Leaders set sights on each other as Alberta election called for April 16

Alberta's NDP leader and her main conservative rival wasted no time pointing fingers at each other on the first day of the campaign for an April 16 election.

Premier Rachel Notley called the vote Tuesday in front of cheering supporters at the National Music Centre in Calgary and made it clear from the get-go that the front-burner issue will be Jason Kenney's integrity.

"Who is going to be premier and who is fit to be premier: That is the choice," she said as she announced the 28-day campaign.

Hours later, the United Conservative leader made his first official campaign appearance at an Edmonton-area energy services company where he accused Notley of pandering to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and driving the province to "economic stagnation."

Notley promised to run on job creation and fighting for social and economic equality, but also alluded to what she called Kenney's opposition to LGBTQ and abortion rights.

"A nasty record of intolerance should have no place in the premier's office," Notley said.

She said revelations that Kenney's leadership campaign team worked with a fellow "kamikaze candidate" to torpedo the chances of his main rival show that he cheated and "then lied about it."

"Now, is that a premier?" she asked.

"(If) you just can't bring yourself to vote, and to give your vote, to Jason Kenney ... well then, this time, in this election, let's team up to keep our province moving forward."

Kenney responded by suggesting a pact between Notley and Trudeau since she became premier in 2015 has resulted in a destructive carbon tax in Alberta, a failure to secure even one pipeline to transport the province's oil and the loss of billions of dollars in potential business investment.

"This campaign is not about politics. It's about people," he said as men wearing hard hats stood in the background. "The people who have been damaged by the ideological, job-killing policies of the NDP government and their alliance with Justin Trudeau."

Kenney said a United Conservative government would immediately kill the provincial carbon tax and would be "obsessed" with the economy and creating 55,000 new jobs.

He also said his government would be more willing to stand up to Trudeau to get a coastal pipeline completed and would push for a constitutional referendum on equalization if that doesn't happen "to assert our fight for fairness to the top of the national agenda."

"We would stop the NDP's approach of apologizing and surrendering and we would start a new approach of fighting for Alberta."

Notley's government wants to continue funding education and health to keep up with population growth, as well as build or retrofit highways, schools, hospitals and health centres.

The NDP wants to see its tax and program incentives survive to help diversify the economy. The party is planning to spend $3.7 billion to lease rail cars to get more oil to market and has introduced a carbon tax.

Notley has criticized Kenney's promises to cut the corporate income tax rate by one-third while holding the line on spending. She said that would benefit the few at the expense of the many.

"Jason Kenney wants two Albertas — one for the wealthy and one for the rest of us. He wants two Albertas divided over people's rights.

"I want to continue to build one Alberta." 

Kenney said that's not the issue at all.

"The key question in this election is which team can get our economy back to work and create jobs?"

Kenney has already said he would cut the carbon tax, reduce corporate taxes, peel back some of the boosts to the minimum wage and cancel employment standards and injury compensation for farmers.

He has promised to cut red tape by one third, which — along with tax reductions — he believes will spur economic growth to balance the budget in four years.

The NDP's program spending has come at a cost of multibillion-dollar deficits. The debt now approaches $60 billion.

And in the key battleground of Calgary, unemployment remains high.

Notley signalled she would continue to fight for more jobs and her plan will also boost the economy to allow the budget to get out of the red by 2023.

The spring election will be the first for the United Conservatives and their leader Kenney, a federal cabinet minister under former prime minister Stephen Harper.

The UCP was Kenney's answer to unite the right, and was born out of a merger of the Alberta Tories and what was the Opposition Wildrose Party.

The UCP is dealing with the fallout from a Calgary candidate's resignation late Monday following allegations that she made comments online about white people losing their homelands and the collapse of Western culture.

Caylan Ford said the comments, published on the website PressProgress, were distortions and not reflective of her views.

"I personally do not believe that Jason Kenney is racist," Notley said Tuesday. "But I do believe the UCP as a party has a problem with racism."

Kenny said he condemned Ford's remarks and suggestions that his party is racist are "ridiculous."

— With files from Lauren Krugel in Calgary

Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press