EDMONTON – Alberta’s three opposition leaders took turns piling on the premier in the only televised leaders debate of the hotly contested provincial election campaign.
They challenged Progressive Conservative Leader Alison Redford on her government’s deficit budgeting, the alleged bullying of doctors and a legislature committee where members were paid for not meeting.
Redford spent the night fending off the shots while trying to land a few of her own.
She challenged Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith on her party’s position surrounding conscience rights and citizen-initiated referendums that the Tories say could lead to de-listing abortion.
She also took shots at Smith’s lack of experience, suggesting someone who has never been elected to the legislature is not ready to become premier of the province.
After some tentative initial exchanges on health care, budgeting and financial management, the debate heated up when Smith reiterated she has no plans to legislate on abortion and again hammered at Redford, accusing her of fear-mongering on the issue.
Smith, who just recently revealed she is personally pro-choice, has been fighting fears that the social-conservative wing of her party would use new citizen-initiated referendum rules to overturn contentious issues such as public funding for abortion.
During the debate, she insisted her party will nevertheless support citizen-initiated referendums because it is a way for citizens to have a say.
“It’s nothing but fear-mongering by a government that is on the run and worried about its opposition and competition,” Smith charged.
“The reason it has come up is because the Wildrose has talked about doing it – it’s part of their party platform,” Redford retorted. “Three weeks ago, we heard from this leader that her personal views didn’t matter. Then we heard that she would take her marching orders from her party. Then we heard that her caucus was important, then we heard her own personal views.
“I will tell you that in our view, a Progressive Conservative view, everyone in our caucus, takes the view that these matters have been settled. They do not need to be raised again.”
But Raj Sherman of the Liberals said Redford has no moral authority on the subject because her government has sanctioned the bullying of doctors.
NDP Leader Brian Mason said that in the United States, such referendums allow special interest groups to impose their views on the majority.
“The Americanization of our political system that the Wildrose prefers with citizen-intiated referenda and so on allows special interests to hijack the political agenda, because it is not usually the citizen themselves, the ordinary person.”
Smith has also come under fire for her party’s position on so-called conscience rights – the concept that public workers should be allowed opt out of their sworn duties, such as performing abortions or marrying gay couples, if the work runs counter to their religious or moral beliefs.
The Wildrose promises to have a special section of the provincial court resolve such conflicts, but debate over the issue prompted Smith to also reveal she is personally in favour of gay rights.
The opposition leaders also joined together to pile on Redford over her handling of the infamous no-meet committee.
Smith said her party would cut committee pay and roll back the 30 per cent raises Redford and other cabinet ministers voted themselves after the Tories 2008 landslide election win.
Redford agreed the system needed to be changed, adding she acted last year by asking for an independent review of pay and by promising two weeks ago to cut back on the six-figure golden handshakes currently going to retiring politicians.
Mason told Redford it was too little too late, given she was part of a government that had previously resisted such pay reviews.
Sherman said Redford has little moral wiggle room on pay given her salary of $200,000-plus makes her the highest paid premier in Canada.
The no-meet committee made headlines last month when it was revealed politicians of all stripes were paid thousands of dollars to sit on a committee that hadn’t met for years.
In her opening statement, Redford reminded viewers she is a wife and mother and said her party is about shaping the province’s future.
Sherman used his statement to criticized Redford’s government for running deficits and abandoning seniors despite oil running at a record $100 barrel.
Smith said her party will balance budgets and deliver front line care abandoned under the current government.
Mason said the NDP will ensure that surplus dollars from Alberta’s cash cow oilsands will flow down to regular Albertans.
The election is now in the home stretch with 10 days to go until voters mark their ballots on April 23.
Polls put the Progressive Conservatives and the Wildrose party neck and neck, raising the possibility of a minority government in the 87-seat legislature.
The Wildrose has held the initiative for much of the campaign, rolling out policy announcements while the Tories have been forced to react or put out fires.
Redford’s team passed the budget before the writ drop because the premier said she wanted to have a record to run on.
That budget has since gone by the wayside.
In the last two weeks, Redford has announced an estimated $3.4 billion in new spending for new schools, family-care health centres, upgrades to post-secondary institutions and tax incentives.
Her party stumbled out of the gate, with voters giving her candidates an earful about six-figure golden handshakes to retiring politicians and the legislature paying members of all parties thousands of dollars to sit on a committee that hadn’t met in three years.
Redford at first ordered her members to pay some of the money back, then changed her mind and said it should all be repaid, adding that if she is re-elected she will move to halt the controversial transition payments.
The Liberals and the NDP are bringing up the rear in the polls, mainly fighting each another for seats in Edmonton.
Mason has said the NDP would hike taxes on big corporations and on individuals making more than $200,000 a year to pay for more social care, such as full day kindergarten, extra long-term care beds and free dental care for children.
Sherman is promising a new deal for cities and students.
Sherman says his party would rewrite the funding rules for municipalities to give towns and cities more say in what gets built.
Students would get an immediate $250 cut in tuition and a special fund would be created to wipe out all tuition by 2025.
The Liberals would also hike taxes for big corporations and those earning more than $100,000 a year.
Glenn Taylor, leader of the centrist Alberta Party, was not invited to the debate because his team does not have an elected legislature member.
The growing influence of social media has been on display in the campaign.
An hour in, seven of the top 10 trending topics on Twitter in Canada were Alberta debate related.
Redford was forced to apologize in the first weekend of the campaign when a staffer in her office mocked Smith for pushing policies for children while remaining childless. Smith replied she and her husband wanted kids but were unable to have them.
Last weekend, the Progressive Conservatives used Twitter to announce that one of their candidates, Thomas Lukaszuk, had gotten into a physical confrontation on the doorstep of a voter.
The Tories are gunning for a 12th straight majority government dating back to 1971.
They had 67 seats in the 83-seat legislature at dissolution, compared with eight for the Liberals, four for the Wildrose, two for NDP, one for the Alberta Party, along with one Independent.
Four more seats have been added for this election: two in Calgary, one in Edmonton, and another in the booming oilsands area around Fort McMurray.