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Alberta election campaign kicks off with voting day set for May 29

CALGARY — The Alberta election campaign officially took flight Monday, with Danielle Smith’s United Conservatives attacking Rachel Notley’s New Democrats over the economy and Notley countering that Smith can’t be trusted to protect public health care.
United Conservative Party leader Danielle Smith makes an election campaign announcement in Calgary, Monday, May 1, 2023.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

CALGARY — The Alberta election campaign officially took flight Monday, with Danielle Smith’s United Conservatives attacking Rachel Notley’s New Democrats over the economy and Notley countering that Smith can’t be trusted to protect public health care.

The writs were issued Monday to launch the 28-day-campaign, which culminates in voting day May 29.

Smith promised her UCP would create a new tax bracket delivering about $760 more for everyone making over $60,000 a year at an estimated cost of about $1 billion to the treasury.

She said Notley’s NDP raised taxes and fees 97 times during its time in government from 2015 to 2019 while presiding over higher debt and net population loss.

“(The NDP) devastated the Alberta economy. They created policies that drove investment out, drove jobs out, and we had to reverse all of that,” said Smith, as her Calgary candidates stood behind her in a southeast Calgary residential neighbourhood.

“The choice in this election couldn't be clearer. It's a choice between a UCP government that will cut your taxes and make life more affordable or an NDP government that will make you pay more across the board.”

Notley, her candidates also behind her, told cheering, sign-waving supporters at a non-profit tech startup near Calgary’s downtown that by her count, the UCP raised taxes and fees 145 times over the last four years. She pledged the NDP would not raise income taxes.

Notley said an NDP government would commit to hiring more health-care workers, fixing primary care through co-ordinated teams of health professionals and not rolling back medically insured services.

She said Smith cannot be trusted to do the same, given the UCP leader has said previously that Albertans need to pay for some or all of such services — including seeing a family doctor — to keep the system sustainable over the long term.

“(Smith) has written policy papers calling for new fees for surgeries, copays for hospital stays and using your debit card instead of your health-care card,” said Notley.

“I say this to Danielle Smith: You don't get to spend years and years trying to tear down the public health care that people rely on and then expect them to forget overnight. Your record matters.”

Smith reiterated her government’s pledge to not roll back on any medicare procedures or prescriptions, adding: “No one should be surprised that the NDP keep lying about our health-care record.”

Calgary is expected to be the key battleground in the campaign, given polls suggest the NDP will retain its dominance in Edmonton while the UCP will keep control in the rural areas and smaller centres.

It’s a tightrope path to victory for Notley. The NDP needs to win most of the 26 seats in traditionally conservative Calgary to overcome expected UCP wins elsewhere. 

Notley led the NDP to victory over the former Progressive Conservatives in 2015, only to have the PCs join forces with their right-centre rival the Wildrose Party to win government under Jason Kenney as the UCP in 2019. 

Smith is warning 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 spiralling 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 their backdoor measures — including hiking user fees, clawing back ticket revenue from police and deindexing personal income tax rates — led to higher costs for families across the board, notably sky-high auto insurance rates. 

Smith’s UCP also carries the baggage of multiple controversies under Smith and predecessor 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. 

During COVID-19, Kenney enraged 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 sympathetic to the anti-vax movement. Smith fired the board of Alberta Health Services and the chief medical officer of health, blaming them for overwhelmed hospitals during the pandemic. Smith has called the COVID unvaccinated the most discriminated group she has seen in her lifetime. 

She has been under fire for taking an active role in court cases over COVID health violations, urging justice officials to consider whether they are worth pursuing. The provincial ethics commissioner is 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. 

It’s expected to be a two-party race with no other parties currently holding seats in the 87-seat legislature. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 1, 2023.

— With files from Dean Bennett in Edmonton

Bill Graveland and Colette Derworiz, The Canadian Press

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