The top two candidates to become premier of Alberta met face-to-face in Edmonton Thursday night for the only televised leaders debate ahead of a May 29 election.
Both of them have led the province before and both showed up wearing blue jackets, the primary colour of the United Conservative Party.
NDP Leader Rachel Notley was premier from 2015 to 2019 and UCP Leader Danielle Smith is trying to hold onto the job and her party’s majority in the legislature.
Smith focused her opening remarks on the economy, speaking about balancing budgets, affordability measures and lowering taxes.
She stated the former NDP government “failed” with policies that hiked taxes and killed jobs.
Notley started with a salute to firefighters battling wildfires and an expression of concern for evacuees across Alberta.
She went on to promise lower household costs, to create more jobs and to build a better healthcare system.
Notley said Albertans can’t trust Smith to lead the province and said “she broke the law” by violating conflict of interest rules, referring to an ethics commissioner report released Thursday.
The NDP has repeatedly pointed to comments Smith has made in support of private and out-of-pocket healthcare and Notley attacked her about that early on.
“I’ve known you for at least a decade, perhaps more, and I’ve watched your career. And you have argued passionately in multiple settings for…making people pay more for their healthcare,” Notley said.
“Why are you not running on the thing that you believe? Why are you not being honest with Albertans?”
Smith has signed a “public healthcare guarantee” and again promised she will not charge Albertans out-of-pocket to see a doctor.
She didn’t answer Notley’s questions, instead shrugging off past musings about more private delivery of healthcare and using spending accounts or insurance to pay for a family doctor.
“I know Ms. Notley likes to show grainy videos of things I said while I was on radio, and the reason she does that is she doesn’t want to run on her record,” Smith said.
“Talk about deception, did you remember her running on a carbon tax in the last election? I sure didn’t.”
On the issue of healthcare, Smith argued that her plan to speed up surgeries is working.
Her party supports “publicly-funded” healthcare delivery, while Notley wants more services both funded and delivered by a public system.
The NDP is promising an aggressive plan to attract new health-care workers to the province and said Smith has disrespected doctors and nurses by showing sympathy for people who have fought against COVID-19 vaccine mandates.
“Our doctors, nurses, paramedics and other health professionals are the heroes of our health-care system. Everyone knows that,” Smith said, brushing off Notley’s comments.
ENERGY AND ECONOMY
Smith said Notley will not “fight back against Ottawa” and alleged that her agreeing with the federal Liberals’ plan to build a net-zero energy system by 2035 will raise utility rates for all Albertans.
Smith said her UCP supports achieving that goal by 2050 instead.
But Notley argued that there are economic opportunities, including new jobs, to be had in creating a greener system.
“I know you’re keen on fighting. You want to fight with Ottawa, you want to fight with the media. You want to fight, frankly, with your former self. It’s actually quite exhausting,” she said.
“Here’s what I need Albertans to know. I will always stand up for Alberta…I made sure we got a pipeline to tidewater, the first one in 50 years.”
Smith said the fact the NDP supports an emissions cap in the province is a defacto production cap on oil and gas and argued some of her candidates have made their feelings on the industry very clear.
“Ms. Notley has so many anti-oil and gas candidates I have lost count, including one who compared it to slavery. And I note he hasn’t apologized yet, nor have you,” Smith said.
Notley ignored that statement but said she agrees with Smith on some of the UCP’s plans to diversify the resource sector.
“I want to create jobs producing energy. I want to create jobs upgrading our energy and I want to create jobs reducing our emissions,” Notley said.
The NDP leader said the person putting oil and gas investment at risk is Smith by creating uncertainty when her UCP government passed a sovereignty act.
TRUST AND ACCOUNTABILITY
Both leaders were asked about perceived weaknesses in their campaigns.
Smith was asked about Thursday’s ethics commissioner report that found she contravened the Conflict of Interest Act during a conversation she had with her justice minister about a high-profile COVID-19 case.
The UCP leader did not answer the question from a reporter and instead attacked Notley on her economic record.
Notley was asked about Albertans who don’t trust her party to manage the province’s finances.
“I was very pleased to roll out a pretty well-thought-out costing document for our platform. And that document ensures that over three years we would maintain a cumulative surplus of 3.6 billion,” Notley said before turning her attention to Smith.
“I have been in office since 2008. I have never actually breached the conflict of interest legislation. Ms. Smith cannot say the same.”
The leaders also traded jabs on education with Smith saying the UCP has built more schools than the NDP and Notley pledging to respect educators and protect their jobs.
Smith attacked an NDP promise to raise the corporate tax rate for big companies to 11 per cent, but Notley has argued it’s a way to help balance the budget, pointing out it would still be the lowest such rate in Canada.
Both parties have promised to increase public safety with more police officers and Notley said they would also hire social workers and fund affordable housing.
Smith accused the NDP of wanting to “defund the police” and said the UCP’s recent public safety measures are giving “courage and confidence” to officers.
Notley criticized the UCP for reducing municipal grants for policing and said the party “actually defunded the police.”
Advance polls open in Alberta on Tuesday.