The seven candidates vying to become the next United Conservative Party leader and Alberta premier are to tackle health, the economy and other key issues in their first debate tonight.
They are to square off in Medicine Hat for the first of two scheduled debates ahead of Oct. 6, when party members vote on who should replace Premier Jason Kenney.
The debate will be moderated by former Calgary city councillor Jeff Davison and focus on unity, leadership and the environment.
The candidates include former cabinet ministers Travis Toews, Rebecca Schulz, Rajan Sawhney and Leela Aheer.
Current legislature members Brian Jean and Todd Loewen are also in the race, as is former Wildrose leader Danielle Smith.
This is the only scheduled debate before the crucial Aug. 12 cutoff for members to sign up if they wish to vote in the leadership contest and the final debate is set for Aug. 30 in Edmonton.
The candidates have already released policy positions and promises on some of the topics to be discussed, including health care.
Smith has promised to introduce $300 health savings accounts for alternative services not covered by insurance, such as dentists and chiropractors.
She is also expected to face renewed criticism and questions from other candidates on recent podcast comments in which she said responsibility for early-stage cancer is within a patient’s control. Fellow candidates have called that profoundly misinformed and insulting.
Toews and Schulz are promising to create incentives to hire more health professionals and streamline and reduce bureaucracy in health management.
On the economy, with Alberta taking in a $3.9-billion surplus this past fiscal year, candidates are proposing ways to help people deal with rising costs due to inflation.
Jean, who has said Albertans are facing price gouging at the gasoline pumps, is promising to temporarily cap price margins if they are substantially higher than other provinces.
Sawhney has said she would deliver monthly cheques of at least $75 to households while oil prices remain high to help families struggling with inflation.
Healing rifts within the party and with Albertans will also be in the spotlight.
Aheer was removed from Kenney’s cabinet a year ago after criticizing his actions on COVID-19. She has said support can’t be demanded by a leader, but must be earned through respect and collaboration.
Loewen, who was voted out of Kenney’s caucus in the spring of 2021 for calling on him to resign, has said rebuilding unity with a more collaborative leader is a core plank in his platform, too.