United Conservative Party leadership candidates found plenty of common ground on policy during the campaign’s first leadership debate Wednesday night. But they offered contrasting styles of conservatism and clashed over the best way to reach Alberta voters.

The debate, which took place in the Bella Concert Hall at Mount Royal University, had candidates, Brian Jean, Jason Kenney, Doug Schweitzer and Jeff Callaway answering questions from party members in advance of the  leadership vote on Oct. 28.

“I think at the end of the day, we will be choosing not just a leader, but a future premier,” said Kenney. “Somebody who can hit the ground running on day one, making the changes that are necessary to renew the Alberta advantage.”

Kenney and Jean, the likely frontrunners, took different approaches when answering each question. Kenney answered bluntly, often reciting his accomplishments at the top of each answer. Jean, on the other hand, offered a gentler conservatism with the catchphrase, “Here for Albertans.”

“My personal life reflects my leadership. It reflects my leadership in my family, it reflects my leadership as an MLA, as a member of parliament, as a lawyer, and as a businessman,” said Jean.  

“I believe that if we focus on people, we will get better results. Making sure people understand who I am, I think will convince them that, I am the best person for this job.”  

Schweitzer answered many of the questions with a focus on his appeal to young voters. He explained that his campaign slogan, “New Blue”, comes out of a desire to change the current view of conservatism by “turning the page on social issues.”

“We have a young province, if we get these social issues right then in the next election campaign, we can keep the focus on the economy and that’s a winning recipe,” said Schweitzer.Doug Schweitzer, the youngest candidate at 38-years-old, speaks about his take on the province’s current economic situation during Wednesday night’s United Conservative Party leadership debate at Mount Royal University. Photo by Stephanie Babych

Callaway, meanwhile, had a very different idea of how to gain young support by stating that when young voters see the opportunities that conservative economics offer, “they will come.”

After opening statements, the debate began with a question about what it means to be conservative in reference to social issues.

Jean and Kenney argued that equality of opportunity is a large part of conservatism, while Schweitzer said it was time to get social policies right by adopting a better attitude towards them.

Callaway answered the question last.

“I don’t think we have anything to apologize for as conservatives,” he said firmly. After the debate he added, “We need to have a full suite of policies that are developed by our leaders, that’s respectful of everyone in all backgrounds that choose whatever life they want.”

Jean explained after the debate that it’s the responsibility of the leader to stand up for everyone.

“I think Albertans need to stand together and we need to put those different issues that divide us apart to the side and focus on what brings us together and making sure that a premier is here for every single Albertan,” said Jean.

When the questions switched from social issues to economics and resources, Kenney got fired up. “No! We are broke!” he yelled, when asked about the current government’s spending habits. His response received thunderous applause from the audience.

“People are ready for some plain talk. I think people are sick and tired of politicians pandering and mumbling and I think it’s time for us to be clear and blunt, even if that means we lose some people’s votes,” he said.

On July 22, members of the Progressive Conservative and Wildrose parties voted 95 per cent  in favour of creating a single United Conservative Party. The merger is to prevent another split conservative vote, which we saw in the 2015 election.

Although the candidates’ positions on social and economic issues differed, they could all agree on one thing: the importance of working hard as a party to ensure the UCP wins the next election against the current NDP government.

“I like to make sure that people are empowered, people are lifted up,” Jean said after the debate. “I’m going to work to make us unite together to take on the task of defeating the NDP in the next election, which is the most important thing.”

Schweitzer also showed his enthusiasm for the united party.

“People are ready for this party. They’re ready to be excited again and optimistic about how we’re going to grow in this province.”

The deadline for purchasing a membership and being eligible to vote is Friday, Sept. 29.

sbabych@cjournal.ca

Editor: Jolene Rudisuela | jrudisuela@cjournal.ca