Alberta Politics

This is sad. Alberta’s leaders’ debate remarkable for being horribly boring

Anyone tuning in to watch Alberta’s leaders’ debate who might have hoped to watch a battle of the titans will have surely been disappointed. Tonight’s televised leaders’ debate was uninspiring and horribly boring.

New Democratic Party leader Rachel Notley did well, spending most of her time on the attack against United Conservative Party leader Jason Kenney, but she did not spend much time providing the positive message that some Albertans may have been looking for.

Notley targeted Kenney on a number of issues, ranging from the environment, health care, and homophobia in the UCP but she stopped short of taking him to task like conservative radio host Charles Adler did yesterday. Notley did not have a “math is difficult” moment in this debate.

A similar review can be given to Kenney, who spent much of his time attacking Notley and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for supposedly stopping the construction of pipelines and destroying jobs in Alberta. Kenney focused on the same economic issues that have been his talking points on the campaign trail – jobs, the economy and pipelines – while skirting around questions about controversial social issues, delivering a similar response to the one he gave Alder.

Notley and Kenney are practiced debaters and parliamentarians, but they certainly did not show off the best of their skills in this debate. Their performances were satisfactory but underwhelming.

A shorter summary of the main two party leaders in this debate could be: Notley argued that Kenney will destroy Alberta if he is elected, and Kenney argued that Notley has already destroyed Alberta. Not exactly inspiring messages for Albertans.

Then, there were the leaders of two smaller parties that were invited to participate in the debate.

Alberta Party leader Stephen Mandel actually did okay. He focused on differentiating his party from the NDP and UCP, and had a few memorable lines during the debate about being the only business person on stage and chirping in that “this is sad” as his opponents argued.

But if he was looking to break away from the pack, Mandel was unable to channel the Gordon Wilson moment that was needed to give his party momentum going into April 16.

Liberal Party leader David Khan performed well but with his party on the verge of electoral oblivion he has little to lose. The Liberals are also only running candidates in 51 of Alberta’s 87 districts. The profile earned through his appearance in this debate could help Khan in his bid to hold on to the Liberal Party’s last remaining district, Calgary-Mountain View

Missing from the stage was one of Alberta’s more colourful political actors, Derek Fildebrandt of the populist/libertarian Freedom Conservative Party. The former UCP MLA who is running for re-election in Chestermere-Strathmore was not invited and his party has only fielded 24 candidates across Alberta. While most Albertans watching would not have had the option to vote for Fildebrandt’s party, his presence in the debate may have helped to increase the entertainment value of the 90-minute program.

There were a lot of questions the leaders could have been challenged to answer, and the questions asked by the panel of journalists were good, but the free debate format encouraged the leaders to just talk over each other rather than actually debate the questions. There were points during the program where it was difficult to even figure out what was being said.

This year’s leaders’ debate was a sharp reminder that despite the exciting turning point that the debate played in the last election, most televised leaders’ debates are lacklustre and forgettable. This was one night that will not go down in the history books for any positive reason and it is unlikely it changed the minds of many voters in Alberta. 

Alberta Politics

alberta election: the leaders’ debate will matter.

In a typical provincial election in Alberta, the televised Leaders’ debate is a mere formality in a process that would inevitably lead to the election of another massive Progressive Conservative majority government. Even when the perceived winner of the debate is the leader of an opposition party, the effects on the governing party have been relatively minimal. In the last election, expectations were set so low for Premier Ed Stelmach that his satisfactory performance was seen as a big win for the soft-spoken and stuttering communicator.

The only televised Leader’s Debate during Alberta’s 2012 will be held on April 12 and it could be a spectacle not seen in this province in decades (CBC is hosting a Leaders’ forum, which will be broadcast on radio and live-streamed on the internet). It will be the first time that Premier Alison Redford and Wildrose Party leader Danielle Smith will debate each other face-to-face and also the first Leaders’ debate for three of the four main party leaders (it is Liberal leader Raj Sherman‘s first televised debate).

All eyes will be on Premier Redford and Ms. Smith.

Alison Redford Alberta Election 2012 Conservative leader
Alison Redford

The debate will be Premier Redford’s opportunity to turn the tide that has swept her 41-year governing Progressive Conservative Party into contention for official opposition status. Unlike her recent predecessors, she has the unfortunate task of having to answer for every misstep taken by her governing party for the past four decades.

This will be Premier Redford’s big opportunity to deliver a pitch to moderate conservatives, liberals, and undecided voters that voting for the more conservative and untested Wildrose Party just is not worth the risk. Despite a rough six months as Premier, she is a skilled debater.

Danielle Smith Wildrose Party Alberta Election 2012
Danielle Smith

Calm and confident, Ms. Smith has been preparing for this debate for years. Despite having never been elected as an MLA or faced any of her political opponents on the floor of the Assembly, Ms. Smith has honed her political debating skills on and off television as a columnist with the Calgary Herald, a brief stint as a school trustee, a director of a right-wing lobby group, and party leader since 2009.

With Ms. Smith’s party riding high in the polls, creating the real possibility that she could be our province’s next Premier, expectations will be set high for her to perform well in this debate. I would be surprised if she does not meet these expectations, but the other leaders will be marking targets on her party’s more controversial positions on conscience rights, de-listing abortion, attacking reporters, and privatizing health care. So far, the Wildrose leader has tried to avoid even commenting on most these issues, sticking to her highly disciplined and controlled campaign messaging.

Brian Mason Alberta NDP leader 2012 Election
Brian Mason

Entering his third election as leader of Alberta’s NDP, Brian Mason has an opportunity to present Albertans with a clear alternative to the two leading conservative parties.

Following Ms. Smith’s announcement that her party would introduce more privatization into Alberta’s health care system, Mr. Mason jumped at the opportunity to get into the debate. With Edmonton-Calder candidate David Eggen by his side, Mr. Mason launched a campaign to “Save Public Health Care.” The NDP are polling well in Edmonton, with a recent Leger survey showing them with 20% support in the provincial capital, which has always been the centre of NDP support in Alberta.

Raj Sherman Liberal leader 2012 Alberta Election
Raj Sherman

For Dr. Sherman, who left the Tory backbenches in 2010 and now leads the official opposition Liberal Party, the debate will be his biggest opportunity to save his party from third party status or even being completely shut out of the Assembly. The Liberals became the official opposition in 1993 and since then their support has steadily declined (with the notable exception of the 2004 election when Kevin Taft led the party to double its seats in the Assembly).

Health care has been a key focus of Dr. Sherman’s campaign, and despite his professional expertise working in the Emergency Rooms of Edmonton’s hospitals, the Liberals have not been able to turn this strength into growth in the polls. Having earned a reputation for being sporadic when put on the spot, Dr. Sherman will be the wild-card in the April 12 debate.

Searching for the knock-out punch

The most interesting aspect of televised leaders’ debates, especially in elections where the results are not evident from the day the Writ is dropped, is that one misspeak or surprise Academy Award winning performance could potentially change the outcome on election day.

Most people will refer to Brian Mulroney‘s performance in the the 1984 federal election as the perfect example of a “knock-out punch“, but this clip from the 1991 British Columbia provincial election remains one of my favourite. Watch as Liberal leader Gordon Wilson delivers the most famous soundbite of that election, which helped take his party from zero seats in the Assembly to seventeen.

(Thanks to Colby Cosh, whose tweets inspired this post)