Neither leader appeared rattled in the debate. Do zingers zing if nobody’s zung?
The party leaders stood a few feet away from each other, but Danielle Smith may as well have been in a radio booth in another building, or hours from where Rachel Notley was.
The UCP leader refrained from casting her eyes in her NDP rival’s direction throughout the debate. No looking at Notley while Smith was debating; no pivoting her neck to the side while she listened.
The incumbent premier’s face and gaze were consistently focused on the camera in front of her, TV-anchor-style. While political strategists perennially insist that a leader should speak directly to voters rather than to their opponent, Smith’s performance took that conventional wisdom to an extreme of sorts.
Sure, when you’re spending an hour on live TV, one may never be sure what to do with their eyes — or their hands, as Notley showed when she referred to 35,000 new students without teachers and held up four fingers.
Notley has logged fewer live-media hours in her life than ex-broadcaster Smith, but this is her third election leaders’ debate (after 2015 and 2019) to her opponent’s second (2012). The NDP leader’s gaze shifted, sometimes haltingly, between the person to her side and the mass of Albertans staring at her.
Smith knew what she had to do.
As the incumbent and apparent front-runner, she had to spend 60 minutes not getting rattled, and come across as consistent. She accomplished that.
Notley may have hoped to rattle, but UCP insiders had hoped Smith would keep the unflappable cool she had conveyed in months of Question Period jousting between the two leaders. They’d be proud of Thursday night’s poise.
The NDP leader may have had more zingers, but was anybody on stage zinged or zung?
Don’t believe the hype
As much as politicos hype up leaders’ debates as major turning points in a campaign, they so rarely are.
There’s a reason we still reminisce about Tory leader Brian Mulroney’s 1984 “you had an option” moment against the Liberals’ John Turner — it’s because we’ve gone the four decades since without any lines remotely as memorable or powerful.
And yes, Notley was the benefactor in 2015 of a dismal performance by incumbent Jim Prentice and his “math is difficult” quip. In 2054, Alberta political junkies will still wax fondly about that, in elusive search of the next debate’s knockout punch.
But with the lone Alberta leaders’ debate of 2023, there seemed greater potential for an indelible moment that voters might carry with them into the ballot box.
The one-on-one leaders’ showdown is profoundly rare in Canadian history, and without precedent in Alberta.
In nearly all debates, other party leaders with seats in the legislature or Parliament get lecterns of their own, letting the lower-hope contenders steal valuable spotlight and speaking time from the main voter attractions. In past provincial debates, or in the federal versions, multiple leaders will gang up against the incumbent or front-runner; or, a leader can triangulate and use praise of one rival as a cudgel against the other.
It’s different with two leaders, two lecterns. Certainly, a debate between two women leaders is a Canadian provincial first, the men’s dour navy suits of the typical affair replaced Thursday by two women in (unexpectedly) royal-blue jackets.
Disastrous vs. untrustworthy
In a real political world without clear winners or knockouts, debates remain well-scrutinized moments to see how party leaders perform in the spotlight, what their key ideas are and how they respond to challenges.
While Smith’s eyes suggested she was ignoring Notley, the UCP leader’s rhetoric contradicted that.
Much of her debate fixated on depicting Notley and the NDP as causing provincial catastrophe while they were in government — nearly bankrupted Alberta, Smith claimed — and inevitable disasters if that horde of “anti-oil” and “defund the police” candidates were allowed at the levers of control again.
Some of the most shining moments of positivity and ideas from Smith came as she spoke of her UCP government’s recent efforts on health care, declaring she stifled the crisis in ambulance dispatch and cut surgical waitlists. It’s of course turf where the NDP feel strongest, and most confident that Albertans still perceive a mismanaged system in crisis, but the UCP leader strived to be much sunnier about the situation, and pleaded for more time to keep improving it.
Notley tried framing Alberta’s challenges in more specific terms, talking about spiralling utility bills starting to feel like mortgage payments, or the teacher with an overcrowded Grade 1 class who got discouraged when no assistant ever arrived to help.
“The stress is not COVID. The stress is this government,” Notley said, in reply to Smith insisting the education system’s strains are all owed to the pandemic.
And the NDP leader strived to fit the trust question into almost every section of the debate, hammering away at Smith’s many past comments about health privatization — Smith’s “guarantee” she won’t, be damned — and the fresh ammo presented by Ethics Commissioner Marguerite Trussler’s finding that Smith had breached conflict of interest rules by pressing Justice Minister Tyler Shandro on the criminal mischief case of now-convicted pastor Artur Pawlowski.
“Every day is a new drama. Enough is enough,” Notley said in her closing remarks.
Rather than engage in Notley’s assertion she broke the law, the UCP leader preferred her own focus, saying that the NDP (and CBC) was wrong about her directly contacting Crown prosecutors on cases, and that she needs to learn better ways to engage her justice minister. “Look, I’m not a lawyer,” Smith reasoned.
“It was a mistake; I’m not a perfect person,” she said afterwards, speaking to a crowd of reporters, none of whom would likely admit to being perfect, either.
Six months removed from the drama of the Sovereignty Act that Smith no longer likes to talk about, with new controversies to deal with, the UCP leader was the one who pitched herself as most content about her tenure as premier.
“I am running on my record. She is running away from hers,” Smith said.
There is truth to that, even in Notley’s response to a media question about whether she’s proud of her time as premier. The answer: a fair bit of it, but there were some things she wouldn’t do again if given another opportunity to lead Alberta.
Each leader is running from their pasts. One doesn’t want to talk much about how she governed four years ago. The other one doesn’t want to talk about many of the things she’s done, said or believed several years ago, two years ago, last year, a few months ago.
And both are asking Albertans to spend four years in charge.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Producer and writer
Jason Markusoff analyzes what’s happening — and what isn’t happening, but probably should be — in Calgary and sometimes farther afield. He’s written in Alberta for nearly two decades with Maclean’s magazine, the Calgary Herald and Edmonton Journal. He appears regularly on Power and Politics’ Power Panel and various other CBC current affairs shows. Reach him at email@example.com
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