EDMONTON - Alberta Premier Alison Redford took hits from all sides in a televised election debate Thursday as her rivals took turns dismissing her as a weak leader who would promise anything to get elected.
The three opposition leaders — chief among them Wildrose frontwoman Danielle Smith — challenged Redford on her Progressive Conservative government's deficit budgeting and the alleged bullying of doctors by health officials.
They even piled on over how she called for the vote.
"She promised fix election dates then didn't," Smith charged.
"She promised she would look into the bullying and intimidation of doctors in the health care system, and then didn't.
"What we've seen after six months of Redford leadership is she is the kind of leader who will say anything to get elected and when she's elected it's not worth the paper it's written on."
Smith shared the stage with Redford, Liberal Leader Raj Sherman, and Brian Mason of the NDP for the 90-minute showdown. It was one of two leaders debates that will be held prior to the April 23 polling day. Still, there was much hype around Thursday's event.
Redford's Tories have held 11 consecutive majority governments dating back more than 40 years but are facing a serious challenge from Smith's party this time around.
Recent polls have suggested the upstart, right-wing Wildrose is tied or ahead of the Tories.
Sherman, an emergency room doctor who was bounced from the Tories in 2010 and took up the job as Liberal leader, echoed Smith's attacks.
He challenge Redford's record since taking over the Tory leadership last fall.
"Alison, you have a record, a very bad record," said Sherman.
"You have broken your promises. You've flip-flopped. You have a record on health care of disrespecting all the doctors. You're announcing announcement after announcement (on future spending) with no basis for it."
Mason chastised Redford for passing a budget she promised to run on during the election then announcing election promises that will cost out at more than $3 billion for new schools and health centres.
"She said that was the blueprint for the future and has now added billions of dollars in spending. It really smacks of desperation," said Mason.
Redford fired back, reminding Mason that the extra spending promises don't kick in until after the current budget year.
"We've been definite about that," said Redford.
Redford also shot back at Smith, challenging the Wildrose leader on her lack of a seat in the legislature.
She questioned Smith over the $40,000 the party paid to the constituency associations of Wildrose candidates Rob Anderson and Heather Forsyth when the pair crossed the floor from the Tories to join the Wildrose in 2010.
"When we look at people in your caucus who you actually paid to cross the floor, there are serious questions with respect to integrity that Albertans deserve an answer to," said Redford.
Smith said the payments were above board. Anderson and Forsyth have said the money was to get their constituency associations off the ground and they would have crossed the floor without it.
Redford and the Tories have been fighting a public backlash over numerous scandals and flip-flops in the leadup to the campaign and she took flak for most of them during the debate.
As a candidate for the Tory leadership, she promised a fixed election date, but as premier placed the date within a three-month window citing the need for flexibility to accommodate issues such as spring flooding.
She promised earlier this year to hold a public inquiry into the bullying by health officials of doctors who spoke out on substandard patient care. However, the inquiry she called will deal only with alleged queue-jumping for care on the part of connected patients.
When accused of breaking her promise, she said the bullying issue had been dealt with by a panel of doctors and that the promise she made on the subject dealt only with queue jumping.
There was some piling on Smith, too.
The Wildrose leader, who just recently revealed she is personally pro-choice, has been fighting fears that the social-conservative wing of her party would use new citizen-initiated referendum rules to overturn contentious issues such as public funding for abortion.
During the debate, she insisted her party will nevertheless support citizen-initiated referendums because it is a way for citizens to have a say.
"It's nothing but fear-mongering by a government that is on the run and worried about its opposition and competition," Smith charged.
"The reason it has come up is because the Wildrose has talked about doing it — it's part of their party platform," Redford retorted. "Three weeks ago, we heard from this leader that her personal views didn't matter. Then we heard that she would take her marching orders from her party. Then we heard that her caucus was important, then we heard her own personal views.
"I will tell you that in our view, a Progressive Conservative view, everyone in our caucus, takes the view that these matters have been settled. They do not need to be raised again."
NDP Leader Brian Mason said that in the United States, such referendums allow special interest groups to impose their views on the majority.
"The Americanization of our political system that the Wildrose prefers with citizen-intiated referenda and so on allows special interests to hijack the political agenda, because it is not usually the citizen themselves, the ordinary person."
The debate was one of the most anticipated political events in recent Alberta history and people seemed to be tuned in. An hour in, seven of the top 10 trending topics on Twitter in Canada were Alberta debate related.
The Tories had 67 seats in the 83-seat legislature at dissolution, compared with eight for the Liberals, four for the Wildrose, two for NDP, one for the Alberta Party, along with one Independent.
Four more seats have been added for this election: two in Calgary, one in Edmonton, and another in the booming oilsands area around Fort McMurray.
The Liberals and the NDP are bringing up the rear in the polls, mainly fighting each other for seats in Edmonton. With the polls showing the two front runners close, talk of a minority government has emerged in recent days.
Mason was asked about hat prospect of holding the balance of power during the debate.
He hedged on which of the conservative parties he'd back, saying he would support whoever adopted the most NDP policies.