long term,” said Prentice, surrounded by candidates at a community hall just after he met with Lt.-Gov. Don Ethell to dissolve the legislature.
“I am asking Albertans for a mandate to implement the changes that this province needs so badly.”
The law allows earlier votes if circumstances warrant.
This year’s budget, introduced March 26, is designed to reshape the foundations of government bookkeeping so that day-to-day program spending is no longer hostage to the wild swings in oil prices.
A recent sharp drop in those prices has erased an estimated $7 billion from Alberta’s bottom line this year.
Prentice’s prescription calls for increases in taxes and fees virtually across the board, along with cuts to public services, a $5-billion deficit this year and a $30-billion debt by the end of the decade.
But while Prentice has said everyone must help fix Alberta’s cracked fiscal foundation, he has not raised oil royalties or changed corporate taxes. Doing that, he said, could harm the economic recovery.
The Tories held 70 seats in the 87-seat legislature at dissolution, and political watchers say the election is once again theirs to lose. The PCs have won 12 consecutive majority governments dating back to 1971.
NDP Leader Rachel Notley said Prentice’s budget, coupled with years of financial mismanagement and scandal under the Tories, means Albertans are looking elsewhere.
“I’m running to be premier. I don’t run to be second place,” Notley told reporters.
She said she’s seeing unprecedented support for the NDP across the province.
“We know that Albertans are truly looking for an alternative and my message to them is that the NDP is that alternative. And when you call an election, anything can happen.”
Prentice became premier last fall after former premier Alison Redford resigned amid escalating revelations of profligate spending on herself and her inner circle.
The NDP had four members in the legislature, all from Edmonton.
Wildrose Leader Brian Jean has said he is focused on getting his five-member team off the mat and back into the fight with the goal of retaining official Opposition status.
The Wildrose, focusing on fiscal discipline, saw 11 of its 17 members—including Leader Danielle Smith—cross the floor late last year to Prentice and the Tories. Another member of the Wildrose had been sitting as an Independent.
Smith later lost a PC nomination fight in her Highwood riding.
Jean said future floor crossings will be met with swift pocketbook punishment. He said each Wildrose candidate will be required to sign a contract agreeing to a $100,000 fine should they cross the floor.
“I would suggest that is more than a year’s wage and that would deter anyone from doing that. Certainly I think that’s a good first step.”
The Liberals had five members in the legislature, but only two—party leader David Swann and house leader Laurie Blakeman—are campaigning again. Blakeman is also running under the Alberta Party and Green party banners in an effort to fend off the Tories.
The Alberta Party, which was open to a merger with the Liberals earlier this year, has 32 confirmed candidates and is considering another 10, said spokesman Alex Middleton. Leader Greg Clark is hoping to get a seat in the legislature in the riding of Calgary Elbow.
Swann said his party, which had nominated 30 candidates as of Tuesday, expects to win voters over with ideas.
“We are fielding as many candidates as we possibly can, mostly in the cities,” said Swann.
“We’re ready to show Albertans we are the party to trust, we are the moderate centrist alternative to this government.”
There were two vacancies in the last legislature, caused by the resignation of two cabinet ministers.