Alberta NDP, UCP and Greens face off in Spruce Grove-Stony Plain
Candidates didn't necessarily stick to the script in the local election forum for the Edmonton donut riding.
All Alberta politics obsessive eyes will be on the big May 18 leaders debate, where Rachel Notley and Danielle Smith will no doubt deliver their pre-packaged zingers to an audience that has largely already made up its mind whom to vote for.
Local candidate forums, by contrast, provide an opportunity to hear candidates go off script and speak directly to what they think their constituents want to hear, in addition to the presence of smaller parties whose leaders won’t make it to the big stage with Smith and Notley.
This leads me to the May 16 candidates forum for Spruce Grove-Stony Plain — one of the suburban Edmonton donut ridings the NDP needs to win from the UCP unless it sweeps every Calgary seat, which it won’t. I’ve declared it one of the 23 ridings to watch in this election.
Don’t get me wrong, there was no shortage of dull, partisan talking points during the forum, hosted by the Greater Parkland Regional Chamber of Commerce, but the most interesting parts were when the NDP and UCP candidates contradicted their party’s messaging.
It was also valuable to hear the Green perspective, which will be absent from the leaders debate. (Although you will be able to hear Alberta Party leader Barry Morishita and Green leader Jordan Wilkie debate on The Forgotten Corner’s official third-party leaders debate™ next week, if all goes according to plan.)
Participating in the debate were UCP incumbent Searle Turton, NDP candidate Chantal Saramaga-McKenzie and Green candidate Daniel Birrell. Absent was Darlene Clark, the local candidate for Calgary hate preacher Artur Pawlowski’s Solidarity Movement of Alberta, which was certainly for the better, although it would have made for a much livelier debate.
Turton, a backbencher whose sole private member’s bill was a failed effort to have the speed limit on highways increased to 120 km/h from 110 km/h, and Saramaga-McKenzie, a local small business tyrant, have a bit of history. Both served on Spruce Grove city council from 2017, when Saramaga-McKenzie was elected, to 2019, when Turton left to run for the UCP.
Early in the debate, Saramaga-McKenzie boasted that she owns three “small businesses,” meaning she would save a lot of money from the NDP’s commitment to not just lower but eliminate the small business tax — a policy lifted right out of the Fraser Institute’s neoliberal guidebook.
That’s par the course for the NDP’s campaign branding as Diet UCP, but when their candidate was asked about “school choice” — directing public funds to private schools — she might have revealed more than the party intended.
“Rachel Notley and the NDP … supports the public sector, which includes public and separate, as well as the francophone and charter schools” before boasting of the party’s plan to hire 4,000 new teachers and 3,000 new educational assistants (EAs) to reduce class sizes.
But when Notley announced that policy, she suggested in response to a question about charter schools that those funds are intended to incentivize parents to keep their kids in the public system — meaning public, separate (Catholic) and francophone schools.
According to Notley’s Spruce Grove-Stony Plain candidate, public also includes charter schools. But that’s not all. Saramaga-McKenzie added that she’s “excited to share” that an NDP government would continue funding homeschooling, which she said “is considered as part of the public [system] as well.”
When the NDP was last in power, it continued the PCs’ policy of providing equal funding to charter schools and 70% of funding for accredited private schools. Unlike public, Catholic and francophone schools, charter and private schools are unaccountable to a democratically elected school board, and have a much easier time turning away students.
To Turton, the NDP was insufficiently supportive of private schools. “Private Christian schools, especially here in this riding,” he complained, “were under attack by the previous government.”
These schools “didn’t want to adhere to the government at the time,” which to me suggests the government was under attack from wealthy private schools, which can charge whatever they want in fees and tuition on top of their public funds.
But Turton, or Turdman as I’m increasingly tempted to call him, conveniently leaves out what exactly these schools didn’t want to adhere to — NDP legislation forcing schools that receive public funding to allow their students to establish gay-straight alliances while forbidding teachers and administrators from outing the students to their parents.
“I find it unfortunate and a little bit disingenuous when I hear when you want to talk about your support for private Christian schools,” he said to Saramaga-McKenzie, who didn’t say a word about private Christian schools.
Birrell, who is himself a former EA, was the clear voice of reason on this topic, and many others. He said a Green government would reduce public funding for private schools to 50% over five years, and work with school boards to offer specialized programming available at private and charter schools under the public umbrella.
The moderator, whose name I didn’t catch, asked Turdman about the UCP’s $20-billion plan to incentivize oil and gas companies to clean up their abandoned wells, pipelines and other fossil fuel infrastructure.
This was an apparent reference to Smith’s pet R-Star program to give fossil fuel companies a break on future royalties if they engage in a clean up they’re already legally obligated to do. Smith lobbied the UCP government back in 2021 to adopt a $20-billion version of the program, but since forming government has advocated for a scaled-down $100-million pilot project.
Turton pretended he’d never heard of it.
He correctly pointed out the policy isn’t mentioned in the UCP platform, conveniently leaving out Smith’s stated intention to move forward with the pilot in the fall.
He called it “misinformation spread by the NDP that some sort of policy change has actually happened.” But nobody’s saying that the change has happened. They’re saying that it will occur if the UCP is re-elected, as Smith said in February.
Saramaga-McKenzie didn’t help matters when she picked up the erroneous $20-billion figure and said an NDP government would spend it on public services. She did, however, advocate for a “new policy” forcing companies to pay for their clean up costs up front.
This is urgently needed. According to the Alberta Liability Disclosures Project, whose researcher Regan Boychuk is running for the Greens in Banff-Kananaskis, there are as much as $260 billion in liabilities across the province, yet companies have paid just $1.5 billion in securities to fund their reclamation.
Birrell pointed out that the Alberta Energy Regulator, which has the power to revoke licensing permits for oil and gas companies that have outstanding liabilities, “is obviously not doing its job.”
With oil fetching record prices that are inevitably going to come crashing down, oil companies need to pay up now and stop “robbing us,” Birrell said.
Turton responded to a question about the pandemic by saying he “always appreciated the advice” of former chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw — former, because Turton’s boss unceremoniously fired her as one of her first acts as premier.