UCP leadership hopefuls spar over plans for Alberta’s relationship with Ottawa
Most Alberta UCP leadership hopefuls agree the province needs to assert itself against Ottawa, but disagree on how far they would push it.
A Thursday evening panel featuring seven of the eight candidates who have declared they want to become premier was hosted by the Free Alberta Strategy, which launched its proposals last September, including ideas that date back to the 2001 Firewall letter and the UCP government’s Fair Deal panel struck in 2019, like creating a provincial police force and Alberta pension plan.
The strategy calls for Alberta to declare itself a sovereign jurisdiction within Canada that can supersede federal law if it’s not in Alberta’s interests with an Alberta Sovereignty Act.
Former Wildrose leader Danielle Smith stood out, touting an aggressive stance after promising earlier this week to enact the sovereignty act in the legislature if elected premier this fall.
Thursday night, she accused the federal government of breaking the law, and creating chaos and confusion.
“What’s coming is a constitutional reckoning. We can’t continue operating under the rules of Confederation that we have,” she said.
However, former community and social services minister Rajan Sawhney, former children’s services minister Rebecca Schulz, UCP MLA for Fort McMurray-Lac La Biche Brian Jean, and former finance minister Travis Toews were fiercely against it.
“If you tell people to ignore laws, it’s a slippery slope, and I think telling Albertans who are angry right now not to follow some laws is frankly irresponsible, negligent and would lead to all sorts of very negative issues,” said Jean, adding that he agrees with most of the other proposals of the Free Alberta Strategy.
Toews reiterated that he’s concerned it would create chaos and scare off investors, and threaten Alberta’s economic growth.
“We should do nothing right now that’s going to undermine that position of strength. I believe invoking the Alberta Sovereignty Act would put us backwards,” he said.
Schulz agreed the province needs to defend the constitutional rights of Albertans, but warned of chaos if the province threatens not to follow the rule of law. She said the party needs a leader who can address inflation and health care “without starting fights we can’t win.”
Sawhney also emphasized issues she said were more important to Albertans, including supporting the energy sector.
“One of the authors of the free Alberta strategy has admitted that the sovereignty act is unconstitutional and that this is all about politics. And do you know what that sounds like to me? It sounds like virtue signaling — a distraction.”
UCP MLA for Chestermere-Strathmore Leela Aheer focused on building relationships and collaboration, including with other like-minded provinces.
“If I were to consider my first bill, this would not be it,” she said, adding she would instead focus immediately on helping vulnerable Albertans.
Independent MLA for Central Peace-Notley Todd Loewen didn’t dismiss the idea, but said the province needs to focus on what it has the power to do first, like collecting income taxes and establishing its own pension plan.
Many candidates pointed to wins under the UCP government, but said they would have liked to see more progress, particularly when it comes to the equalization program.
Sawhney said the UCP government delivered on bringing forward an equalization referendum last fall, but didn’t accomplish enough.
“Our government made a lot of noise on federal relations, but we didn’t get a lot done,” said Sawhney.
Schulz pointed to her track record, getting a $3.8 billion child care deal with Ottawa.
“There’s a lot more work to be done, but I think a lot of positive work is underway,” she said.
Jean, who has promised to push for constitutional negotiations over the equalization program, said Premier Jason Kenney’s government made the equalization referendum “a fraud” by not sufficiently acting on its mandate. Last fall, about 62 per cent of referendum voters said they would like to see the equalization program removed from the Canadian Constitution.
Jean reiterated that the only way Alberta will “get our fair share of money back” is to get back to the table on constitutional negotiations, but like Schulz, shot down the idea of collecting income tax provincially as unnecessary and expensive bureaucracy.
Toews said collecting provincial income tax within Alberta would cost Albertans money with little benefit, but he would be in favour of collecting all taxes – provincial and federal – as a province.
Smith said the province needs “to be in a position” to collect federal taxes.
Thursday’s panel came after federal Conservative MP for Calgary Nose Hill Michelle Rempel Garner, who had been mulling a bid, announced she would not seek the UCP leadership, citing division within the party’s caucus.
Opposition NDP Leader Rachel Notley said Thursday at a news conference Rempel Garner’s statement shows Albertans that the UCP can’t be trusted to stay focused on challenges Albertans are facing, including affordability, health care, and fixing the education system.
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