Above the stage at the Bella Concert Hall on Calgary’s Mount Royal University campus is a giant, wooden canopy in the shape of an Alberta wild rose. Below, the four men who hope to be the first to lead the marriage of Alberta’s two right-of-centre parties engaged in a spirited debate on Wednesday night before a sold-out crowd of party members.
The first debate between the candidates vying to become leader of the United Conservative Party (UCP) was focused on three key themes: the economy, the resource sector and what it means to be conservative.
“We need to make sure we get these issues right,” leadership hopeful Doug Schweitzer said when the candidates were asked by moderator Dave Rutherford about conservatives’ identity in the face of an evolving social climate. “We’ve got to get the social issues right to turn the page.”
“I don’t think we have anything to apologize for as conservatives,” UCP leadership candidate Jeff Callaway said. “When we use the language of the left and the NDP, we fall into the traps of the NDP. We have a lot to be proud of as conservatives.”
On the economy, leadership candidate Jason Kenney scored the loudest audience reaction of the night when asked where the savings will come from in order to balance the provincial budget.
“We’re going to have to make some sacrifices again,” Kenney said. The audience erupted in applause when he punctuated his position he expressed on his appearance on Wednesday’s Danielle Smith Show when he told a caller asking for solar rebates, “No, we’re broke.”
“We need to get our fiscal house in order,” UCP leadership hopeful Brian Jean told the crowd. “There are no sacred cows, except for what the people of Alberta want.”
Jean faced pointed comments from Callaway – who is the former Wildrose Party president – during the debate. Callaway accused Jean of not listening to the party’s grassroots during his time as leader.
“You had more power than the executive,” Callaway said as Jean shook his head. “This is about walking the talk.”
On the resource sector, Kenney told the crowd he was willing to play hardball with British Columbia if the newly installed NDP and Green Party coalition government was to obstruct the construction of pipelines from Alberta.
“There will be consequences,” Kenney said. “We need a premier who will make that clear to B.C. and Ottawa like Peter Lougheed did in the 1980s.
“The mayor of Vancouver says he wants a carbon-free economy by 2040. Maybe we should give him a carbon-free Vancouver by 2020,” Kenney said to thunderous applause, telling the crowd the answer may be to cut off oil and gas exports to British Columbia.
Schweitzer raised the ire of the crowd as well at one point when conversation focused on relations with the federal government with regard to the energy sector.
“I’ve sat at the table for dozens of hours with Justin Trudeau, he was my critic in opposition,” Kenney said. “Let me tell you, it’s not that impressive. I won’t be distracted by the selfies and the socks.”
“We need to make sure that we deal with our federal government responsibly,” Schweitzer rebutted. “We need to deal with Ottawa in a tough way, in a firm way. Taking cheap shots around selfies and socks is not going to be the diplomatic way when we have some commonality,” he added, prompting boos from the crowd.
After the debate, emails sent to the media by the Kenney and Jean campaigns both claimed victory on the night. Jeff Callaway’s campaign also sent an email to the media saying he came out ahead. But one expert said she believes someone else came out on top.
“I actually think the most surprising candidate, the one who really acquitted himself well, introduced him in the most effective way possible, was Doug Schweitzer,” said Lori Williams, associate professor of policy studies at Mount Royal University.
“He’s going to have a big influence,” Williams said. “Whether he becomes the leader or not, I think what he said tonight is going to have an impact on Albertans, possibly also on the party.”