Last Alberta UCP leadership debate circles back to controversial sovereignty act
United Conservative leadership hopefuls faced off for the final official party debate Tuesday evening before ballots are mailed out.
The event, held at the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton in front of a full crowd of about 700 attendees, came only days before ballots are to be sent to just under 124,000 eligible UCP members on Friday in the race to replace Premier Jason Kenney.
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Again drawing criticism was former Wildrose leader Danielle Smith’s centrepiece campaign promise of an Alberta sovereignty act she has said would let the province reject federal laws, court rulings and regulatory decisions. Fellow leadership contenders and legal experts have warned that it would create a potential constitutional crisis, undermine the rule of law, and scare off investors.
On Tuesday, former transportation minister Rajan Sawhney suggested Smith should wait to get a mandate from Albertans in next spring’s general election before trying to pass the controversial legislation.
Smith, the perceived front-runner, pointed to the province’s fair deal panel and a referendum last fall that saw 62 per cent support for scrapping the federal equalization program and said UCP members support the bill.
“I believe that we have that mandate for the people of Alberta to get tough with Ottawa,” she said.
“Such a consequential piece of legislation does require a mandate of all Albertans in a general election and equating the equalization referendum to a mandate for the sovereignty act is ludicrous,” she said.
The quip was one of several directed at Smith, who faced more direct attacks during the first official debate in July when she also drew ire for her comments on cancer treatment, as well as her past advocating for a provincial sales tax (PST).
Former children’s services minister Rebecca Schulz said the Alberta sovereignty act threatens party unity.
“I don’t think we can go into the very first legislative session with a bill that other candidates on this stage don’t support,” said Schulz.
Former finance minister Travis Toews also piled on, saying “we can’t wave a magic wand and get rid of federal law, that’s simply a fallacy.”
Smith shot back by saying Toew’s plan to introduce provincial tariffs to push back would create a chaos of its own, taking the opportunity to criticize the UCP government’s COVID-19 measures.
“The only ones who created chaos were the the ministers who were involved involved in the priorities and planning committee that shut down businesses arbitrarily, shut down the economy arbitrarily,” she said.
Chestermere-Strathmore UCP MLA Leela Aheer bluntly called the proposed legislation “crap” and an attack on Canadian, and Albertan, values.
Throughout the debate, Smith argued that the time has come to stop letting Ottawa dictate terms. To a roaring applause, Smith said “I may make mistakes from time to time, but I won’t be bullied and I won’t be pushed around. I will stand up for you and I will always put Alberta first.”
When pressed on his future plans, Toews did not commit to running again in the 2023 election regardless of the outcome of the leadership race.
Former Wildrose leader and Fort McMurray-Lac La Biche UCP MLA Brian Jean argued that the only way to get the attention of Ottawa is to demand constitutional renegotiations.
Central Peace-Notley Independent MLA Todd Loewen stressed his promise to rebuild trust with the provincial government, and to send a strong message to Ottawa.
“Some of the candidates I think are just willing to sit back and wait for things to happen and there will be no change and that’s unacceptable.”
Under the party’s preferential voting system, if the first-place candidate doesn’t get a simple majority in the first ballot, the candidate with the fewest votes falls off the list, and second choices are then rolled into the remaining candidates’ counts in subsequent ballots until a winner is chosen.
With votes potentially being split between seven candidates, Tuesday’s debate was also an opportunity to appeal to voters for down-ballot support.
Aheer and Jean directly asked members consider them their second choice, if not their first.
In her closing remarks, Sawhney took the opportunity to condemn a recent spate of attacks on politicians and journalists.
“We can’t let the politics of anger win,” she said.
The result of the leadership vote will be announced from the BMO Centre in Calgary on Thursday, Oct. 6.
The new leader is slated to deliver a keynote address to UCP members at the party’s annual general meeting starting Oct. 21 at the River Cree Resort in Enoch outside of Edmonton.