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Alberta not going wild: Tories defy polls and win majority

EDMONTON - Alberta’s Progressive Conservatives survived the biggest scare of their four decades in power on Monday by handily holding off a right-wing rival in the provincial election.

Premier Alison Redford's party appeared to benefit from Liberal supporters who switched to the Tories. In the final week there were suggestions homophobic and racist comments made by two Wildrose party candidates would translate into an intolerant government restricting the rights of women and minorities.

Redford's team won a 12th consecutive majority government, dating back to 1971. The victory flew in the face of polls that had Redford's party trailing the Wildrose for much of the campaign.

Tory campaign strategist Stephen Carter said the outcome proved the old political adage.

"Polls are for dogs," he said.

Raj Sherman's Liberal party, which had been the official Opposition heading into the campaign, saw its vote collapse into single digits, giving Tories back the votes lost to Danielle Smith's Wildrose.

That happened after supporters took to the airwaves and social media late in the campaign to urge moderates to switch their votes to the PCs to block a Wildrose win.

A website was even created featuring testimonials from young Albertans. One said he would rather have rodents eat his face than vote PC, but was voting Tory anyway to block the Wildrose.

Sherman told supporters that he respects the vote's outcome and congratulated Smith, Redford, and NDP Leader Brian Mason.

"Tonight the people of Alberta have made a decision," Sherman said in his speech to supporters.

"The people are wise."

Redford did not make an open plea for a strategic vote on the hustings, but said she could work with the Liberals or NDP in the legislature.

Mason was thrilled at the outcome for his party, but also graciously congratulated Redford on her victory.

"I never thought that was going to happen, but you can't count the PCs out," he said.

With the win, the Tory dynasty will soon surpass the Nova Scotia Liberals of 1882-1925 (43 years) and the 1943-1985 Ontario PCs (42 years).

The party's previous 11 majorities have been measured in large or larger majorities. The last time they were threatened was by a resurgent Liberal party in 1993. But under new leader Ralph Klein, the Tories took 51 of 83 seats to 32 for the Liberals and the dynasty rolled on.

Redford was re-elected in her Calgary-Elbow seat, while NDP Leader Brian Mason was back in Edmonton-Highlands-Norwood.

Smith won her first seat, in Highwood south of Calgary.

Tory cabinet ministers Doug Horner, Thomas Lukaszuk, Diana McQueen, Jeff Johnson, Dave Hancock and Verlyn Olson were all re-elected, as was Wildrose house leader Rob Anderson.

Redford will need a new energy minister, however. Ted Morton went down to defeat in Chestermere-Rocky View.

Political scientist Harold Jansen said the Tories peaked at the right time.

Jansen said the Wildrose, after making announcement after announcement in the early days of the campaign, found itself without anything to offer in the final stretch, and ended up on the defensive while the Tories gained ground.

He agreed that the Liberal collapse benefited the PCs. In the last days, Jansen said, many of the Tory campaign announcements made the party sound almost like the Liberals.

"If you closed your eyes and changed the voice, it started to sound like the Liberals," said Jansen with the University of Lethbridge.

"I think we've seen a restructuring of the party system where the PCs have claimed the centre."

But Redford, who took over as premier six months ago from Ed Stelmach, has some fences to mend.

She ran on her record of spending increases and no taxes, promising millions of dollars to build more schools and family health-care clinics. She also promised to put up an extra $3 billion over the next two decades to further develop oilsands products and protect the environment while not raising royalties.

The Tories were taken to task for granting themselves the richest salaries for provincial politicians in the country – about $163,000 on average. But it didn’t end there. Over the last decade, the party quietly and broadly changed the eligibility rules allowing more than 20 retiring politicians to walk away this year with six-figure golden handshakes.

To top it off, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation reported last month that members of the government’s largest legislature committee, mostly Tories, had been receiving $1,000 a month but had not met in over three years.

Redford stopped the bleeding early in the campaign, promising to end the six-figure handouts and ordering her members who sat on the no-meet committee to pay it all back.

With a week to go, polls suggested the Wildrose was headed for a majority. But then Smith's party got hung up in the razor wire of social issues and she had to fight off critics who suggested her party had a hidden agenda.

The criticism firmed up around the issue of conscience rights — allowing civil servants to opt out of doing jobs they morally object to, such as marrying gay couples or prescribing birth control.

When there was a suggestion that her party could use a citizens-initiated referendum to end public funding for abortion, Smith disclosed that she was, in fact, pro-choice and pro-gay marriage.

As the campaign entered its final week, Wildrose candidates entered the spotlight. A year-old blog surfaced from Edmonton candidate Allan Hunsperger suggesting gay people would "suffer the rest of eternity in the lake of fire" if they didn't change their lifestyles. He pulled the comments down and Smith stood by him.

Wildrose Calgary candidate Ron Leech was forced to apologize for suggesting in a radio interview that he had an advantage in his constituency because he is white and could speak for everyone. Again, Smith stood by her candidate.

Smith herself was shouted down at a leaders forum last week when she questioned the science of climate change.

Environmentalists feared that a Smith government that still didn't believe in climate change would not push hard to clean up toxic emissions from the oilsands.

The Liberals took to calling the election a choice between Tory "bullies" and Wildrose "bigots."

-Dean Bennett reports for Canadian Press

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