Alberta Progressive Conservative leadership candidate Jim Prentice says that his campaign is following all the rules when it hands out party memberships for free.

PC party memberships carry a price tag of  $10 each.

But Prentice, the presumed front-runner in the race to replace disgraced former premier Alison Redford, told a PC leadership forum in Edmonton Monday giving out free memberships doesn’t contravene party regulations.

“We actually confirmed the rules with the party in writing at the early stage of the campaign,”  Prentice replied to a question from leadership rival Ric McIver.

“We are following the rules and will continue to do so. And we will be fully transparent in reporting our financial statements as required to do.

“I favour a democratic process that gets as many Albertans as possible involved in this leadership race and in the party... some people buy their own memberships, some people buy family memberships, some people buy memberships and sponsor other people.”

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Jim Prentice, Ric McIver and Thomas Lukaszuk took questions from the audience as well as moderator and CBC Reporter Kim Trynacity at Monday's forum in Edmonton. (CBC)

Prentice’s answer sparked a response from leadership candidate Thomas Lukaszuk that got the biggest laugh of the night.

“That’s why I would encourage all Albertans to pick up a free membership from Jim and vote for me.”

After the crowd laughed and clapped, Lukaszuk turned serious.

“We need a premier who has an intuitive understanding of what is right and what is wrong,” Lukaszuk said. “Just because you can find a legal loophole or just because it doesn’t say so, it doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do.”

AHS board sparks conflict

The forum was hosted by the Ukrainian Canadian Congress. So candidates fielded a number of questions about language. cultural issues and Alberta’s business relationship with Ukraine.

But they were also asked about energy royalties, education and health care governance, with the latter sparking disagreement between all three candidates.

McIver said problems with Alberta health care are more a management than a funding issue.

“We have to be shameless in going to other provinces that are getting a bigger and better bang for the buck in Canada and we need to steal their ideas," he said.  

Last year, Alberta Health Minister Fred Horne fired the board of Alberta Health Services for disobeying a directive to cancel bonuses for executives.

While Prentice said nothing would change in health care unless AHS was fixed, McIver replied “That is not the way to go. That actually insulates government from accountability.”

Lukaszuk said AHS  has been restructured so many times in the past decade that nurses don’t know who their bosses are anymore.

He said that people might learn more about how to run a health care system from workers on the front lines.

“Most of the issues that Albertans complain about have nothing to do with a corporate structure of the entity, they have to do with front line delivery,” he said.

“All of the front line workers will tell you,” Prentice replied, “that decisions that used to be made one level above the nurse and the doctor are being made five or six levels up into the bureaucracy. Somebody has to deal with that.”

The three candidates agreed on a number of issues, including maintaining the status quo on funding for private schools and keeping resource royalty rates at current levels.

They also say Alberta needs to negotiate a new deal with Ottawa to make immigration a provincial responsibility.

Lukaszuk got applause when he said that Canada needs “permanent foreign workers," not temporary foreign workers. He said that people should not be treated like "tools” to rent.

McIver argued that Alberta needs to attract workers from other provinces. He also called for eliminating income clawbacks for people who receive benefits from the Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped or AISH program so they can work if they want to.

Like Lukaszuk, McIver said that temporary foreign workers who prove to be valuable employees shouldn’t be sent back to their countries of origin after two years.

Alberta PC party members will vote for a new leader Sept. 6. If none of the candidates receive more than 50 per cent of the vote, a second ballot will be held between the top two finishers two weeks later.