Danielle Smith, considered one of the front-runners in the United Conservative Party leadership race, faced sharp criticism Wednesday from debate rivals over her Alberta sovereignty plan and controversial comments on cancer.
Many of the seven candidates, including three who left Premier Jason Kenney’s cabinet to run in the race, criticized Smith’s proposal to immediately bring in a bill to give Alberta the power to ignore federal laws and court rulings deemed not in its interest.
They said Alberta must push back against the federal government, but said Smith’s plan is not only illegal and unenforceable — it would also create business uncertainty at a time the province is just getting back on its feet financially.
“It would be great to just wish away all our problems with this thing called the sovereignty act. We’re delusional if we think that’s going to happen,” former finance minister Travis Toews told Smith at the debate, held in the HALO air ambulance hangar at the Medicine Hat Regional Airport.
“We need a strategic thoughtful approach. That’s how we win.”
Rajan Sawhney, the former transportation minister, said such an act would fail in the courts and bring debilitating economic uncertainty.
Former children’s services minister Rebecca Schulz told Smith, “You are writing cheques you can’t cash and making promises you can’t keep.”
UCP backbench member Brian Jean called the plan “a fiscal fairy tale.”
Smith, a former Corus radio talk show host and Wildrose party leader, rejected the criticism. She said her proposed act can pass legal muster and said it is the federal government that has created uncertainty in Alberta through policies that strangle development of the oil and gas industry.
“Ottawa has created the chaos,” said Smith.
Legal scholars say such a bill is not only illegal it is a dangerous dismissal of respect for the rule of law.
Government house leader Jason Nixon and Toews, who has the support of almost half the UCP caucus, have said they doubt the house would even pass such a bill.
Polling suggests Smith, Toews, and Jean are the front-runners in the race that culminates in an Oct. 6 vote to replace Kenney as party leader and premier.
Smith was the focus of criticism from Toews, Sawhney and Jean again during the health policy section of the debate for stating in a recent podcast that responsibility for early-stage cancer is within a patient’s control. Patients and health professionals have called that profoundly misinformed and cruel.
Smith told the debate audience her comments were expressed “awkwardly” and that she only meant to say preventive health measures are just one more way to help detect, prevent and combat early-stage cancer.
“I know cancer can strike anyone at any time,” said Smith.
Jean said after the debate that there was no misunderstanding in Smith’s remarks.
“She said it. Just apologize. I saw what the ramifications of that comment was and I don’t think it was appropriate.”
Sawhney said Smith’s comments ring hollow given she “doubled down” on her initial comments the day after she made them, adding Smith needs to apologize to Albertans.
“Those comments are very hurtful to any Albertan, any Canadian, who has lost somebody from cancer or anybody who is suffering from cancer right now,” said Sawhney.
Smith countered: “When we look at what happened over the last two years of COVID lockdowns, and I haven’t heard any apology from any of the cabinet ministers who imposed that on us for the last two years — I’d like to see an apology there.”
Smith was unable to finish her sentence as she was drowned out by whoops, cheers and applause from the audience.
Sawhney replied, “It’s easy to make those kind of remarks when you’ve never been in government at that capacity and you haven’t had to make those tough decisions.”
The debate also focused on leadership, the economy, and the environment.
Independent legislature member Todd Loewen, expelled from the UCP caucus last year for criticizing Kenney, demanded Toews come clean on whether he would impose a provincial sales tax given that he has previously refused to rule one out.
Toews said he has never considered implementing one.
UCP backbencher Leela Aheer, speaking to the economy, said the government needs to do more for Albertans facing high costs due to inflation starting with re-indexing income supports for those in need.
After the debate, Smith brushed off the criticism, saying her two ideas are what Albertans are talking about.
“I thought it was a great discussion. I think you saw seven cabinet ministers up there and it’s just a matter for our members to determine which one will be leader.”
Sawhney said afterward that she had to stand up to Smith because the future of Alberta is at risk.
“I think tonight I really demonstrated that I am the alternative to Danielle Smith … this is a consequential election that is going to impact Albertans,” she said.
“I will not stand by and watch somebody make empty promises and make a sales pitch that can’t be delivered on.”
This is the only scheduled debate before the crucial Aug. 12 cutoff for members to sign up if they wish to vote in the leadership contest. A final debate is set for Aug. 30 in Edmonton.
— with files from Bill Graveland in Medicine Hat