EDMONTON — Premier Alison Redford is warning schoolchildren to beware of the Opposition Wildrose party because, she says, it is committed to letting Alberta die on the vine.
“We will not take the approach of the Opposition, which is a build-nothing approach,” Redford told dozens of elementary children looking up at her while seated in a semicircle at her feet on Thursday.
“The truth is, either we want a world-class education system or we don’t.”
Behind the children sat parents and other dignitaries in the library of a southside school to hear Redford announce the construction of new schools for the area.
Redford took aim specifically at Wildrose criticism over her plan to accumulate $17 billion in debt over the next four years to pay for new infrastructure for a population growing by 100,000 a year.
Redford told the students and adults they were being misled by the Wildrose.
“When the Opposition talks about debt, they’re referring to the infrastructure and the services that families and communities need today,” she said. “They’re selling Alberta’s future short and they’re doing it to score cheap political points.”
It was the second consecutive day that Redford warned children of the dangers posed by her Tories’ archrival party, Danielle Smith’s Wildrose.
Redford dismissed a suggestion from a reporter that while it can be a fuzzy dividing line between politics and government, Redford had crossed over it with partisan political denunciations at a taxpayer-funded, government event.
“Every single day right now in this province, we see political parties — whether they’re opposition or government — talking about and trying to remind people of the choices they made,” said Redford.
“I make no apologies for reminding people what we offered last year in the provincial election. It’s the reason we were elected as the government.”
On Wednesday, Redford reminded young students and their parents in Calgary of the day in last year’s election campaign when her team promised new schools at the same time the Wildrose promised to return a dividend to families based on oil revenues going above a certain level.
“We made this commitment in contrast to an opposition party that didn’t want to build infrastructure, that would have preferred to hand cash out to families. But we are committed to building Alberta,” she said.
Education Minister Jeff Johnson jumped in on Wednesday as well.
“You elected the right premier,” Johnson told the families.
“I want to extend a heartfelt thank you from all the communities that I have visited over the last two days to our premier for standing firm in the face of opposition and investing in our students,” he finished to applause.
Smith said the comments reflect a desperate leader whose popularity is in free fall, according to recent polls, because she has broken multiple promises.
“I think it’s undignified for the premier to be using these taxpayer-funded events to make those kinds of statements,” said Smith.
If she wants to do that at her party’s annual general meeting, Smith said, then more power to her.
“But when she is in the role as premier representing the province, she really does need to focus on what her government is doing rather than taking attacks on the opposition.”
Smith said her party has always promised infrastructure investment, but said it can be done more responsibly without taking the province back into heavy debt.
The Wildrose promises to spend $48 billion over the next decade on roads, schools, hospitals and communities, but would do so from a defined, public list of priorities and would do it with cash in hand.
“It’s just a different philosophy,” said Smith.
Redford’s partisan attacks underscore the increasing rancour between the Tories and the Wildrose.
Both are right-centre parties, with the Wildrose rising mainly from disaffected Tories disillusioned with what they called the party’s drift from fiscal conservatism toward a top-down management style that ignored grassroots input.
In the 2012 election, the Wildrose grew from four to 17 seats and made inroads in traditional Tory strongholds in southern and central Alberta, and in Calgary.
The Wildrose has been a thorn in the side of the Tories in the last year, pointing out spending scandals — including one involving Redford’s sister — and turning the spotlight on justice system problems that prompted the government to implement sweeping changes in case management.
The bitter fight has dovetailed with creeping politicization of government business on other fronts as well.
This week, news releases from the non-partisan civil service had the “Government” responding to a wildcat strike by jail guards, but it was the “Redford Government” that announced the new schools.
Question period has changed, too.
Queries from government backbenchers to government ministers were traditionally meant to hold the executive arm to account but long ago morphed into soft set-ups to allow a minister to trumpet government successes.
Opposition members deride them as “puffball” questions.
But in the current legislature sitting, some government backbencher questions have become, in effect, “angry puffballs” in which the backbencher first denounces the Wildrose before asking the minister to comment on government success.
“Tell me how building modern health facilities, quality schools, safe highways and other important infrastructure is better than the build-nothing approach?” backbencher Rick Fraser asked Infrastructure Minister Wayne Drysdale last month.
“Our province is growing rapidly,” Drysdale responded. “That’s why Albertans rejected the opposition’s build-nothing approach.”
Smith said it’s all telling.
“I’ve never seen a premier be so obsessed with an opposition as she seems to be with us,” she said.
“I suppose we should be flattered by it, but it does diminish the office and I think it is beneath her.”