‘Nervous’ Tories said to be pushing for May election

EDMONTON - A group of "nervous nellies" within the Tory caucus have told colleagues they want the upcoming spring election pushed back into May to give the party more time to conduct damage control, sources close to Premier Alison Redford's campaign say.

But even as opposition parties pushed for new answers Wednesday on an ethics investigation into a recent Gary Mar fundraiser — one of several controversies that have dogged the Progressive Conservatives this spring — the premier was said to be resolute on sticking with an April 23 voting day.

Redford all but confirmed that date Wednesday following a funding announcement at Edmonton's Telus World of Science. She indicated her government will keep its promise of calling the election as soon as possible after passing the budget, which is expected to happen sometime next week.

If that schedule holds, it's believed the writ will be dropped the following Monday (March 26), kicking off a 28-day campaign that will end on April 23.

"I think you can draw your own conclusions from my statements," Redford said.

The premier said there has been no debate in caucus on election timing, and she has received no pressure from the party to push the date back. "I think people are pretty anxious to get to the polls, as am I."

However, government sources said the election date has been a topic of discussion among some members of caucus. A handful of "nervous nellies" are worried the PCs do not have enough time to fully recover from some recent controversies, one source said.

Opposition MLAs have been attacking the government on a variety of issues, including the terms of an upcoming health-care inquiry, a "bullying" letter sent by Tory MLA Hector Goudreau to a school board, and revelations that several MLAs have been paid for serving on a committee that hasn't met in more than three years.

Members of the government dodged questions about a "caucus divide" over the election call.

"In caucus there's always robust discussions," said Service Alberta Minister Manmeet Bhullar. He would not say whether the election date was up for debate among government members Wednesday.

"It's one of those instances where it's kind of hurry up and wait. I think everybody's been preparing for awhile, we know that other parties have been playing negative parties for years now," Bhullar said. "Whether it happens two weeks from now, three weeks from now, or four weeks from now, I think we're ready to go."

Government MLA Bridget Pastoor — a Liberal until a few months ago — joked Wednesday she is betting on an April 23 election date.

"I think pretty much everything is ready to go," Pastoor said. "Let's just do it and see what shakes down."

Liberal Leader Raj Sherman said Wednesday any waffling on election dates highlights the need for a firm, fixed voting day, so all political parties hit the ground running at the same time.

"I wish the premier was decisive and actually fixed an election date. Only her campaign manager will know, and she will know. But we're operating under the assumption that they're going to call it next week," Sherman said.

He said he expects to have confirmed candidates in 66 of 87 Alberta constituencies by next week; the official opposition party lags behind the Conservatives, Wildrose and NDP in lining up candidates for a "full slate."

Recent polls appear to show Danielle Smith's Wildrose Party may be closing in on Redford's Tories, prompting critics to suggest this week the new premier's "honeymoon is over" since her rise to lead the Progressive Conservatives last fall.

Earlier this week, Redford faced criticism from her own party members over suspending Mar — the government's recently appointed Asian envoy — while an ethics investigation takes place into a recent fundraiser held by his supporters in Edmonton. One Tory organizer charged the suspension was a "stupid move," suggesting there is nothing inappropriate about a $400-a-plate event giving people insight into business opportunities in Asia.

Redford took issue with that view, defending her handling of the Mar situation.

"He's entitled to his opinion, I don't happen to agree with his opinion, and that's the end of the matter from my perspective," she said. "I think Albertans expected us to act quickly, and I did act quickly. I think it was an appropriate step and I still believe that."

The premier said she believes Alberta ethics commissioner Neil Wilkinson has the jurisdiction to look into the matter, even though Wilkinson decided it was outside his purview.

The investigation now goes to the deputy minister of executive council — essentially Redford's deputy — who is expected to appoint an independent investigator and legal counsel to look into the issue. Redford said she does not know how long the investigation will take or whether it will be complete prior to the election.

Pushed to answer questions on the matter Wednesday in the legislature, Human Services Minister Dave Hancock said the investigation will be "open and transparent."

"(The premier) did not say a hanging would take place, she said an investigation would take place, done by the right people," Hancock said. "One does not rush to judgment when people's reputations are at stake ... No court passes sentence before examining the facts."

Education Minister Thomas Lukaszuk said he was also upset Mar's reputation was being "smeared" by opposition parties before all the facts are in.

Edmonton Journal, Thurs Mar 15 2012
Byline: Kevin Gerein and Trish Audette

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