OPINION | In the Alberta leaders debate, nobody scored the knock-out punch

“This time around everyone will claim their leader “won”, but the only winner was the status quo.” Political columnist Graham Thomson on the Alberta election debate.

'Kenney would have felt the teeth sinking in the moment the debate began.'

Alberta United Conservative Party leader Jason Kenney and Alberta NDP leader Rachel Notley speaks to the media after the 2019 Alberta Leaders Debate in Edmonton, Alta., on Thursday, April 4, 2019. (Codie McLachlan/The Canadian Press)

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is one opinion. Under the heading Opinion, we are carrying a range of different points of view on the issues facing Albertans during the current election. You can find them on our Alberta Votes 2019 page.

Rachel Notley, not Jason Kenney, is the incumbent, the one to beat in the Alberta election on April 16. But you got the impression their roles were reversed during the televised leaders debate Thursday night.

It is the incumbent who is normally the one under relentless attack from the others in a debate but this time around it was Kenney who had a target on his forehead.

In this election campaign, according to the public opinion polls, Notley is trailing behind Kenney who is far out in front.

And so, this is the first time in decades in Alberta politics that the person elected premier in the previous election is not the front runner heading into a leaders debate.

That meant everyone, including Notley, had to adjust their debate strategy.

Underdogs and overdogs

In politics it's all about the underdogs tearing down the overdog. And boy did they take off the muzzles at the very start.

Kenney would have felt the teeth sinking in the moment the debate began.

"Mr. Kenney wants to stoke fear and division for his political gain," said Notley who was focused on Kenney for the whole debate.

She ironically began to stoke her own version of fear and division with the spectre of a UCP government and Kenney as premier.

  • Listen to The Ledge podcast, as CBC's legislative reporters bring you expert analysis and insiders' insight.
  • Sign up to get our election newsletter The Scrutineer delivered directly to your inbox twice weekly.

"Your record in Ottawa is a decade of failure," said Notley of Kenney's record as a federal MP.

"It is becoming clearer and clearer that people on Mr. Kenney's leadership team, at the very least, cheated for him to win the leadership," said Notley of the 2017 UCP leadership race.

"So the real question is this: If Mr. Kenney would cheat his own party members to have a chance at running to be premier, what will he do to the people of this province to keep the job?"

Consequently, Kenney found himself on the defensive — looking much like Alberta premiers of old, who approached these debates like a fox given a 10-minute head start ahead of the hounds.

The former Conservative premiers (who all went on to win re-election with the exception of Jim Prentice in 2015), were always happy just to avoid being taken down.

And that's what Kenney managed to do Thursday night. He emerged unscathed.

There was no moment when he fell under the claws of his opponents, no time when they drew more blood than he managed to extract in return.

Justin Trudeau

Oh, he complained, as he often does on the campaign trail, that he was being unfairly attacked by the other leaders.

That he was being "defamed." That he was the victim of a "fear and smear campaign" as if that was unusual in politics. It's also a bit rich coming from someone who is the master of simplistic criticism of his opponents.

Kenney, naturally, launched his own attacks against Notley.

  • Alberta Votes 2019: CBC News brings you all the news, analyses and columns you need for the election.
  • VOTE COMPASS | Find out how your views on campaign issues line up with the platforms of Alberta's major parties

    "I respect your leadership, but you made a grave mistake with the alliance with Justin Trudeau. You sold Alberta down the river to your ally Justin Trudeau," he said.

    If anyone watching the debate at home was playing a drinking game with "your ally Justin Trudeau" as the trigger phase, they risked alcohol poisoning after the first 30 minutes.

    Kenney was laser-focused on Notley and Notley only had eyes for Kenney.

    Albertans haven't seen two leaders so personally combative since the days of Premier Alison Redford and Wildrose leader Danielle Smith — who both had their own mixed-martial arts debate in 2012.

    But of course there were two others sharing the stage Thursday night: Alberta Party leader Stephen Mandel and Alberta Liberal leader David Khan.

    Talking over each other

    The debate at times degenerated into a verbal free-for-all, with all four leaders talking over each other.

    It gave the impression of drama, but just made it difficult for the folks at home to make out what they were saying.

    Interruptions make for difficult listening

    3 years ago
    Duration 0:57
    At multiple times throughout the debate, two, three or even all four leaders spoke over each other, prompting warnings from the moderator.

    Mandel, who apparently thought he'd look more relaxed with an open necked shirt, but who looked like someone who had forgotten his tie, didn't seem to know who to attack more — Notley or Kenney.

    "You're both culpable," he said at one point.

    "It is sad on the one side Mr. Kenney is attacking Ms. Notley, and Ms. Notley is attacking Mr. Kenney, and Mr. Khan is absolving himself of any responsibility of anything," said Mandel without really explaining what Khan — who has never held elected office — has actually ever done wrong.

    And then there was Khan looking serious and nervous but just happy to be invited to the party.

    However, according to public opinion polls Liberals have such an uphill climb in this campaign he should have brought ropes and a grappling hook to the debate.

    His strategy wasn't to get into a fist fight with the others, except for a moment when he accused Mandel of recently stating the Alberta Party was in favour of privatizing parts of health care.

    "No, we didn't," interjected Mandel, who, in one of the few lighter moments of the debate, accused Khan of "smoking things you shouldn't be smoking."

    Khan's idea to grab the spotlight was to bring up ideas that will shock Albertans, such as introducing a provincial sales tax.

    "We need a sales tax to stabilize our revenues," said Khan. "I'm talking about replacing most provincial income tax with an HST." Meaning a harmonized sales tax.

    A provincial sales tax (PST) is such a taboo topic in Alberta that the other leaders simply ignored it.

    No knock-out punch

    At the end, nobody scored the clichéd knock-out punch. Nobody found themselves being revived with smelling salts.

    Khan was a winner of sorts just being there — and performing well.

    Mandel tried to channel the anti-Ottawa anger of Kenney, but looked like he was trying too hard.

    Notley, as expected did well, but at times the smile on her face didn't match the venom in her anti-Kenney words.

    Kenney, who has been preparing for this debate since he first stepped into provincial politics three years ago, performed as expected.

    This, even though he was clearly irritated when his carefully scripted talking points were drowned out by the others' crosstalk.

    He survived. If he is indeed the front-runner that's all he had to do.

    This was not a repeat of the 2015 leaders debate where Notley clearly emerged the winner and the incumbent, Jim Prentice, the loser.

    This time around everyone will claim their leader "won", but the only winner was the status quo.

    If your mind was made up before 5:30 p.m. Thursday night when the debate began, it probably wasn't changed by 7 p.m. when it ended.

    If you were on the fence Thursday, you're still likely sitting as uncomfortably Friday.

    Debates are sometimes defining moments in election campaigns.

    Not, I would argue, this time.

    • Find out how Alberta's political parties are faring in our Poll Tracker


    To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

    By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

    Become a CBC Member

    Join the conversation  Create account

    Already have an account?