Danielle Smith, the perceived front-runner candidate in the race to replace Jason Kenney as Alberta’s United Conservative Party leader and premier, faced renewed attacks on multiple fronts Tuesday in the campaign’s final debate.
Smith was criticized for her proposed Alberta sovereignty act and for leading a mass floor crossing to the Progressive Conservatives in late 2014 that nearly decimated her Wildrose party.
Former Kenney finance minister Travis Toews said the floor crossing tarnished both parties with drastic consequences in the 2015 election when they lost to Rachel Notley’s NDP.
“Leadership and unity matter,” Toews told about 700 members watching the debate at the downtown Citadel Theatre.
“Mere months before the 2015 election, (Smith) walked the floor. I believe it was (the floor crossing and the resulting fractured conservative movement) that ultimately contributed to an NDP government.”
Smith was also attacked by multiple candidates for her centrepiece policy plan to pass her proposed Alberta sovereignty act this fall, if she were elected.
The act would grant the province the right to ignore federal laws and court rulings deemed harmful to its interests.
Critics, including legal scholars, say such a bill is not only illegal but will create a constitutional crisis.
Smith has in recent weeks downplayed the act, labelling it a symbolic document to seek rights that provinces such as Quebec are employing. But she has stressed her Alberta will refuse to enforce federal rules particularly in areas such as COVID-19 health restrictions.
Former Kenney cabinet minister Leela Aheer bluntly labelled the act “crap.”
“The sovereignty act is an attack on our Canadian and Albertan values. It’s an excuse to leave Canada when we should be looking for ways to lead Canada,” Aheer said.
Former Kenney cabinet minister Rajan Sawhney urged Smith to wait for the scheduled general election next spring to seek a mandate for such a radical piece of legislation.
“These are the kinds of things that require a mandate from Albertans,” Sawhney said.
Smith said she feels she has a mandate from Albertans through public consultations.
Rebecca Schulz, a former Kenney cabinet minister, questioned passing such a controversial bill so soon.
“I think we can’t go into the very first legislative session with a bill that other candidates on this stage don’t support,” Schulz said.
“I don’t think that’s good for unity.”
Smith acknowledged she has taken “bold” positions, but said that is what leaders do.
“Too long conservatives have been leading and governing by opinion poll,” Smith said.
She noted other candidates have adopted versions of her sovereignty act in their platforms along with polices on preventing future health restrictions tied to COVID-19.
“Every other candidate on stage has followed my lead,” said Smith.
“That’s what leadership looks like: you take a bold position, you bring people around, you consult, you get feedback and you modify and then you allow people to disagree.”
The other candidates are UCP backbencher Brian Jean and former UCP caucus member Todd Loewen.
Jean stressed that inflation is the biggest issue to be addressed, promising to end royalties on gasoline and reduce transmission and distribution fees on power bills.
Loewen stressed that Alberta needs to ratchet back the spending that has seen debt levels grow by the billions in recent years.
The leadership race is in the home stretch.
There are close to 124,000 party members signed up and eligible to vote. Smith is seen as the front-runner based on how she has been the focus of opposition attacks throughout the campaign.
The deadline to sign up for a party membership to vote was two weeks ago and candidates are now focused on winning support from members as their first or second choice as leader.
The winner will be announced Oct. 6 using a preferential ballot, which means lower-tier choices may come into play if the first-place finisher doesn’t capture a majority in the first round of voting.
Ballots are to be mailed out starting Friday and members can vote by mail or in person.