Alberta election officially underway with Calgary the first stop for NDP and UCP leaders

Alberta's election contest kicked off on Monday, with the UCP promising tax relief and the NDP stressing the need for better health care.

Race begins with the UCP promising tax relief and the NDP stressing the need for better health care

Two women in separate frames dressed in professional attire.
NDP Leader Rachel Notley, left, and UCP Leader Danielle Smith kicked off their campaigns in Calgary on Monday. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Alberta's provincial election is now officially underway, marking the beginning of what's expected to be one of the most competitive political contests in the province's history.

On Monday morning, premier and United Conservative Party Leader Danielle Smith asked the legislature to be dissolved and writs of election to be issued. 

Recent polls done by Abacus Data and Leger show a statistical tie in support between the United Conservatives and Rachel Notley's New Democrats ahead of voting day on May 29.

Public opinion research indicates only a couple of ridings could separate the party that forms government from the one in opposition. 

Both Smith and Notley began their campaigns in Calgary, which is expected to be a key battleground throughout the race.

Smith kicked things off from a front lawn in the southeast Calgary neighbourhood of Auburn Bay, announcing a new eight-per-cent tax bracket for people who make less than $60,000 per year.

A woman stands at a podium with people behind her.
Premier Danielle Smith, leader of the United Conservative Party of Alberta, stands in front of several UCP candidates at the party's campaign launch announcement on May 1, 2023. (Mike Symington/CBC)

Smith said this new tax bracket would save $760 per year for Albertans earning more than $60,000 per year. 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 the announcement.

"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."

Much of Smith's announcement focused on lowering taxes, including continuing to index all tax brackets to keep up with inflation, a promise to not hike personal or business taxes and extending the fuel tax holiday to Dec. 13, 2023.

A woman holds a microphone standing in front of a crowd.
Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley, surrounded by Calgary candidates, formally launches the party's campaign at an event at Platform Calgary on May 1, 2023. (CBC)

Notley and the NDP launched their campaign at Platform Calgary, a non-profit firm that helps tech start-ups. Although she didn't make any new announcements, Notley focused much of her speech on the need for improved health care in the province.

"We will fix the healthcare crisis of today by investing in frontline workers and frontline services, and that also means undertaking the largest health-care recruitment and retention campaign ever seen because we support public health care," she said.

Notley reiterated her party's campaign promise to cover the cost of contraception, while also touching on the need to improve emergency room wait times, staffing at hospitals and increasing the number of family doctors.

The NDP will be rolling out their own plan very soon, she said. 

Both the UCP and NDP are campaigning on economic stability, promising to save more of Alberta's petro-bounty while also fully funding education and improving the health system.

New tax bracket

 Lindsay Tedds, an associate professor in the department of economics at the University of Calgary, said she sees the addition of a new tax bracket as beneficial to low- to middle-income earners, as they're "much more sensitive" to taxes. 

She also thinks the UCP's proposed policy could boost economic participation

But she said pulling $1-billion from income tax revenue will increase the province's reliance on resource royalties. And as for whether the province could handle this change permanently, Tedds says no.

"Given its reliance on very, very volatile royalties … when they go away, we're running deficits again, and it doesn't take much for those to go away," she said.

Fellow University of Calgary economist Trevor Tombe agreed resource revenues would need to cooperate, but said he does think the province has the fiscal capacity to handle the added bracket.

"Anything that comes with public dollars or foregoing government revenue, you have to make up for that elsewhere. So either you're lowering spending elsewhere or you're increasing taxes elsewhere," he said.

Third parties hope to break through

Candidates from about 10 parties are running in the province's 87 ridings as they seek the 44 seats needed to form a majority government.

Polls have suggested the election is a contest between the UCP and the NDP, but some of the province's smaller parties are hoping to make their mark.

A portrait of a man.
Jordan Wilkie, leader of the Alberta Greens, is also a firefighter. (Submitted by Jordan Wilkie)

Jordan Wilkie, leader of the Green Party of Alberta, kicked off his campaign by heading to the provincial legislature, taking part in a Workers' Day rally. 

Wilkie says his goal is to have 40 candidates on the ballot before the nomination period ends on May 11. 

"The advantage of being Green is that everyone knows we care deeply about the environment … but when you look at our platform this year, you'll see that it's attacking the root causes of some of the biggest issues in our society," he said.

"I think that that's refreshing for Albertans because they're so used to a lot of name calling and bickering going on between these two larger parties."

A man smiles.
Former Brooks mayor Barry Morishita is the leader of the Alberta Party. (Alberta Party)

Leaders of several of the smaller parties in the province noted their desire to break into the two-party contest in Alberta, offering a viable third option. 

"The really important part is to get a couple of seats or more into the legislature that aren't blue or orange … that speak to problems differently," said Barry Morishita, leader of the Alberta Party.

"A lot of people are voting against one or the other."

Morishita said they'll be focusing on government spending, with hopes they'll have 30 candidates across the province.

The Alberta Liberals expect to have up to 24. Leader John Roggeveen launched the party's campaign Sunday, and he said a big hurdle is getting out from the shadow of the federal government.

"We're here to defend Alberta's interests. Sometimes we have to take a stand against the federal government. We don't always agree with them. We share similar values, of course, but we're not identical and we're Albertans first," he said.

Roggeveen said he's hopeful his party can gain more ground and broaden the conversation outside of the province's two main parties.

A man stands behind a podium.
Leader of the Alberta Liberals John Roggeveen stands at the podium at Sunday's campaign launch. (CBC)

Campaigning continues

It may be the first official day of the campaign, but the parties have been knocking on doors, handing out election signs and making policy promises for weeks. 

"It has sort of felt like nothing is moving in the polls despite tremendous activity on both sides," said Lisa Young, a political science professor at the University of Calgary. 

"They're both throwing everything they have at this and it doesn't seem to be moving the polls and so then the question becomes what would move public opinion and it's really not clear."

Recent polling indicates health care and economic issues are the top concerns of Albertans. Those hot topics are being reflected in the UCP and NDP campaigns, with both making pitches on those issues. 

"I expect the first week to be where you'll see from the UCP some bigger announcements, sending those messages that you're safe with the UCP," said Evan Menzies, a senior strategist at Crestview Strategy and a former UCP staff member. 

In addition to pushing economic stability, getting conservative voters motivated to cast their ballots will be key to UCP success, he added. So will maintaining a measured tone and steering the campaign toward the middle of the political spectrum, Menzies said.

"Boring can win this campaign for them. If they get involved in contentious debates, if they propose policies that might create too much of a divisive wedge, that's a net negative for them."

CBC News asked to speak to a UCP campaign adviser, but was told no one was available. 

The Alberta legislature, a large domed building, pictured in winter.
A file photo of the Alberta Legislature in Edmonton. Some Alberta politicians have been in campaign mode for weeks in anticipation of a May election. (David Bajer/CBC)

The NDP's strategy will be to continue pushing health care and trustworthiness. 

"We know that public health care and the ability to access family medicine without paying for it is on the ballot. Cost of living and the pressures that families are dealing with every day are on the ballot. And a vision for Alberta's future are all on the ballot," said Cheryl Oates, a senior adviser with the NDP campaign.

"The campaign is really, really, really going to matter. And although we see those numbers still holding relatively tight, there is a ton of momentum on the ground already."

Political watchers expect the NDP to perform well in Edmonton and the surrounding "doughnut" area, which represents 20 seats. The UCP, meanwhile, is anticipating a strong showing outside the major cities, which represents 41 seats.

Calgary and its 26 remaining seats are expected to be the frontline in this political battle of Alberta.

Both the UCP and NDP are running full slates. At dissolution, the UCP had 60 seats in the Legislature, the NDP 23. There were 2 independent members and two vacant seats.

Chief electoral officer Glen Resler said in a release that nearly 20,000 election officers are being recruited to run polls in constituencies across the province.

Advance voting is open from May 23-27. Elections Alberta will report the full official results of the election on June 8. 

With files from the Canadian Press, Lily Dupuis