Ralph Klein was on the hotseat Monday night, with the leaders of the other two parties trying to take him to task on health care, education, infrastructure and his leadership.
In the only leaders' debate of the election, Liberal Leader Kevin Taft and NDP Leader Brian Mason repeatedly asked Klein about his vision for the province, claiming he lacks a plan for Alberta's future, specifically with health care.
Klein fought back, vowing his government doesn't have a secret plan to privatize health care, and charging that the opposition leaders are inconsistent in their promises and would spend the province back into debt.
"My vision for health care is to have the best health-care system in Canada. How we achieve this is up to Albertans. My plan is to ask the people," Klein, seeking a fourth term, said. "Our plan is to continue the course we have set for the province.
"What you want me to say is, 'I favour private health care.' Well, I don't know."
Klein said that includes building hospitals and reducing waiting lists, and agreed it could include private-public partnerships or private clinics. But he didn't offer any specifics.
Taft and Mason said after governing for 11 years, Klein should have a clearer idea of the direction he wants to take the province.
The three leaders often spoke over each other, trying to make their points during the 90-minute debate, aired on Global. For Mason and Taft, both leaders of their parties for less than a year, the debate was an opportunity to introduce themselves to Albertans.
Both believe health care is one of the Klein government's weaknesses.
Klein has often raised the idea of radically reforming the health-care system, including delisting services, using private delivery systems and charging additional fees, but has never gone beyond comissioning studies. He talked about making changes last spring, just before the federal election, but then announced a $700-million funding boost.
"So many reports and yet the premier doesn't seem ready to lay his cards on the table," Taft said.
While both the NDP and the Liberals have promised to eliminate health-care premiums, at a cost of about $900 million a year, Klein said they "serve as a reminder to Albertans there is a cost to health care." Klein added that now the province is debt free, there is an opportunity to look at eliminating the premiums in the future.
Taft pointed out Klein mused about eliminating the premiums before the 2001 election, but raised them afterwards. Mason said Klein's government only eliminated the premiums for seniors before this election was called because the NDP pushed it to.
AISH comment meant to be humourous: Klein
Klein was also asked about comments he made in the first week of the campaign regarding the province's Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped program. In a speech at a Calgary rally, he remarked that two women "yipping" at him about AISH payments "didn't look severely handicapped to me. I'll tell you that for sure. Both had cigarettes dangling from their mouths, and cowboy hats."
Klein said he was trying to be humourous with the anecdote, but stood by his promise to weed out anyone abusing the system, which pays those unable to work because of a disability a maximum of $850 a month. He said he wants the assistance to go to those who need it most, and that the program and the funding levels are being reviewed.
Mason said if there is abuse of the system, Klein's government in charge for 11 years is to blame, and he accused the premier of lacking compassion.
"There are 30,000 people on AISH and they have had only one increase in 11 years," Mason said, alluding to the $40 a month boost in 1998.
Taft called it "deplorable" that disabled Albertans are expected to live on $850 a month, prompting Klein to say he hadn't turned his back on anyone and that AISH recipients would "see action very soon."
Some of the livelier exchanges took place between Klein and Mason, who accused the Conservatives of making a mess of the deregulation of the electricity industry and the auto insurance reforms.
Klein asked Mason whether he thought the Tory caucus sat around the table and talked about wanting to make a mess of auto insurance, to which Mason replied: "no, you do it by accident."
When Mason early in the debate said the NDP pressured Klein's government to eliminate health-care premiums for seniors, Klein said the "power of the NDs, all two of you, can't push the government to do anything."
Mason retorted that pressure from those two MLAs got the government to ask the auditor general to investigate who benefited from provincial mad-cow compensation.
Taft and Mason said Klein hasn't done enough to help farmers affected by the mad-cow crisis over the past 18 months. Mason said too much of the aid went to American meatpackers, rather than farmers. The auditor general said the meat-packing plants didn't benefit unfairly from the program.
Leaders have vision for Heritage Fund
Taft, who has promised to put 35 per cent of any surplus into the Heritage Fund, said he would like the rainy-day investment to grow to a point where personal income tax could be eliminated. He accused the Conservatives of "frittering" away oil and gas revenues over their 33 years of rule.
Klein said the opposition parties are sending mixed messages: "they want us to spend, spend, spend and save, save, save." He said his government used the royalties to pay off the $23-billion debt he inherited when he became premier, as well as invest in the infrastructure and sustainability funds.
Mason, who wants the province to increase the amount of royalties received, said having paid off the debt, Klein has "no plan to go forward from that day."
Klein called Mason's desire to see oil and gas companies pay more an "NDP NEP," referring to the federal National Energy Progam of the 1980s, which kept oil prices artificially low.
Klein, who has said this will be his last election, also said he intends to serve a full term if elected.