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Awards, arguments and apologies: first UCP leadership debate draws a crowd in Medicine Hat

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Alberta's United Conservative Party's first official leadership debate had heated exchanges, online and in-person disruptions and a controversial apology. 

It also had some policy promises. 

All seven candidates were in Medicine Hat on Wednesday night for the first of two debates. 

The stage included former UCP cabinet ministers Leela Aheer, Rajan Sawhney, Rebecca Schulz and Travis Toews. Former Wildrose leaders Danielle Smith and Brian Jean and ousted UCPer Todd Loewen rounded out the field.

SMITH UNDER FIRE

The early portions of Wednesday's debate were devoted to Smith's recent comments about cancer and naturopathic remedies. Smith said in a campaign video that she believes some of the blame in the fight against the disease falls at the hands of the patient.

"I'm sorry, I'm not buying it," Rajan Sawhney said after the former Wild Rose leader tried to "clarify" her comments. "You made a subsequent video where you actually doubled down on your perspective and the reality is, those comments are very hurtful."

"Danielle, I'm very disappointed in you," Jean added. 

But Smith's on-stage sorry only went so far. 

After claiming she had apologized and "was clearly misunderstood," Smith's opponents almost unanimously agreed she needed to walk back her remarks even more. 

Smith says she plans on restructuring all of Alberta Health Services, including firing the AHS board, by year end.

And it wasn't just Smith's comments about cancer that were challenged. 

The contest's front-runner -- according to a recent poll by Leger -- was also heavily challenged on her promises of an Alberta Sovereignty Act. 

Toews called it "unconstitutional" and Sawhney referred to the plan as "irresponsible."

"Smith is a great fear for our energy industry," Schulz said. "Creating chaos is going to create additional investment uncertainty."

WINNERS?

MRU political scientist Lori Williams praised the debates delivered by Schulz and Sawhney, who she said "won in the sense that they communicated a little bit about who they are and what they stand for and what alternatives they offer to Albertans."

Williams saw it as a sort of coming out party for the duo, who both have experience in the UCP cabinet. 

Mount Royal University political science professor Lori Williams

"Whether or not they actually win the leadership, I think those alternatives that they're presenting are really shaking up some of the debate that's going on in this race."

LOST OPPORTUNITY

The debate, held at the HALO Air Ambulance Hangar, was moderated by former Calgary councillor Jeff Davison.

There were several disruptions of the livestream on YouTube and one portion cut out due to technical difficulties. 

Although the party said afterwards that there is a copy of the complete event available for viewing, Williams called the evening a missed opportunity. 

"If I were to say there's a loser, I think it might be the UCP party in that the quality of the debate and the livestream was very poor," she told CTV News. "I had a number of feeds going at once because they kept cutting out on YouTube when the live-feed lapsed."

There were also several audience disruptions. 

One in particular -- after Smith said the UCP cabinet owes Albertans an apology for implementing COVID-19 measures -- caused Davidson to stand up to quiet those in the crowd.

PROMISING PROMISES

-Todd Loewen said he wants to bring back trust and give the party back to its membership. He spent his time on stage speaking to PST, financial discipline and having "a new voice" in charge 

-Danielle Smith drew an applause for speaking out against COVID-19 measures and the arrests of Calgary siblings who repeatedly defied public health orders. She preached the importance of health spending accounts and Alberta independence.

-Rajan Sawhney's biggest promises came when speaking about health care. She wants to flip the structure of Alberta Health Services and even floated the idea of regional health boards.

-Rebecca Schulz defended her collaborative work with the federal government but said more needs to be done to get Alberta's voice heard in Ottawa. She wants to improve the way provincial resources go to market

-Leela Aheer tried to represent "small C Conservatives" within the party. She spoke about her plan to revamp AISH and to handle inflation. She was the only candidate who started her speech with a land acknowledgment, something she has previously stressed the importance of.

-Travis Toews was critical of Ottawa's obstructionism and preached unity. He also spoke extensively about his track record as the finance minister and said he can improve the provincial debt with another mandate.

-Brian Jean claimed to be the only candidate with high-level experience inside of a "functioning" government. He has promised to step into the market to get a handle on gas prices and to include all of the other candidates in his cabinet, as he says they all have vital ideas and are key to unity.

UNIFYING THE UNITED CONSERVATIVES 

There's a reason Jason Kenney stepped down, and Williams says she's not sure if it was adequately addressed Wednesday. 

"I'm not sure that I saw a solution to the problem of party unity," she said. "Given that these candidates stand for such different visions for the future, it's difficult to see how they're going to bring those who disagree with them on-side when they become premier."

Toews and Jean specifically beat the togetherness drum during their speeches, but Williams said it was missing a broader appeal. 

"Remember that this is the last debate before the membership cuts off (sales)," she said. 

More than 70,000 memberships have been sold, which means fewer than three per cent of all Albertans will be able to cast a ballot in October.

TAKE TWO 

A second official debate will take place in Edmonton at the Maclab Theatre in the Citadel on Aug 30.The deadline for supporters to join the UCP to vote is Aug. 12 and ballots will go in the mail on Sept. 2

The announcement of the leadership results will take place in Calgary at the BMO Centre on Oct. 6.

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