United Conservative Party leader Jason Kenney was targeted in Thursday night’s leaders’ debate over his party’s position on gay-straight alliances, his refusal to fire Mark Smith and allegations his team “cheated” to win the UCP leadership race in 2017.
Kenney focused most of his attacks on Alberta NDP leader Rachel Notley, the current premier, particularly over her economic record and her “alliance” with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Notley relished the opportunity to attack Kenney, who has faced controversy throughout the campaign about candidates revealed to have controversial views and questions about Kenney’s role in the Jeff Callaway “kamikaze” leadership campaign to discredit fellow candidate Brian Jean.
“It is becoming clearer and clearer that people on Mr. Kenney’s leadership team, at the very least, cheated for him to win the leadership,” Notley said during the debate.
“So the real question is this. If Mr. Kenney would cheat his own party members to have a chance at running to be premier, what will he do to the people of this province to keep the job?”
Kenney accused Notley of making a “drive-by smear.”
“Whenever she does this, it’s because she’s incapable of defending her failed economic record, the jobs crisis, her alliance with Justin Trudeau, her carbon tax,” he said.
“Whenever you hear that fear and smear, that’s what’s really going on.”
Watch the full debate
As for the allegations of cheating, Kenney said the results were confirmed by an independent firm. He challenged Notley to reveal the names of the two NDP MLAs who were investigated for sexual misconduct.
“I’m really sorry that you believe that people talking about your record is somehow negative campaigning,” Notley responded. “The leadership campaign of what you were a part is under RCMP investigation.”
Liberal leader David Khan and Alberta Party leader Stephen Mandel — each with single-digit support in the polls — went after each other, in one of the most memorable exchanges of the night.
Khan accused the Alberta Party of advocating for private health care, which Mandel vehemently denied.
When Khan said he heard Mandel say it on a radio station. Mandel asked Khan what he was smoking at the time.
“Maybe you were smoking things that you shouldn’t have been smoking,” he quipped.
‘Math is difficult’
Debates can sometimes be landmark moments in election campaigns.
Notley’s performance in the televised debate on April 23, 2015, appeared to turn the polls in her favour.
A Mainstreet Research poll released that day showed Notley’s NDP with 31 per cent of support, one point behind the Wildrose Party led by Brian Jean, and five points ahead of Jim Prentice’s Progressive Conservatives.
The first poll released after the debate showed the NDP at 38 per cent, up seven points, while the Wildrose had dropped 11 points and the Tories two points. From then on, the NDP consistently led in every poll until the May election.
After the debate, Prentice was accused of sexism and “mansplaining” for telling Notley, “I know that math is difficult,” while discussing the NDP’s proposal to raise the corporate tax from 10 to 12 per cent.
On May 5, Albertans elected an NDP majority government, ending the PCs’ 44-year hold on power.
UCP ahead in polls
The United Conservative Party (UCP) is currently ahead in the polls, but Kenney heads into the debate facing multiple controversies.
They include: his refusal to drop Mark Smith as the party’s candidate in Drayton Valley-Devon after homophobic remarks from six years ago came to light; RCMP investigations into the 2017 UCP leadership race; and questions about Kenney’s role in the Jeff Callaway “kamikaze” leadership campaign to discredit fellow candidate Brian Jean.
The UCP has also faced some backlash over a proposal to roll back rules for banked overtime, which the NDP changed in 2017.
Kenney, for his part, has focused his campaign on pipelines, the economy and jobs.
The election has so far played out as a battle between Notley and Kenney, and their respective parties. Alberta Party Leader Stephen Mandel and Liberal Leader David Khan will likely welcome the opportunity to get some exposure to potential voters.
This story originally appeared on CBC