Sawhney hopes her moderate conservatism will influence the UCP
Over the past five years, Rajan Sawhney has gone from buying her first political membership to winning a seat as an MLA, holding two cabinet posts, and running for premier.
In an interview with AB Today days before the leadership race wraps up, Sawhney reflected on the lessons she learned on the campaign trail, like how the early push to collect signatures ate up time that otherwise could have been spent meeting with potential voters.
Sawhney said she has been “equally concerned and equally dismissive” of polling that ranks her among the bottom of candidates.
“Nobody wants to have such low numbers,” she said, adding the source of the polling has often been her rivals’ internal campaigns.
Whatever the result of Thursday’s UCP leadership vote, the energy economist said she wants to be a moderating force within the big tent party — and lamented that important fiscal issues didn’t get their due on the campaign trail.
“Being a conservative centre-right candidate, I’m very pro-business, economic development, limited government, small government,” Sawhney said.
“It’s all about fiscal responsibility and I feel like that voice has not been reflected very well in this race. I feel that we are focused on a lot of things that everyday Albertans are not concerned about — more moderate conservatives are not concerned about — so I tried to address those, I tried to talk more about health care, and the education file and affordability.”
If elected premier, Sawhney pledged to cut affordability cheques to Albertans when West Texas Intermediate soars above US$90 per barrel, and to reindex benefits for the Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped, income support and seniors programs.
Her vision for health care includes launching a Covid review, respecting health-care workers, expanding the province’s primary care networks, and creating a centralized referral system for specialists.
She also vowed to restart the curriculum review.
Sawhney said she’s had fun convincing people to make her their number one choice on the preferential ballot. Many of her supporters have told her they like Brian Jean, and even Travis Toews and Danielle Smith, better than the other progressive choices on the ticket — preferences Sawhney called “counterintuitive.”
Another surprise for Sawhney was how people viewed her on the debate stage compared to how she comes across in person.
“They say ‘You’re almost unrecognizable in person, so warm and down to earth,’” Sawhney said with a laugh. “That was interesting, because I’m like, ‘Oh, boy, how do I come across on TV?’”
Her campaign kicked off in Edmonton with Airdrie—East MLA Angela Pitt as campaign chair, who later dropped out and endorsed Danielle Smith.
Sawhney said other people were more upset about Pitt’s about-face than she was and the two remain good friends, having had a half-hour conversation last week “with lots of laughs and giggles.”
“I spoke to somebody who had over 30 MLA endorsements and lost the leadership race and that individual advised me … Don’t waste your time doing that, get out there, fundraise and get your name out and put your policies out ASAP because that is what Albertans are going to appreciate,” Sawhney said. “So when Angela joined my campaign, we had a great time at our launch. But very quickly after I criticized the Sovereignty Act, it became very apparent that she was increasingly uncomfortable.”
Sawhney said if she does not win, she’ll get behind whoever does.
“I will support whoever wins, I will support the leader because that leader will have been duly elected by the membership and that’s how democracy works,” Sawhney said, adding she’d love to stay in a cabinet role, but will work in whatever capacity she can to maintain unity within the party.
But that doesn’t mean she won’t speak out. While she said she is always a negotiator first, she also describes herself as a “fighter.”
In her role as community and social services minister, Sawhney took heat for deindexing AISH benefits. But behind the cabinet door, she said she fought against the marching orders from the premier’s office to cut spending and only learned about the plan to deindex social benefit programs after the decision had been made by Treasury Board and the Ministry of Finance.
“I didn’t listen to anything that the [Community and Social Services] department told me to do,” Sawhney said. “Luckily, I have a background in analyzing data and impact assessment and it became very clear that … what I was expected to do was going to be very damaging. So I said no.”