FILE PHOTO: Alberta Premier Rachel Notley speaks to the press following the First Ministers' Meeting in Montreal
By Nia Williams
CALGARY, Alberta (Reuters) - The western Canadian province of Alberta will hold an election on April 16, kick-starting a contest that many polls suggest will result in a change of government in the country's oil-producing heartland as it struggles with a sluggish economy.
Premier Rachel Notley's left-leaning New Democratic Party won a shock victory in traditionally conservative Alberta in 2015, ending 44 years of conservative rule, but inherited a provincial economy rocked by the collapse of global oil prices.
Notley was initially an ally of Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and backed his attempts to please the oil industry and environmentalists by championing export pipelines while also introducing carbon pricing.
The relationship soured last year over efforts to expand the Trans Mountain pipeline, prompting Notley to pull her support for Trudeau's carbon plan. Ottawa bought the pipeline, whose expansion remains delayed.
The opposition has criticized Notley for her alliance with Trudeau, who is viewed by some Albertans as out of touch with the oil industry's woes.
Alberta's government has grappled with weak oil prices, persistent budget deficits and a dearth of new export pipelines that left the landlocked province's crude building up in storage, resulting in the discount on Canadian heavy crude blowing out to record levels last year.
As a last resort, Alberta took the controversial step of curtailing oil production to help prop up prices and investing in railcars to move more crude to market, a move that earned approval from some cash-strapped producers in the province's dominant oil industry, and outrage from critics.
Announcing the date of the election in the oil industry's corporate hub Calgary on Tuesday, Notley emphasized her government's commitment to health and education and its efforts to revitalize Alberta's economy.
"Since the oil price collapsed I know these last few years have been scary for a lot of families and I have worked day and night with my team to fight this recession and bring our economy back," she told supporters.
Opinion polls suggest Notley could be the first one-term premier in Alberta's history, and cede power to opposition leader Jason Kenney of the United Conservative Party, a former top federal cabinet minister.
The UCP have been consistently ahead in the polls since last year. An Ipsos/Global News poll on Tuesday said 53 percent of Albertans would vote for the UCP if an election were held today, versus 35 percent for the NDP.
Notley criticized Kenney for recent allegations that he was involved in an ethically dubious campaign to discredit a rival in the UCP leadership contest in 2017.
Kenney has denied any wrongdoing, but some political analysts say the scandal will dog his party's election bid.
"If you add up the number of actual (UCP) party members to come out and publicly speak against Jason Kenney, this is significant," said Lori Williams, a political science professor at Calgary's Mount Royal University. "But is it going to be enough to shift undecided voters? That remains to be seen."
In light of the allegations, Notley and the NDP are likely to make issues of integrity, equality and trust a central part of their campaign, Williams said.
Kenney brushed off the scandal, saying his party would be focused on jobs, the economy and getting pipelines built.
"Are you better off than you were four years ago? That's the question Albertans will be asking when they choose their new government," he told reporters in Edmonton. "The NDP has to resort to the politics of personal destruction because they cannot defend the worst economic record in modern Alberta history."
(Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, G Crosse and James Dalgleish)