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opinion

The night before Alberta’s one and only leaders’ debate, United Conservative Party Leader Jason Kenney made an appearance on the Charles Adler radio show.

Mr. Adler, a conservative, referred to Mr. Kenney, leading contender to be the next premier of the province, as a long-time friend. But over the next 30 minutes you would never have known it.

The veteran broadcaster absolutely raked the veteran politician over the coals for his decision to back a UCP candidate, Mark Smith, despite the emergence of a tape recording in which he is heard, among other things, denouncing homosexuality and seemingly comparing it to pedophilia. (Mr. Smith has also supported the firing of gay teachers in the past). Mr. Kenney condemned the church comments made six years ago but refused to fire Mr. Smith, the UCP’s former education critic, from the campaign.

If nothing else, the interview was a notable stage-setter for Thursday night’s debate. Was Mr. Smith’s sermon going to be the UCP’s "lake of fire” moment – one that would be exploited by the other party leaders on stage? Back in 2012, the Wildrose Party seemed to have the provincial election in hand, until an old blog post by party candidate Allan Hunsperger surfaced in which he said gay people were destined to burn for all eternity in a “lake of fire.”

As it turns out, Mr. Kenney had little to worry about.

NDP Leader Rachel Notley, Liberal Leader David Khan, who is gay, and Alberta Party Leader Stephen Mandel were able to go after Mr. Kenney on one question related to social conservative policies. But it didn’t amount to much. In the end, Mr. Kenney and his party likely emerged from the 90-minute scrum with their lead in the polls fairly intact.

While Ms. Notley was her effective self, she did not match her performance of 2015, when she mopped the floor with Progressive Conservative party leader Jim Prentice. Admittedly, Mr. Prentice did himself no favours when he condescendingly said to Ms. Notley “I know math is hard,” in explaining the intricacies of the province’s finances. In a flat second he lost thousands of women’s votes.

Mr. Kenney was certainly his opponents’ target most of the night, but he was able to duck and weave enough to avoid any solid blows. He is a highly skilled debater, who speaks rapidly and comes across as highly knowledgeable. By the time you’ve digested the meaning of what he’s said on any particular subject, he’s moved on to another tangent. It helps keep his sparring partners one step behind all the time.

Mr. Kenney kept hammering on his key messages: jobs, the economy and pipelines. Those are the areas that occupy the minds of a broad swath of the Alberta electorate, and those are the areas that, if the polls are to be believed, the electorate think the UCP is best able to manage.

And it would seem the Alberta public is willing to turn a blind eye to the many controversies that have dogged the UCP since the campaign began, ones mostly related to the questionable values (see bigotry, racism, homophobia) espoused by people the party has attracted to its camp.

It’s hard to believe, actually, that a single so-called “bozo eruption” – the term former Wildrose leader Danielle Smith gave to the “lake of fire” controversy – once changed the course of an election in Alberta. Yet today, seven years later, when you would expect the electorate to be even more socially enlightened, a string of “bozo eruptions” on the Kenney campaign is having little impact. (Several UCP candidates have had to account for past comments characterized as anti-gay, racist or Islamophobic. Two resigned over the controversy their remarks generated.)

That’s because the economy trumps all and people vote in their own self-interest. So, if they believe electing a party leader who has attracted people of dubious moral character to his team remains the best option to create jobs and get Alberta roaring again then so be it. That’s a trade-off they’re prepared to make.

It also doesn’t matter that so many of Mr. Kenney’s talking points are circus tricks, all bluster and phoney sloganeering that won’t change the course of Alberta’s economic future one bit. My personal favourite is his threat to pull out of the country’s equalization program if the province doesn’t get a new pipeline. Equalization is federally run and financed with money collected in federal income taxes. So are Albertans not going to pay income tax? Right.

Anyway, we are likely to soon see how Mr. Kenney does with his hands firmly on the rudder stick, with a province anxiously awaiting him to deliver on the economic prosperity he has promised. Nothing that happened in the debate this week likely changed that prevailing narrative.