Danielle Smith faces renewed attacks in final Alberta UCP leadership debate

·3 min read

EDMONTON — Danielle Smith, the frontrunner candidate in the race to replace Jason Kenney as Alberta’s UCP 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 fatal consequences in the 2015 when both parties lost to Rachel Notley’s NDP.

“Leadership and unity matter,” Toews, Smith’s main rival, 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 centerpiece policy plan to pass her proposed Alberta sovereignty act this fall, if she's 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 has stressed her Alberta will refuse to enforce federal rules particularly in areas like 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,” said Aheer.

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,” said Sawhney.

Smith said she feels she has a mandate from Albertans through public consultations.

She acknowledged she has taken “bold” positions, but said that is what leaders do.

“Too long conservatives have been leading and governing by opinion poll,” said Smith.

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 leadership race is now in the homestretch.

There are close to 124,000 party members signed up and eligible to vote. Smith is seen as the frontrunner 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 will be mailed out starting Friday and members can vote by mail or in person.

The other candidates are UCP backbencher Brian Jean, former UCP caucus member Todd Loewen, and former Kenney cabinet minister Rebecca Schulz.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 30, 2022.

Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press