Fear and loathing in the Alberta debate

I’ll admit up front that my familiarity with Alberta politics is about eight years out of date, since I moved to Ottawa and jumped to the federal scene. But I decided to tune in to the Alberta leader’s debate tonight, as a somewhat disinterested expatriate observer, for old time’s sake.

Throughout the debate, two things rang through – fear of the Wildrose Party and their social conservatism, and loathing of politicians and the money they make, as typified by the controversy over the “no-meet committee,” whereby MLAs were paid a thousand dollars a year to sit on a disciplinary committee that hasn’t hand cause to meet for years.

On the former part, all three other parties were doing their best to go after Danielle Smith for her party’s social conservative positions on abortion and what they call “conscience rights,” or notion that people like marriage commissioners can “opt out” of marrying a gay couple if it offends their sensibilities, despite what the Courts and the Charter say. In fact, Smith keeps quoting Section 2 of the Charter, without bothering to read Section 15. Oops. Smith insists her party will not legislate on divisive moral issue, and that she herself is pro-choice and pro-gay marriage even if members of her party aren’t, and hey, free votes for all. But she has also said that as leader, her opinions don’t matter on these issues, and that has a lot of people in the province worried about what a Wildrose government would mean for those rights if it’s all free votes and her opinion not setting the tone.

On the latter point, all of the leaders fell all over themselves to declare that MLAs were too richly rewarded, and in the case of the Liberals, that there were too many MLAs in the Legislature period. The “no-meet” committee (which I kept hearing as “no meat” – a heretical concept in a province where the vegetarian option is chicken) was a wedge that they all tried to bludgeon one another with, but just ended up making everyone look bad. Raj Sherman wanted Alison Redford to order her MLAs to return their pay for the committee as he had, which Redford insisted she had done weeks ago, while Brian Mason defended his MLA’s refusal to return her pay for that committee. When Redford insisted everyone wait for Justice Major’s report on MLA compensation, though Smith declared that she didn’t need to listen to a judge – she’s listened to Albertans! When Sherman asked if that was simply listening to her party, Smith replied “Same thing.”

In general, nobody really shone in the debate. While I did like the fact that they had a panel of journalists asking the questions, momentum was broken up by a number of commercial breaks that seemed to get more frequent as the debate continued. As well, the fact that half the time the candidates were staring into a camera that was not currently live was a bit disconcerting.

Smith kept touting the “new ideas” of the Wildrose, but neglected to mention that a good many of them are failed Conservatives ones – citizen referenda (remember the whole “Doris Day” campaign?), healthcare wait time guarantees, an Alberta Accountability Act, and promises to balance the budget “this year.” Oh, and then start handing out “energy dividends” to all Albertans – because they’re nothing like promising free money to the electorate. (I have fond memories of Ralph Klein handing out “energy rebates” in election years).

Sherman spoke about the structural deficit that resulted from a budget that relied on oil prices that weren’t static, but Sherman seems to have forgotten the days when his party would cry bloody murder when the Klein government would lowball oil prices in their budgeting and then wind up with a surplus. (I remember those debates – I was in the chamber as a page at the time). Sherman also kept referencing the province’s high dropout rate in schools, but never once connected it to the promise of high paying jobs in the oil patch.

Mason’s performance seemed largely to be playing defence for Smith – every time Redford would go after Smith on something, Mason would interrupt and go off on a new tangent. Most memorable was when Redford wanted to know what hospitals and schools the Wildrose would be closing to pay for their balanced budget this year, but before Smith could answer, Mason jumped in and went on the attack. It was no small bit of irony that Mason later wondered where Smith would be making the cuts.

As for Redford, she was very much the one on the defensive, attacked from all sides, as is often the case with an incumbent. Her own message – that she too was bringing change – threw her own party under the bus when she talked about how some of her own members wanted the status quo but she was bringing the change. And while she may have led a couple of attacks, Mason was the one who largely deflected her blows on Smith’s behalf.

So what will happen in the final election? Search me. But while people keep quoting how high Smith is riding in the polls, I will remind them that in the last election, then-premier Stelmach wasn’t doing very well in the polls throughout the campaign, and still managed to increase his majority. While I have no doubt that the Tories will lose a few seats, I’m not discounting the power of institutional inertia in a province that, for all of its occasional progressive impulses, remains resistant to change, and as a result, Redford can’t be counted out just yet.