SUNDRE – A sizeable crowd packed into the West Country Centre last night to hear what Rimbey-Rocky Mountain House-Sundre’s candidates had to say with less than a week before election day.
About 150 people filled up the hall, with Sundre & District Chamber of Commerce organizers placing a few additional seats to accommodate some who arrived minutes before the forum got underway.
A civil and respectful tone free from heckling or any hints of rowdiness was observed throughout the roughly two-hour event, which was moderated by Town of Sundre Coun. Jaime Marr and assisted by Heather Hicks, the chamber’s executive director who diligently ensured the candidates did not go beyond their allotted amount of time.
Questions were submitted prior to the forum and vetted in advance to help ensure a more efficient and streamlined approach, said Marr.
“We had some questions and comments online: why aren’t we going to do open speaker? We’re just not doing it. The (organizing) committee planned that. We took questions before this, we vetted them, (and) we believe the committee that was tasked with this did a great job,” she said, adding the committee endeavoured to be as non-partisan and neutral as possible.
The participating candidates were: Carol Nordlund Kinsey, Advantage Party of Alberta; Tim Hoven, independent; Jason Nixon, UCP incumbent; Vance Buchwald, Alberta NDP; and Fred Schwieger, independent. Tami Tatlock, who is listed by Elections Alberta as a candidate for the Wildrose Loyalty Coalition, was not present.
Each candidate was offered three to five minutes to introduce themselves, followed by seven questions with a minute to respond. The forum concluded with the candidates being granted three minutes to offer parting thoughts and last-minute appeals to voters.
The candidates largely stuck to the policy proposals and rhetorical talking points they’ve promoted throughout the election campaign, offering predictable responses to questions about issues including rural health-care staff shortages, mental health and addiction, education, support for municipalities, the environment, gun ownership and of course the economy.
With some time still on the clock following the more formal questions, Marr included two more.
The first pertained to how the public’s trust in our institutions seems to have substantially eroded over the past few years, and more specifically how to rebuild a level of confidence.
Calling the past few years “pretty rough,” Nixon, who was first up to respond, said, “any time you’re dealing with a situation where husbands and wives can’t agree on what is taking place, you’re never going to see a situation where politicians can find themselves in a spot where people aren’t losing trust in the overall political system.”
The riding’s incumbent went onto say the work the UCP has delegated to Preston Manning to look into the government’s COVID response to determine what went right, what went wrong, and recommend improvements in the future, will “go a long way” toward restoring trust. Nixon added that restructuring AHS is another key, and claimed the province’s health authority was “not capable of dealing with what took place.”
He also emphasized the delicate balancing act involved in addressing vastly different needs of a large province such as Alberta.
Hoven cited the “unintended consequences of government policy” and that the effort to curb the spread and stop the virus sounded good on the surface.
“But once you look at the consequences of those policies and how the government set out to stop the spread, that’s how the trust was destroyed,” said Hoven. “Husband and wife were fighting over the way to deal with COVID not because of COVID, but because the government stepped in and said you have to do this. And that was the cause of the conflict.
“The only way to restore trust, is to actually be trustworthy – there’s no other way. You can spend a lot of money, you can do a lot of talking. But if you’re not actually trustworthy – if the government isn’t actually trustworthy – it’s never going to be rebuilt,” he said, adding involving local-decision makers more would help restore confidence.
Nordlund Kinsey said transparency and communication with a non-judgmental and empathetic ear should be in charge.
Schwieger asserted that communication starts at the ground level and added the top-down system is no longer working.
“Kings figure they rule over people,” he said, adding that as an independent, he will not be forced by a party whip to toe the party line.
Buchwald harked back to the former Progressive Conservatives of the Peter Lougheed era who took seriously public consultation on major matters of provincial impact, citing the years-long effort that eventually led to the 1976 Coal Policy.
“It has to be an open consultation. It can’t be, ‘I made a decision, I’m going to sell you on it’. It can’t be these hokey internet surveys that keep coming out that direct you in one direction, no comments allowed,” he said, adding a proper consultation offers valuable opportunities to learn from a variety of different perspectives including the voices of Indigenous, First Nations and Métis people.
The final question was a simple yes or no regarding whether the candidates supported a policy proposal from any of the other parties or candidates, and to elaborate if they did.
“I will say yes,” Hoven started. “This might shock some people. I think the NDP’s policy of capping the electricity rates is a great idea. The reason I say that is the electricity rates have gotten high because of government intervention and government making decisions to support different corporations and allow them to have an excess profit.
“It’s not unfair to think that when the government makes a problem, you need government to sometimes fix the problem,” he said.
Electricity rates are too high and left unchecked under the current market forces might never correct, leading to consumers being gouged as people already struggle to afford basics, he said.
“We need some government intervention to bring those prices down to make life more affordable,” he said.
Nordlund Kinsey said almost everything mentioned by Schwieger – who does not represent a party – resonated loudly with her, including the notion of not having a leader standing between constituents and their elected representative.
“Our party believes in you telling me what you want; not our leader telling you what you want, not me telling you what you want,” she said.
Schwieger said he fully supports the Advantage Party of Alberta’s proposal to put the matter of provincial independence to a referendum.
Buchwald praised the UCP’s new Alberta Indigenous Opportunities Corporation.
“I fully support it,” he said. “But I think it needs an expanded role. Currently, it’s restricted to natural resource development projects. I think it has to be expanded to any project that Indigenous people would like to do.”
Nixon agreed with Schwieger’s concerns about a party whip, and the incumbent claimed the UCP has already addressed that.
“We enshrine that in our bylaws to make sure that Fred’s dreaded whip can’t tell individual members what to do,” he said.
Just before Marr opened the floor to the candidates’ concluding statements, a member of the crowd said to scattered applause that a question about the U.N. Sustainable Development Agenda had been ignored.
The moderator reiterated her opening statements about the questions having been vetted by the committee.
“I do respect that there are actually a lot of questions that we were unable to ask today,” she said, adding to applause that people would have an opportunity to engage with the candidates who were able to remain for a while after the forum.
Advance voting remains underway, while the official voting day is Monday, May 29.