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The Notley-Smith Debate, Fact-Checked

We tracked the claims. Alberta’s UCP leader was by far looser with the truth.

Brett McKay, David Slater and Charles Rusnell 22 May 2023The Tyee

Brett McKay is a recent MacEwan University journalism graduate. David Slater is a MacEwan University journalism student. Charles Rusnell is an independent investigative reporter in Edmonton.

No matter which pollster, or pundit, you believe, it is expected Alberta’s election next week will be the closest in the province’s history. 

Political observers say the Alberta NDP have so far succeeded in establishing the ballot question for voters, which is, can United Conservative Party Leader Danielle Smith, and by extension her government, be trusted?

Voters were given only one chance to assess and compare Smith and NDP Leader Rachel Notley during a televised debate Thursday evening. And within the first 10 seconds of Notley’s opening statement, she told voters “this election is about trust and it is about leadership.”

“You know you can't trust Danielle Smith,” Notley said, adding later, “when I say something I mean it and that is the difference between Danielle and me.”

Twenty-one minutes into the debate, University of Calgary political scientist Lisa Young tweeted: “Danielle Smith’s ability to say things that aren’t true with great conviction is a tremendous asset in this debate.”

Earlier Thursday, Alberta ethics commissioner Marguerite Trussler issued a report in which she concluded Smith had breached the province’s Conflicts of Interest Act in relation to her attempts to help Calgary street preacher Artur Pawlowski, who had been charged criminally for his role in the Coutts blockade.

During the debate however, Smith claimed the ethics commissioner had found she did not direct or interfere in any COVID-related cases. She accused the NDP and CBC of lying for months about her and staff calling prosecutors. 

In fact, in a recorded conversation with Pawlowski, Smith stated she spoke to prosecutors “almost weekly” about COVID-related cases.

The Tyee’s extensive fact check of many of the main statements made by both candidates show Notley was the more truthful. Smith made numerous misleading statements in which figures were cherry-picked or taken out of context and in some cases her statements were flat out false. 

Accountability

In her opening statement, Smith claimed the NDP’s policies drove out jobs and investment and almost bankrupted the province.

“It is ridiculous to make any statement about Alberta being in any conceivable way remotely close to bankruptcy,” University of Calgary economist Trevor Tombe said. He said Alberta’s debt ratio is one of the best in the country.

Notley claimed that the UCP removed insurance caps implemented by the NDP. This is true.

In relation to electricity costs, Smith claimed Notley created the power bill crisis by phasing out coal and added $2 billion to the public’s power bills.

University of Alberta energy economist Andrew Leach said it’s unclear where Smith got the $2 billion figure from. He speculated she may be referring to the NDP’s well-publicized power purchasing agreements fiasco.

But he said the rising electricity prices have been caused by what happened after the NDP left office in 2019.

Notley claimed the UCP only temporarily capped Albertans' electrical costs and that some Albertans who don’t have locked in contracts will have to foot the $200 million bill. This is true

Smith said Notley wants to achieve the federal government’s target of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions for electricity by 2035, and Smith repeatedly said that will cost $52 billion and increase individual power bills by 40 per cent.

Leach said Smith is taking those numbers from an Alberta Energy System Operator report. But he said "AESO's previous forecasts overestimated the cost and underestimated the speed of the renewable energy transition." 

Other energy and climate experts have said the AESO’s estimated costs will not be passed on to consumers through their power bills, which means Smith’s claim that Albertan’s power bills will rise by 40 per cent is false.

Smith said Notley racked up $70 billion in debt, “more debt than any premier, actually all premiers combined in Alberta's provincial history.” Because dollar values change over time, this isn’t an accurate comparison, Tombe said. He said the debt created during the Notley government’s reign “was entirely because of the recession that occurred and the low oil prices leading natural resource revenues to drop.” 

“When bad shocks occur, public debt rises,” he said, “as we saw under the UCP with COVID, for example.”

Smith said Alberta is bringing in a record $6.4 billion in corporate income tax revenue, proof that when you reduce taxes you attract jobs and investment. Again, Tombe said that while income tax revenues are higher than in previous years, it’s due to higher oil prices rather than falling tax rates.

Health care

Notley claimed the government’s expansion of private surgeries has resulted in fewer surgeries and higher costs. She cited a recently released Parkland Institute study. It concluded surgery numbers went down and costs rose. 

Notley claimed the UCP’s privatization of lab services has led to “Calgarians waiting up to a month to get a simple blood test.” This claim is true

Smith said her government eliminated the $40-a-day user fee for rehabilitation centres that “Ms. Notley charged.” This is partially true. A Conservative government created the fee decades ago and the NDP continued it. 

Smith’s claim that her government “added 10,000 treatment beds” is false. At most, the UCP government added a few hundred treatment beds. 

Notley claimed that B.C., Saskatchewan and Manitoba all filled their family doctor residency spots, while Alberta, for the first time, had 45 vacancies and couldn’t fill them. Data from the Canadian Resident Matching Service verifies this statement. 

Notley claimed Smith has a 15-year record of advocating for an “out of pocket” health-care system. In fact, Smith’s record of advocacy dates back to at least 2006.

Smith claimed there are 8,500 more health professionals in the province’s health-care system since the UCP took over from the NDP. She said there were 700 more doctors and “1,400 nurses who are now licensed and able to practice in Alberta. More than any time in the previous three years.”

A recent update from the College of Physicians & Surgeons of Alberta shows that as of the end of March, there was a decrease of 275 registrations from the previous quarter. 

University of Calgary health law professor Lorian Hardcastle doubted Smith’s claim that there are 700 new doctors because there are still serious shortages of family doctors.

The United Nurses of Alberta has said there are 1,413 foreign nurses registered due to changes in the College of Registered Nurses of Alberta’s registry process. But they said those nurses are not yet working in Alberta. The UNA said Alberta Health Services’ figures show only 370 nurses have been hired in the past year.

Smith said 300,000 surgeries have been done this year and 60,000 of those are in private chartered facilities, “that Ms. Notley apparently wants to shut down. She hasn't answered the question about how we would be able to replace those surgeries.”

Hardcastle said those figures are “plausible” because they are not out of line with traditional surgery rates. But she said Smith’s claim that the NDP “apparently wants to shut down” chartered surgical facilities is false. She said the NDP government renewed private surgery contracts for such services as cataract surgery and abortions. During this election, the NDP has said it will review private surgery contracts. 

Notley said the UCP had ripped up a deal with the doctors, told nurses they needed to be laid off, and also threatened to lay off 10,000 frontline health-care workers. This is true.

Education

Notley claimed there were 35,000 additional children in Alberta’s schools over the past four years, and the UCP had not hired a single teacher. This is true

Data from the Alberta Teachers' Association shows an increase of 35,905 students and a decrease of 575 teachers. 

Notley claimed the UCP fired some teachers and about 10,000 educational assistants by tweet on a weekend. This is true

Smith said with the $8.8 billion education budget for 2023–24, the UCP is spending more on education “than we ever have in our history.”

This is true, an ATA spokesperson said, because the student population always increases and so does the budget. 

Economy

Smith said that during the Notley years, Alberta lost 183,000 jobs. 

Economist Trevor Tombe said this figure is based on seasonally unadjusted full-time employment statistics from the worst point of the NDP term compared to May 2015, which he said is a misuse of highly selective sets of data.

There are ups and downs in employment that happen every year for no other reason than the change of season, Tombe said.

If employment rates from May 2015 are compared to April 2019, there were 42,400 more total jobs in the province.

During the debate, Notley claimed there were 45,000 more jobs in the province at the end of her term.

If you have any information for this story, or information for another story, please contact us in confidence via email.  [Tyee]

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