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Provincial politics steal spotlight, with national implications

Rarely have so many provinces been in so much ferment. And since premiers make decisions that influence the lives of their citizens – for good or ill – far more than any prime minister is able to, the disruptive changes on the horizon for some of Canada's largest provinces matter to us all.

Let's survey the scene, travelling west to east.

British Columbia: Based on previous polling data, election analyst Eric Grenier of threehundredeight.com is predicting a massive win for NDP Leader Adrian Dix in the British Columbia election slated for May 4. The NDP leads Premier Christy Clark's Liberals by an estimated 19 percentage points.

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"Overcoming a gap of 19 points over the next six months is a very tall order for Ms. Clark," Mr. Grenier wrote earlier this week. "A party with a 19-point edge in the polls six months out from the next election could expect to win the popular vote in about 19 out of 20 contests."

An Ipsos Reid poll released Tuesday evening narrows the gap slightly, to 13 points. But that poll continues to show the NDP claiming the support of just under half of all voters, while the Liberals are supported by little more than three-in-ten.

What it means for the rest of us. Mr. Dix is emphatic that under no circumstances would his government support the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline from the Alberta oil sands to the Pacific Coast. If you believe, as this writer does, that it is politically impossible for the federal government to force a major infrastructure development on an unwilling province, then Northern Gateway is effectively dead in the water. Alberta oil is going to have to reach China some other way.

Alberta: Because of April's majority-government victory, Conservative Premier Alison Redford will probably survive her current travails. But they are some travails. Albertans recently learned that, as justice minister, Ms. Redford steered a lucrative contract to a law firm in which her ex-husband – with whom she remains on good terms – is a partner. There is the question of controversial expenses claimed by her sister Lynn when she worked at the Calgary Health region. A public inquiry into alleged queue-jumping in the delivery of health care got underway this week. And there's the small matter of the donor who steered $430,000 through family and friends to the Conservatives' election campaign.

What it means for the rest of us: Ms. Redford's efforts to craft a country-wide consensus around a national energy strategy has become an afterthought, as she struggles at home to revive her political credibility.

Ontario: The minority Liberal government's efforts to freeze public sector wages in order to fight its dangerously-high deficit have enraged teachers, especially. That and some expensive and politically-motivated decisions to switch the locations of two new power plants no doubt contributed to Premier Dalton McGuinty's decision to step down, though he stoutly denies it. A leadership race is underway, but Conservative Leader Tim Hudak and NDP Leader Andrea Horwath appear determined to bring down the government whenever the new premier brings back the legislature.

What it means for the rest of us: Mr. Hudak is proposing radical reforms – limiting pension benefits for public servants, privatizing the province's liquor stores and other assets, letting unionized workers opt out of their union – that could lead to huge changes in how Ontario is governed, and huge strife. Ms. Horwath is promising a gentler approach, which could lead to many more years of deficits, tax hikes, or both. The Liberals would probably try to steer down the middle, but they are currently in third place in the polls.

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Quebec: Parti Québécois Premier Pauline Marois leads a shaky minority government that might not survive 2013. But the leaderless Liberals are in worse trouble, as the Charbonneau commission into corruption in the construction industry has already tainted the party's reputation, with more revelations certain to come in the new year.

What it means for the rest of us: No referendum on separation is likely in the foreseeable future, which is good news. Even better, we get to watch the fascinating political theatre surrounding mob bosses, politicians and construction contracts.

Add it all up, and 2013 could see major changes in who governs some of Canada's biggest provinces, and how they govern. And that should matter to all of us.

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About the Author
Writer-at-large

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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