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Real battle of Alberta begins

<p>Amid a growing divide between urban and rural voters, Ed Stelmach is sending Albertans to the polls on the promise of eliminating health care premiums in his first test as a rookie premier.</p>

Stelmach calls provincial election for March 3



marc bence/for metro edmonton



« Now it’s time for Albertans to decide who they trust to manage Alberta’s growth, and make the most of this unique moment in our history.»





Amid a growing divide between urban and rural voters, Ed Stelmach is sending Albertans to the polls on the promise of eliminating health care premiums in his first test as a rookie premier.



"It was the worst kept secret in Alberta," he chuckled yesterday about calling an election.



"We live in a volatile time. A time of change, a time that demands new ideas, new policies and new energy. In today’s Alberta, we must embrace change to meet the challenges that we face.



"Now it’s time for Albertans to decide who they trust to manage Alberta’s growth, and make the most of this unique moment in our history."



The general election, called for Mar. 3, will see Stelmach take his party’s 60-seat majority in the 83-seat legislature to the electorate in one of the most significant Alberta elections in years.



Polls have consistently shown a growing number of undecided voters who want a change in government, and that drift in public sentiment led to a Liberal win in the Tory riding of Calgary Elbow last summer – a seat formerly held by Ralph Klein.



Stelmach dropped the writ immediately after his government’s throne speech yesterday -- using the address as springboard into the general election.



But he quickly drew criticism over the optics of launching his partisan election campaign with the assistance of government staff in the legislature’s media room while his chosen election day actually coincides with the anniversary of the March 3, 2005, Mayerthorpe massacre in which four Mounties died.



The cornerstone of the Tory plan is to phase out healthcare premiums within four years, which currently costs an individual $44 per month and a family $88.



"Wow, that one’s pretty popular," quipped Lt.-Gov. Norman Kwong as he delivered the announcement during the throne speech to thunderous applause.



Both the Liberals and the New Democrats have called for the elimination of the premiums for years and are hoping to capitalize on voter fatigue from 36 years of Tory rule.



"I think it was kind of fun that the biggest applause in the throne speech was for a Liberal idea," said Liberal Leader Kevin Taft. "My only disappointment is that we’re going to take four years to do it, and I don’t know if we can actually count on them following through."



New Democrat Leader Brian Mason said there is plenty of room for his party to make big gains in the election, citing polls that show huge movements of undecided voters.



"That says to me that people are going to reconsider their options, they’re going to listen to the parties and this campaign will make a difference," he said.




 
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