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UCP leadership contenders square off in first debate

Last Updated Jul 28, 2022 at 4:27 am MST

Seven Alberta UCP leadership candidates square off in the first official debate of the campaign on July 27, 2022. (Source: UCP livestream)

Two of Alberta’s pacesetters in the United Conservative Party (UCP) leadership race squared off over a provincial sales tax Wednesday night in the first party debate.

Former finance minister Travis Toews, questioned by rival Todd Loewen over previously not rejecting the concept of a provincial sales tax, said he has never considered implementing one.

He said the only candidate who has considered it is Danielle Smith, who as a journalist wrote a newspaper column almost two years ago suggesting such a tax may be necessary to get Alberta’s finances back on a firm footing.

Smith, in response, said as a journalist she mused about a lot of things and the situation has changed, with multibillion-dollar deficits now turning into multibillion-dollar surpluses due to rising energy prices.

Smith has said she now rejects a sales tax.

Smith, Toews, and Brian Jean are considered the front-runners in the race for the Oct. 6 leadership vote to replace Jason Kenney as party leader and premier.

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They were among seven candidates on the stage at the HALO air ambulance hangar at the Medicine Hat Regional Airport.

In introductory statements, candidate Loewen said the party must find a way to rebuild trust with its members.

Rajan Sawhney and others took aim at Smith numerous times, saying Smith’s promise to pass a bill giving Alberta the power to reject federal laws and court rulings would bring “chaos.”

“That is creating a politically risky environment and that is going to affect everything,” said Sawhney, who quit as transportation minister to run in the race.

Toews said Smith’s proposed Alberta sovereignty law is illusory and won’t solve differences with Ottawa.

Candidate Rebecca Schulz, the former children’s services minister, told Smith that she is “writing cheques you can’t cash.”

Jean, a UCP backbencher, called it a “fiscal fairy tale.”

Smith disagreed, saying it is the federal government that has unfairly tied up Alberta through policies that strangle development of its wellspring oil and gas industry.

“Ottawa has created the chaos,” said Smith.

Smith, the former Wildrose party leader who does not have a seat in the legislature, grabbed attention early in the race when she said if she wins the leadership she will bring in a bill this fall to give Alberta the power to ignore federal laws and court rulings deemed not in the province’s interest.

She has said she would also begin creating a provincial police force to replace the RCMP and launch a provincial revenue collection agency _ two steps needed to give teeth to her proposed Alberta sovereignty act.

Legal scholars say such a bill would be illegal, unenforceable, and a dangerous dismissal of respect for the rule of law.

Government house leader Jason Nixon and Toews, who has the support of almost half the UCP caucus, have said they doubt the house would even pass such a bill.

Smith has said such legislation is critical to send a message to Ottawa that Alberta is serious about protecting its turf and to derail any possible future laws restricting freedoms tied to fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sawhney, Toews and Jean also went after Smith for stating in a recent podcast that responsibility for early-stage cancer is within a patient’s control. Patients and health professionals have called that profoundly misinformed and cruel.

Smith told the debate audience her comments were expressed “awkwardly” and that she only meant to say preventive health measures are just one more way to help detect, prevent and combat early-stage cancer.

Sawhney said Smith’s comments ring hollow and she needs to apologize to cancer survivors.

Smith countered that when it comes to apologies, she wants to hear one from Kenney’s cabinet members for imposing lockdown rules during COVID-19 — a response that brought a round of applause from the audience.

UCP backbencher Leela Aheer, speaking to the economy, said the government needs to do more for Albertans facing high costs due to inflation starting with re-indexing income supports for those in need.

This is the only scheduled debate before the crucial Aug. 12 cutoff for members to sign up if they wish to vote in the leadership contest.

A final debate is set for Aug. 30 in Edmonton.

With files from the Canadian Press.