Redford draws attacks in Alberta leaders' debate

The leaders of the Alberta NDP, Liberal and Wildrose parties attacked the record of Progressive Conservative Leader Alison Redford's government during Thursday's lively televised debate.
The leaders of Alberta's four largest political parties sparred in a 90-minute televised debate on Thursday. (Jason Franson/Canadian Press)

The leaders of the Alberta NDP, Liberal and Wildrose parties attacked the record of Progressive Conservative Leader Alison Redford's government during Thursday night's lively televised debate.

Redford was forced to defend the governing Tories' record on health care and on the controversial no-meet committee by the NDP Leader Brian Mason, Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith and Liberal Leader Raj Sherman.

Redford tried to position herself as someone who is transforming the Alberta Progressive Conservatives, whose 41-year hold on power is being challenged by the surging Wildrose Party in this election.

"The system is broken," she said about MLA compensation at one point. "And I'm very pleased to be a new leader and a new premier who identified that we needed to make the change."

Many were watching to see Redford clash with Smith, her nearest rival in a race too close to call. 

The two leaders confronted each other several times, particularly on the Wildrose's proposed $300 energy dividends — the so-called "Danielle dollars" that Redford believes would take away funding for health care and schools.

Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith (left) and Progressive Conservative Leader Alison Redford sparred at several points during the debate. (Jason Franson/Canadian Press )

They also sparred over Thursday's revelations that the Wildrose agreed to give $20,000 to the constituency associations of two Tories prior to their switching parties in 2010, something the chief electoral officer said is allowed as long as it is reported. 

Smith challenged Redford to roll back a 30 per cent pay increase that cabinet ministers approved for themselves in 2008.

"Will you show leadership tonight and agree to reduce your own MLA pay, your own cabinet pay, by 30 per cent?" Smith asked. "Will you take the same step that you have asked all of your MLAs to take?"

Redford said she would accept recommendations from an MLA pay committee chaired by retired Supreme Court justice John Major.

"When I take a look at the recommendations you have made, your first comments were that you wanted an independent process," Redford replied. "And then within an hour, said that you thought $125,000 was a reasonable salary."

Conscience rights an issue for Smith

Smith was attacked by the other leaders about so-called conscience rights issues. The Wildrose leader repeated her assertion that her party would not legislate or have policies on contentious social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage.

"It's nothing but fear-mongering by a government that's on the run," she said. 

"Well the reason it's come up is the Wildrose talked about doing it as part of their party platform," Redford replied. "Everyone in our caucus takes the view that these matters have been settled and do not have to be raised again."

Redford added that she was "disappointed" that social issues had come up in the election.

"The reason this is coming up is simply because this leader and this party didn't like what the courts have already decided over 20 years ago."

NDP Leader Brian Mason makes a point as Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith looks on. ] (Jason Franson/Canadian Press)

Mason worried that a Wildrose proposal for citizen-initiated referendums would lead to an "Americanization of our system."

But Sherman went a little further. "Danielle, this is Alberta, not Alabama," he said.

Mason criticized Redford and Smith for what he saw as their plans to privatize the health-care system.

"I think both conservative parties here want to introduce more private health care, and that's more expensive, and it reduces health outcomes," Mason said.

Redford replied, "Actually, Brian, this time you're going to get Alison Redford, and this Progressive Conservative Party is committed exclusively to a publicly funded system."

Sherman, a former emergency room doctor, challenged the Tories' record on creating long-term care spaces for seniors.

"It's a crisis," he told Redford. "Let's get our seniors out of hospital. Your plan doesn't have enough home care to solve the emergency crisis, the cancellation of all the surgeries. Alison, the system is still in crisis."

Smith also came under attack by her rivals for the Wildrose "wait time guarantee" where the province would fund private health-care procedures for people who've waited too long for certain procedures.

With the election now just 11 days away, it remains to be seen how performances in the debate will affect voters.

"People who have already made up their minds, see a lot of things in it that say, 'My leader won,' " said pollster Bruce Cameron from Report on Insight Inc. "We'll hear a lot of that."

Polls have suggested that the Wildrose poses a threat to the Tories. Albertans vote on April 23.