EDMONTON - Alberta's two front-running politicians signalled that the last week of the election will be nasty, with each accusing the other Friday of pulling the strings on secret plots.
Wildrose party Leader Danielle Smith accused Progressive Conservative Premier Alison Redford of angling to boost her $200,000 salary, which is already the highest for a provincial leader in Canada.
Redford accused Smith of plotting to funnel tax dollars and patients to a Wildrose party buddy in British Columbia who is helping build a private health clinic.
The accusations flew as Albertans prepare to vote on April 23, with recent polls suggesting the right-wing Wildrose may end the 40-year PC dynasty.
The Wildrose has been gaining ground by pummelling the right-centre Tories over a series of recent pay scandals, including thousands of dollars going to politicians to sit on a legislature committee that doesn't meet, and on six-figure cash payouts to retiring politicians.
Redford has already apologized for her party's role in the so-called no-meet committee debacle and, like Smith, has ordered her politicians to pay the money back.
But Smith reissued a challenge made in Thursday's televised leaders debate for Redford to claw back the 30 per cent hike she and other cabinet ministers accepted after the 2008 landslide election win under former premier Ed Stelmach.
"Alison Redford should show leadership and commit today to roll back the exorbitant cabinet pay increases," said Smith.
Redford has refused to commit to that, but will instead wait for the review on members' pay that she has asked retired Supreme Court justice Jack Major to conduct.
Smith accused Redford of using the spending report as a way to covertly scheme herself a pay raise.
Major "is actually hinting he might recommend another raise," said Smith.
"So not only did the PC leader refuse to roll back these raises, she hasn't even ruled out an additional raise if that is recommended in the report."
Within hours of Smith's attack, Redford went on the offensive herself, calling a news conference to announce her concerns about a proposed private health clinic near Kelowna, B.C., involving Wildrose supporter Lyle Oberg.
The clinic, to be run by the Westbank First Nation, would provide medical and holistic care to private patients from around the world.
The talks surrounding the new facility have included Oberg, a medical doctor and former Progressive Conservative cabinet minister who has since moved to the Wildrose.
Oberg is not running in the election.
The Wildrose responded to the accusation by saying Redford is being hypocritical about the dangers of investing in private health facilities.
The party issued a news release saying the Tories' Calgary-West candidate, former Alberta Health Services chairman Ken Hughes, headed a group of private investors to build a private hospital in Los Cabos, Mexico, in 1996 for Canadian tourists.
Hughes has previously said he was a consultant for the group but noted the project never went ahead.
"Premier Redford should either condemn her own hand-picked candidate for his own past activity or admit the Wildrose plan to increase delivery options for Albertans is the best way to end excessive wait times," said the release.
Smith has promised that if Albertans can't get timely care in Alberta, they could go to private clinics inside and outside the province with the costs covered at the public-system rate.
Redford urged Albertans to connect the dots: Smith plans to ship patients to private clinics, and now one of her supporters is helping build one in B.C.
"This is very troubling to me. It speaks to what the agenda is for the Wildrose," said Redford.
"I want to say very clearly that a Progressive Conservative government is only committed to publicly funded health care."
The temperature is expected to rise as the month-long campaign enters the stretch run.
But the two foes may have found common ground on Asia trade envoy Gary Mar.
Mar, who lost the party leadership race last year to Redford, was put on unpaid leave by the premier last month over a fundraiser held to clear up his campaign debts. She is now awaiting a report from one of her officials on whether he used his position to sell tickets to the dinner.
Smith said Friday if her party wins government, Mar is out, adding that his appointment to the Asia job by Redford smacked of patronage.
"I can tell you this: Gary Mar would not be our representative in Hong Kong," said Smith.
"We need to do a full review of our international offices because from what I'm hearing they're not effective, and they're positions of patronage as opposed to genuine positions opening market access for us."
Redford reiterated Friday that she will wait for the government investigation before deciding Mar's fate
But in the heat of Thursday's televised leaders debate, she went a bit further.
"I wanted to open Asia. I think, and thought, that Gary Mar was a qualified person who could do that," she said
"I was very disappointed to see his decision with respect to ethics and I took immediate action when I heard about that."