Jim Prentice leads PC sweep of Alberta by-elections

Jim Prentice won a seat in Alberta’s legislature on Monday evening as the premier led a Progressive Conservative sweep of four hard-fought by-elections that had been seen as a referendum on his two-month-old government.

Despite the scandal-ridden final months of former Premier Alison Redford, few in the opposition had expected an upset on Monday. Mr. Prentice ran along with his picks for the education and health portfolios in traditional Tory strongholds.

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Giving the premier a wide lead over his challengers, Mr. Prentice’s new riding of Calgary-Foothills has dutifully sent a Progressive-Conservative to the legislature in every election since the riding’s creation in 1971.

Before the vote Mr. Prentice rejected that the by-elections would be a “referendum” on his government, which has yet to sit in the legislature.

The new premier moved quickly after winning a Progressive Conservative leadership race in September. Following Ms. Redford’s resignation and a six-month stewardship under Dave Hancock, Mr. Prentice inherited an institution that has dominated Alberta politics for over four decades but has seemed adrift in recent years.

Before Monday’s by-elections the opposition capitalized on the government’s seeming inability to deal with a fast-growing province.

Opposition MLAs targeted the growing backlog of planned but unbuilt schools in the province’s largest cities, pointing to the many parents busing children across town. Hospital wait times have also not decreased despite government promises to do so, while a growing debt has rattled a population that’s grown used to balanced spending.

Alberta’s chief electoral officer predicted a “strong turnout” after the numbers from advanced polls. However, despite an opposition that ran attack ads against the premier and a party that some had begun to doubt, many Albertans greeted the four contests with a shrug. While pushing a stroller with his child bundled against the late October cold, Bret Willington said that he only saw voting on Monday as “his duty” and not a vote on the new premier.

While Mr. Prentice has won his first test as leader, many in the opposition will be happy after strong showings. In Calgary-West, the long-time riding of former Premier Peter Lougheed, Tory candidate Mike Ellis was only a few hundred votes ahead of the opposition Wildrose Party.

Since taking office, Mr. Prentice has sought to distance himself from Ms. Redford, who was forced to resign in March after revelations of lavish trips and office expenses. The premier looked outside of his party to fill the top positions on cabinet, putting former Edmonton Mayor Stephen Mandel in charge of the health portfolio.

Mr. Mandel ran in the riding of Edmonton-Whitemud, near the south-western edge of the sprawl around Alberta’s capital.

The temperature was diving below freezing after dusk on Monday as the young families and seniors in the area headed to polling stations after work. Some were coming home to cars still covered in snow.

“I think there’s a need for change,” said Gilda Stalker, an Edmonton health care worker. “I’m really worried about the health care system in the province, I think something needs to be done.”

To face Mr. Mandel, the opposition NDP sent an oncologist as a candidate to debate the then-unelected health minister while the Liberals nominated a nursing professor. Despite a campaign that seemed to focus on the future of the province’s ailing health care system, few expected Mr. Mandel to lose.

“I think that this was a foregone conclusion, but it’s still important to vote,” said Bret Killips, who rushed to vote after work.

While the former mayor ran a low-key campaign, earlier in the day, teams of supporters clad in Liberal red and Wildrose green stood at opposing street corners and competed with each other as they waved signs at passing motorists.

Mr. Prentice appointed Gordon Dirks, the former head of the Calgary School Board, as the province’s education minister. On the Friday before the vote, Mr. Dirks was revealed to have ordered modular classrooms for his riding of Calgary-Elbow, despite other areas being first on a waiting list. On Monday evening, he seemed poised to take Ms. Redford’s old riding.

With Mr. Prentice holding onto a strong majority in the legislature, no general election is expected before early 2016.

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