MLAs and their perks, the sleeper issue that might take down Alberta’s dynasty

Wildrose leader Danielle Smith had to play eight minutes of defence in the Alberta leaders' debate Thursday over her plans for citizen-led referenda. For Conservative premier Alison Redford, it was a much longer ordeal, Rod Love says.

It was billed as 90 minutes of history, but for most of us watching, it was probably only eight of those 90 minutes that mattered.

Apart from the opening and closing statements and a couple of commercial breaks, the televised Leaders’ Debate for this Alberta election was structured to have an ongoing give and take among the four party leaders on eight broad subjects in roughly eight-minute blocks.

Of those broad subjects, there were the usual health, education, economy, arts and culture — in short, the stuff that prompts the predictable talking points that sound like blah blah blah and that make people switch to Dog the Bounty Hunter on cable.

But when it became known to campaign managers and political activists here — and then the Twittersphere — that there would be one segment on "democratic renewal," everybody in Alberta knew what that meant: Wildrose leader Danielle Smith’s "democratic reform" platform, which called for a process for citizen-initiated referenda.

The Usual Suspects (meaning all the other parties) pounced.

This, they warned, was the vehicle that crazy social conservatives in Alberta would employ to take away the right of a woman to have an abortion, or gays and lesbians to get married! 

They left out the prospects of bringing back capital punishment and repealing child labour laws because even Red Tories can only pump up so much fearmongering in one news cycle.

Conservative leader Alison Redford. Will she be the one to lose the Alberta Tories' 41-year dynasty? (Reuters)

Conservative leader Alison Redford, the new premier, desperately clinging to what could be the last days of a 41-year dynasty, pronounced that she was shocked and "disappointed" that this divisive debate was even happening (having approved her party's attacks on the referendum idea earlier in the day).

Eight minutes of playing defence

And so the scene was set: a Progressive Conservative campaign throwing a divisive Hail Mary; an untested Wildrose leader knowing that 18 days of so far flawless campaigning came down to this: eight minutes of playing defence.

The reporter would ask the question; Smith and Redford would face off, three feet apart, with the Liberal and NDP leaders really only there as spectators.

On a studio set with the usual cheesy Greek columns — meant, I suppose, to signify the birth of democracy in ancient Athens, but really looking like cheap props from a high school play — it was barely half an hour into the debate before the grenade was tossed.

The question: would Smith’s new democratic reform initiative, allowing citizen-initiated referenda, lead to an erosion of minority rights? Specifically women, ethnics and gays, as the Progressive Conservatives have alleged?

Smith brushed it off like a piece of lint on her shoulder. Not going to happen, she said. People have different views, but some things will never be legislated.

Wildrose leader Danielle Smith, leading in the polls in the early going.

The other leaders all weighed in, but the issue fizzled.

The most explosive talking point

Everyone watching the debate thought the show was over. But then the eight minutes that actually mattered in this debate arose when the little matter of how Alberta MLAs are paid was put to the four leaders.

Because of Alberta’s Byzantine structure of how cabinet ministers and committee members are compensated, not to mention the interesting discovery that some MLAs were paid over $40,000 for a committee that had not even met in over two years, sparks began to fly.

This is an issue that has come to define the ruling Conservatives, and when it was exposed a few weeks earlier, the three embarrassed Liberal and Wildrose MLAs, who apparently only dimly knew they were on this ghost committee, quickly paid the money back.

The 17 Conservatives on the committee did not.

Put on the debate floor, it was the most spirited exchange of the entire night, contrary to what many people thought was going to happen at the outset.

Abortion rights? Yawn.

A government committee system that pays MLAs for not going to meetings? Explosive.

Eleven days to go.