Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

NDP Leader Rachel Notley and United Conservative Party Leader Danielle Smith on the Alberta election campaign trail. The two will face each other in an hour-long debate on Thursday.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

Danielle Smith and Rachel Notley, the leaders of Alberta’s two dominant political parties, are dogged by the same issue: trust.

The two will face each other in an hourlong debate Thursday evening, the only event on the election calendar where Ms. Smith and Ms. Notley are scheduled to hash out their competing visions while sharing a stage. The May 29 election is too tight to predict, which could make the televised matchup a crucial opportunity for the leaders to win over undecided voters, particularly those in Calgary.

To win the election, each leader needs to convince voters that she is the one who can be trusted, and Thursday will give Ms. Smith and Ms. Notley the best opportunity to present their respective pitches while poking holes in each other’s plan. Ms. Smith and the United Conservative Party frame Ms. Notley as incapable of bolstering Alberta’s prosperity. Meanwhile, Ms. Notley and the New Democratic Party depict Ms. Smith as a leader hiding her true intentions, particularly with respect to protecting the public health care system.

Among undecided voters, women are skeptical of Ms. Smith when it comes to health care, according to Susan Elliott, a conservative strategist who is an expert in debate preparation. Meanwhile, men do not trust Ms. Notley on economic issues such as taxes, affordability and jobs, the strategist said. Polling data indicate that roughly 16 per cent of the voting population who previously cast ballots for Progressive Conservative candidates are unsure of whom to support in this election, Ms. Elliott said.

Ms. Smith will have to make the case that the NDP can’t be trusted to keep taxes low and prioritize prosperity because it is in league with federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and unions, Ms. Elliott said. She expects Ms. Smith will try to provoke Ms. Notley into shedding her calm demeanour, while Ms. Notley will likely try to tempt her counterpart into straying from her talking points, as the UCP Leader often finds herself in trouble when she freewheels.

“She speaks off the cuff and says dumb things,” Ms. Elliott said. “If she goes off script, she is at risk of saying something she will have to apologize for the next day.”

Alberta election 2023: A guide to party leaders and platforms

Alberta’s future lies on addressing mistakes of the past

Ms. Smith is practising her lines this week at two election forums in her riding of Brooks-Medicine Hat. She will participate in one alongside the other two local candidates in Medicine Hat on Wednesday, just as she did in Brooks on Tuesday.

When asked what the UCP will do to ease the housing crisis in Brooks-Medicine Hat, Ms. Smith indicated the province may need to establish a Crown corporation equivalent to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp.

“We also are considering the option that we may need to have our own Alberta mortgage and housing corp.,” she said Tuesday evening. She argued that interest rates in Canada are based on housing prices in Toronto and Vancouver, which will “never have affordable housing markets,” because growth is restricted by Lake Ontario and the Greenbelt in Eastern Canada, and the Pacific Ocean and mountains on the West Coast. Alberta, Ms. Smith said, has vast amounts of land available to build out, but the province needs a “banking system” to support expansion.

Alberta has 87 ridings, divided among Calgary (26), Edmonton (20) and rural and smaller urban communities (41). The UCP controls most of the rural ridings while the NDP dominates Edmonton. Conservatives claimed 23 seats in Calgary after the 2019 election, and while the NDP is poised to flip scores of those, it will be more difficult for Ms. Notley to convert a strong debate performance into an electoral victory. The UCP’s winning margins were so large in some Calgary ridings that the party can probably hold on to some of those seats even if notable chunks of conservatives switch their vote or stay home, Ms. Elliott said.

Erika Barootes, a UCP strategist, said her boss will be keen to remind voters of Ms. Notley’s time in government, after the NDP defeated the Progressive Conservatives in 2015.

“It means your taxes are going to go up. It means your cost of living is going to go up,” Ms. Barootes said.

The NDP released cost estimates for its platform on Tuesday, and said it would raise corporate taxes to 11 per cent from 8 per cent, noting that would still be the lowest rate in the country. The UCP, under former premier Jason Kenney, cut corporate taxes to 8 per cent from 12.

Cheryl Oates, an NDP adviser, said releasing the planned tax increase days ahead of the debate was a strategic decision. Ms. Notley will talk about Ms. Smith’s extensive history of inconsistent statements, while also pitching voters on the NDP’s “offer” to address health care, affordability problems and diversify the economy.

“We are not going to hide anything,” Ms. Oates said. “When it comes to the promises that we’ve made, the money has to come from somewhere.”

This also foreshadows what will likely be one of Ms. Notley’s jabs: The UCP has not released information on how it will pay for its promised spending increases and tax cuts.

The UCP and NDP are the only parties with seats in the Legislature, affording them the only spots on the debate stage. Ms. Smith, a former talk radio host, and Ms. Notley, a lawyer, are both skilled communicators. Ms. Smith is the Premier and former leader of the opposition, while Ms. Notley is the Leader of the Opposition and former premier.

With only two debaters, neither leader will have the opportunity to collect their thoughts while long shots say their bit. They will also not have the luxury – or annoyance – of less consequential players attacking their opponents.

Deron Bilous, who is not running for re-election after 11 years representing the NDP in Edmonton, expects curious Canadians from across the country to tune in.

“Thursday night will not disappoint,” he said.

UCP promises to introduce involuntary treatment law for drug addictions if re-elected

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

Follow the author of this article:

Follow topics related to this article:

Check Following for new articles