Leaders gird for crucial debate

EDMONTON — The leaders of Alberta’s political parties are hunkered down for a televised debate today that could shape the outcome on a historic election for the province.

EDMONTON — The leaders of Alberta’s political parties are hunkered down for a televised debate today that could shape the outcome on a historic election for the province.

Alberta Premier Alison Redford, say analysts, will need to deliver the debate of her life to save a 40-year-old Progressive Conservative dynasty.

“The debate is absolutely crucial this time. This is the first head-to-head confrontation for the leaders,” said Keith Brownsey, a political scientist with Mount Royal University in Calgary.

“We know from studies that voters make up their minds 14 days to 10 days out. It’s a critical period we’re entering. If the opposition parties and the governing Conservatives haven’t made their case, this could all be over.”

The debate will be carried live by several TV broadcasters around the province, 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. and hosted by Global. It can be heard on the radio on CHED in Edmonton and CHQR in Calgary.

Viewers will be invited to submit a question to the leaders.

Alberta NDP Leader Brian Mason says he will use tonight’s leaders debate to push home the point that voters are getting shortchanged by oil royalties.

Mason says his party would boost the province’s take from oil companies along with hiking taxes on big corporations and the super-wealthy to pay for more schools and hospital care.

He says the Progressive Conservatives have long given their corporate friends a free ride at the expense of provincial savings. And he says a Wildrose government would do the same. The NDP is the only party pushing to hike royalties.

Mason says he hopes Thursday’s debate focuses on ideas and policy and doesn’t descend into nasty personal attacks.

Redford, leader of the Progressive Conservatives, was campaigning in Calgary Wednesday, where she announced a 10-year plan to tackle poverty.

She commented it’s hard to tell whether Smith’s affirmation that she’s pro-choice and pro-gay rights represents party policy or simply the views of the leader.

“Three weeks ago what we heard was that her personal view didn’t matter, because it wouldn’t impact the way that she governed. Then we heard that her personal views didn’t matter, because she would take marching orders from her party on conscience rights,” Redford said at a Calgary seniors’ centre.

Redford said while it’s interesting to know Smith’s views, it doesn’t take away from the fact she hasn’t ruled out a citizen-led referendum on funding abortion if her party is elected April 23.

Smith herself said Tuesday night she doubts such a referendum would be allowed to proceed, because a successful vote to de-list abortion would violate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

At an all-candidates’ forum in the Highwood riding, Smith said members knew her stance on abortion and gay marriage when they chose her as leader. She said she’s been taken aback by all the attention her social views have garnered and that it’s likely a Tory attempt to sow fear amongst voters.

The Wildrose party is demanding the Opposition Liberals and Progressive Conservatives open up their books to settle the issue of illegal contributions.

The Wildrose says an access to information request shows numerous payments from publicly funded health facilities to the Liberals or to the Tories.

The party says that is money that should be going to pay for care for seniors and the sick.