There were brief heated exchanges, but no knockout punch, in Alberta’s political leaders’ first debate - good news for the frontrunner, Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith.
Ms. Smith, Progressive Conservative Leader Alison Redford, Liberal Leader Raj Sherman and NDP Leader Brian Mason squared off for the first time all together at an Edmonton TV studio 11 days before Albertans head to the polls.
For all but Mr. Mason, it was their first time in a debate as party leader. There were ample one-liners flying. Dr. Sherman attacked Wildrose's social conservatism, saying: “Danielle, this is Alberta, not Alabama.” Ms. Redford later chimed in: “It’s time to stop looking in the rear-view mirror.”
Ms. Smith, however, put in a strong performance. She brushed aside questions of lucrative cash transfers paid by her party to the local constituency associations of former PCs who defected to her party, telling Ms. Redford the chief electoral officer was “too busy investigating all the illegal donations to your party.”
All party leaders, however, had moments of strength and moments where they stumbled. Observers said before the debate began that such a scenario helps Wildrose which is leading in the polls. Ms. Smith succeeded in mostly avoiding hot-button topics that might have put a dent in her lead. She dismissed questions about her party’s social policies as “nothing but fear-mongering” by a PC party on the ropes.
Instead, most of the night was spent with Ms. Redford on the defensive - over her party’s handling of healthcare, over her flip-flops since becoming leader and over lucrative pay schemes for MLAs her party has introduced in the past decade (though moved to overhaul since she became leader). Despite leading in the polls, Ms. Smith only rarely found herself under fire.
The four leaders emerged afterwards, each declining to say if there was a winner. Mr. Mason believed no one won. If indeed there wasn’t a clear victor, that can only help the frontrunner - Ms. Smith.
“The debate was exactly what I hoped it would be - a lively and exciting exchange of ideas,” Ms. Smith said afterwards. “I feel very confident that Albertans now have a better understanding of what the Wildrose platform is.“
Ms. Redford had brief moments where she sought to cast Wildrose as out of touch or too conservative for modern day Alberta - the rear-view mirror line, another saying she’s “disappointed” that issues such as conscience rights and abortion are even being discussed - but Ms. Smith never seemed to be pinned down.
Nonetheless, Ms. Redford was comfortable with the outcome. “Now we have 11 days for Albertans to talk about who the government should be,” Ms. Redford said.
Dr. Sherman sought to cast himself as the go-to centrist option amid a right-wing vote split, even as polls show he has little hope of forming a government. His party would raise some taxes and invest in early childhood and post-secondary education. “People are OK with paying a little extra tax if they know it’s going to the right place,” Dr. Sherman said.
Mr. Mason put in a steady performance, at one point scolding Ms. Smith and Ms. Redford for the tone of the debate. He also warned of the “Americanization” of healthcare.
“I think my objective was simply to get my message out and tell people what the New Democratic Party was fighting for in this election, and I think I did that very well,” Mr. Mason said.
Ms. Smith emerged as the clear winner with a strong performance and because the Liberals and New Democrats chose to gang up on Ms. Redford rather than her, said Duane Bratt, chair of the department of policy studies at Calgary’s Mount Royal University.
“Smith won. I don’t think there’s a doubt in my mind about that,” Prof. Bratt said. “You wonder if it had been Smith under attack, if the result would have been any different. But you can’t go back in time.”
Ms. Smith brushed aside questions of whether she won, saying the debate has more than a week left.
“I’ll leave it to Albertans to decide,” she said. “It always seems there’s a different winner on debate night than three days later.”
Albertans go to the polls April 23.