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United Conservative Party leadership hopefuls vie to sound distinctive in final debate

The politicians hoping to lead the United Conservative Party pitched their most distinct ideas during the race's second and final leadership race Tuesday night in hopes of diverting attention from the perceived frontrunner.

Close to 124,000 party members are eligible to vote

The politicians hoping to lead the United Conservative Party pitched their most distinct ideas during the race's second and final leadership race Tuesday night in hopes of diverting attention from the perceived frontrunner, Danielle Smith.

Some contenders bluntly asked party members to make them their second or third choice during a ranked-ballot election that could last several rounds before a winner is crowned party leader — and premier of Alberta — come October.

"If I'm not your first choice, mark me like your second, because I've shown that I will always put Alberta and Albertans first," contender Leela Aheer said.

At the party's first leadership debate in July in Medicine Hat, most of the seven candidates flung barbs at Smith, who public polling pegs as leading the pack, and criticized her proposed Alberta sovereignty act.

The act would grant the province the right to ignore federal laws and court rulings deemed harmful to its interests.

In contrast, the candidates spent Tuesday's two-hour debate attempting to shine a spotlight on their own ideas, and distance themselves from the less popular choices made by Jason Kenney's government.

"Sometimes things that sound outrageous tend to get a headline," leadership hopeful Rebecca Schulz told reporters after the debate. "What I'm focused on is competent government. Compassionate government. Common sense government. And a conservative leader that our party members can be proud of."

During the debate, Smith called out challenger Travis Toews for refusing to commit to running for re-election in the next provincial election, scheduled for May 29, 2023.

Toews told reporters he wanted to see the outcome of the leadership race first. He also declined to say whether he'd appoint Smith to cabinet in a Toews-led government.

During the debate, Toews pressed Smith about how far Smith's proposed sovereignty act would go to defy federal laws or court judgments.

"What sovereignty act are you talking about today?" said Toews, who served as Kenney's finance minister. "The one that chases tens of billions of dollars out of this province, or the one that's completely benign, overpromising and under-delivering?"

Smith responded that the Kenney government's decision to impose public health restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic was a political choice, not one driven by evidence. She had earlier accused the government of caving in to pressure from opposition parties.

"I think the only one who created chaos was the ministers involved in the priorities and planning committee that shut down business arbitrarily and shut down the economy arbitrarily," Smith said.

In another exchange, Rajan Sawhney asked Smith whether she, as premier, would wait until after a provincial election before introducing a proposed sovereignty act.

Smith said the UCP already have a mandate from Albertans to push back against Ottawa, pointing to a 2021 provincial referendum that supported removing the principle of equalization transfers out of the constitution.

Sawhney called that conclusion "ludicrous," and later told voters that pushing ahead with the bill before a general election would be irresponsible.

"I actually think it's a black box and when you open it, it's a Pandora's box," Sawhney said.

Brian Jean committed to including all seven leadership contenders in the cabinet of any government he leads. He and fellow MLA Todd Loewen used a debate about agriculture policy to commiserate about Alberta's relationship with the federal government.

"I'd like to make sure that we develop a made-in-Alberta solution and take back [control of] our immigration so we actually have proper agriculture workers who actually do what Albertans need on our farms," Jean said.

Loewen bemoaned what he said is the federal government encroaching on Alberta's oil and gas development, and now, agriculture. The Liberal government wants to reduce greenhouse gas emissions coming from fertilizer.

"If we actually used Justin Trudeau's BS, we could probably fertilize the crops with that," Loewen said. "Maybe the world couldn't handle the crops with all that fertilizer."

Loewen has held several leadership events in conjunction with Smith as the contenders travel the province. He told reporters he has no intention of leaving the race to support her.

The UCP will begin mailing ballots to nearly 124,000 party members starting on Friday. The party will also run in-person voting stations on Oct.6, and will announce the new party leader – and premier – that night in Calgary.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Janet French

Provincial affairs reporter

Janet French covers the Alberta Legislature for CBC Edmonton. She previously spent 15 years working at newspapers, including the Edmonton Journal and Saskatoon StarPhoenix. You can reach her at janet.french@cbc.ca.

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