The two front-runners in Alberta’s provincial election used the campaign’s only leaders’ debate to cast themselves as champions of new pipelines, with the UCP’s Jason Kenney promising a battle against Ottawa and the NDP’s Rachel Notley arguing that her government’s current path is working.
Thursday night’s debate, ahead of the April 16 election, saw Mr. Kenney and Ms. Notley pick apart each other’s platforms while trading the sort of personal attacks that have come to define the first half of the campaign. Ms. Notley accused Mr. Kenney of being an extreme social conservative who has surrounded himself with bigoted candidates, while Mr. Kenney, in turn, described the New Democratic Party Leader as an ideologue who sold out her province.
They largely ignored leaders of the Alberta and Liberal parties, who were left to paint themselves as the reasonable middle ground for voters who are turned off by both the governing New Democrats and the opposition United Conservative Party.
Mr. Kenney condemned what he described as the “Trudeau-Notley alliance" that saw the NDP government sign onto a national climate plan, including a carbon tax, in exchange for support for the stalled Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. Mr. Kenney repeated his pledge to kill the provincial carbon tax.
“I respect your leadership but you made a disastrous mistake with your alliance to Justin Trudeau,” Mr. Kenney said. “You sold us down the river.”
Mr. Kenney outlined his plan to fight back against the federal government, other provinces and environmentalists, including through lawsuits and a provincial referendum on equalization.
Ms. Notley responded that the UCP Leader was promising little more than political theatrics that would not move the needle on Trans Mountain and only anger the people the province needs on side.
“Of course I’m frustrated, we’re all frustrated, but we can’t act out of a place of anger,” Ms. Notley said. “We must be smart and strategic.”
She said public support for the Trans Mountain pipeline has never been stronger, and she took credit for the federal government’s decision to buy the pipeline amid fears that its previous owner, Kinder Morgan, was preparing to walk away.
Liberal Leader David Khan, a lawyer by trade, said Mr. Kenney is "spinning fairy tales to get votes” by promising a referendum and legal challenges.
“You’re preying on peoples’ economic anxieties and you’re selling them a bill of goods,” said Mr. Khan.
The debate featured several moments of heated cross-talk, largely between Ms. Notley and Mr. Kenney, but the event appeared to be devoid of the type of memorable moments or gaffes that could dramatically shape the campaign.
In 2015, the leaders’ debate marked a turning point for Ms. Notley, who at the time was not well-known in the province. Her performance was widely praised and her main opponent, then-Progressive Conservative leader and premier Jim Prentice, came off as condescending when he told Ms. Notley, “I know that math is difficult.”
Thursday’s debate presented a similar opportunity for Mr. Kenney to boost his profile among voters who may know little about him outside his work in the federal cabinet of former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper.
Ms. Notley and the Leader of the Alberta Party, former Edmonton mayor Stephen Mandel, attacked Mr. Kenney repeatedly for recent controversies that have prompted two candidates to drop out and several others to apologize. The latest happened earlier this week, when incumbent UCP candidate Mark Smith apologized after audio surfaced from a 2013 sermon in which he included “homosexual love” in a list of what he described as misguided forms of love, along with pedophilia.
At the time, Mr. Kenney said he condemned Mr. Smith’s remarks as hurtful and offensive, but he also said he accepted Mr. Smith’s apology and would not remove him as a candidate.
“It seems that time and time again, people within your party are coming up with these things and they have to be disqualified,” Mr. Mandel said.
Mr. Kenney responded by pointing out that the UCP is a diverse party and dismissed those criticisms as part of a “smear-and-fear” campaign.
“Whenever [Ms. Notley] does this, it’s because she’s incapable of defending her failed economic record.”
Mr. Kenney also defended his party’s handling of gay-straight alliances. He has promised to maintain a requirement that schools permit GSA peer-support clubs, but would remove legislation that prevents teachers from informing parents when their child joins one of the groups. Mr. Kenney said no teacher would reveal a child’s sexual orientation.
Ms. Notley was on the defensive when Mr. Kenney asked why her party has yet to reveal the identities of two MLAs who have faced allegations of sexual misconduct. She has said she can’t name the two members of her caucus because the complainants have asked for their identities to be protected. The NDP has not confirmed whether the two legislators are seeking re-election.
In late 2018, the Premier’s office said the allegations were not criminal in nature and were related to events outside the workplace. Two investigators were called in, who concluded that the behavior was best dealt with through education.
The NDP’s string of large deficits was a target of Mr. Kenney, who charged the NDP of practicing “failed economic policies” and vowed that he would reinvigorate the province’s economy and balance the books by creating new jobs.
Ms. Notley responded by taking aim at the centerpiece of his economic plan: cutting corporate taxes by one-third.
"Do you want to pay for a tax cut for your boss by freezing your kid's education and freezing your loved one's health care?" said Ms. Notley. “There is a better way.”
Ms. Notley and Mr. Kenney continued their critiques of one another while speaking to reporters after the debate, largely repeating points they had made just a few minutes earlier.
Mr. Mandel said all of the arguing meant the NDP and UCP leaders were not offering ideas to voters.
“It was watching a couple kids fight and we were putting ideas out,” he told reporters.