UCP leadership candidates vow to 'take Alberta back'

Each of the four men vying to become the next leader of Alberta's nascent United Conservative Party think he's the one who can "take Alberta back" from the "ideological" NDP.

All oppose the NDP's minimum wage increase to $13.60 on Oct. 1, then to $15 in the fall of 2018

From left to right: Jason Kenney, Doug Schweitzer, Brian Jean and Jeff Callaway took turns addressing questions on education, health care and labour. (CBC)

Each of the four men vying to become the next leader of Alberta's nascent United Conservative Party think he's the one who can "take Alberta back" from the "ideological" NDP.

That was the common message at the party's leadership debate in Edmonton Thursday night.

Former PC leader Jason Kenney, former Wildrose Party leader Brian Jean, Calgary lawyer Doug Schweitzer and former Wildrose president Jeff Callaway are running for the leadership.

"I think the number one thing I can do," Jean told the crowd of nearly 600 party faithful. "I will defeat the NDP in the next election and I will get investor confidence back."

Doug Schweitzer says he would cut the minimum wage back to $12.20 an hour if elected party leader and premier in the next provincial election. (CBC)

On stage at the Northlands Expo Centre in Edmonton, the message was echoed repeatedly by the other three candidates, who painted the NDP's policies on energy, labour and health care as damaging to Alberta's economy.

"The next election is too important for us to really take any big chances on," Callaway told the crowd.

"We've got to get rid of the NDP, we've got to get this economy back on track," he said. 

All oppose the NDP's minimum wage increase to $13.60 on Oct. 1, then to $15 in the fall of 2018. The minimum wage is currently $12.20 an hour.

The candidates say the higher minimum wage will cause Alberta to lose 25,000 jobs, a situation Schweitzer called "completely unacceptable."

He's the only candidate promising to repeal the wage increase and freeze it at $12.20 an hour if elected.

Though Kenney called the minimum wage hike "reckless," the former MP was quick to call Schweitzer out on such a drastic move he said could end up losing votes for the party.

"Let's not allow the NDP to scare hundreds of thousands of Albertans into saying that the conservative party is going to cut their wages."

The gay-straight alliance debate

The issue of gay-straight alliances in schools was briefly raised.

Kenney remained firm that parents have a right to know if their children join a GSA, while Schweitzer and Jean said it's the child's choice.

"Any party that I lead … has no place for intolerance," Jean said.

Kenney and Jean both called for a return to coal-powered electricity, with Kenney again calling the NDP's shift to natural gas an "ideological attempt to shut down coal." 
Form left to right: Doug Schweitzer, Brian Jean and Jeff Callaway wave to the crowd of about 600 United Conservative Party members at the end of the leadership debate in Edmonton. (CBC)

No clear winner

After the two-hour forum, it wasn't clear if there was a winner, as each candidate earned a share of applause from the crowd on different points.

Only Callaway drew a 'boo' from the audience when he commented on the Wildrose Party still having a deficit, which happened under Jean's leadership.

During the first debate in Calgary on Sept. 20 the four candidates found some common ground. All said they wanted to balance the budget, scrap the NDP government's carbon tax and build more pipelines to move Alberta oil to market.

The UCP was created in July, after members approved a merger of the Wildrose and Progressive Conservative parties.

The candidates will face off in three more debates — in Red Deer on Oct. 3, in Fort McMurray on Oct. 12 and in Lethbridge on Oct.17 — before party members pick a leader next month. 

The winner will be announced Oct. 28.