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gary mason

The most compelling election in recent Alberta history took a bizarre twist over the weekend, one that thrust gender politics into the spotlight. And today there are lingering questions about how and why an undoubtedly callous and naive tweet by a 23-year-old Progressive Conservative party worker became the campaign issue it did.

Behind it, there is a debate about whether the incident serves to illustrate how women are still treated differently on the campaign trail, or simply shows what happens when a matter that might best have been ignored isn't.

If nothing else, it's another example of just how highly charged this Alberta election is and a demonstration of the win-at-all-costs mentality that has seized both of the leading parties.

The controversy has its roots on Friday night when Amanda Wilkie, an assistant to the executive-director of Tory Premier Alison Redford's Calgary office, sent out a comment on Twitter that questioned the sincerity of Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith's policies around families.

"If @ElectDanielle likes young and growing families so much, why doesn't she have children of her own?"

The next day, the Smith camp issued a formal statement. "In the last day the question has been raised about why I don't have children," it began. It went on to describe how Ms. Smith and her husband David had wanted children and had tried fertility treatments, but were unsuccessful. While not having any biological children, Ms. Smith, 41, pointed out that she has a stepson from her husband's previous marriage. In all, it was a dignified and seemingly sincere response.

Given that it came amid a bruising and unquestionably dirty political campaign, it's inevitable that questions would be raised.

For instance, if Ms. Wilkie's tweet was so offensive, why did Wildrose staffers instantly begin retweeting it? Why did they want to ensure that the breathtakingly immature comments of a low-level staffer in the Premier's Calgary office to a small number of followers got wider play? For partisan political reasons? That would be a reasonable conclusion.

And when you learn that some officials on Ms. Smith's campaign started contacting reporters about the tweet and providing information about Ms. Wilkie's role in Ms. Redford's office you become even more suspicious about Wildrose's motivations. They wanted a story. And when no media bit, Ms. Smith sent out a news release the next day.

It instantly created sympathy for Ms. Smith and made the Redford camp look mean and heartless. Ms. Redford's call to Ms. Smith to apologize shortly after the release went out was unquestionably sincere, but by then the damage had been done.

On Sunday, Wildrose didn't want to talk about the issue. And perhaps it shouldn't. The sooner this incident is forgotten, the better.

Of course, we don't know what ultimately motivated Ms. Smith to issue the release ensuring that a dumb but ultimately immaterial tweet got provincewide, even national, attention.

Maybe she thought its contents were potentially damaging politically. That her family-first Wildrose supporters might begin seeing her as, shriek, a selfish careerist. Although that seems like a stretch. If she was really worried about that, why did her staff retweet it and nudge reporters to do a story on it? One Wildrose official said she issued the statement to "kill the story" once and for all.

Huh? There was no story until she made it one.

The greater shame here is the opportunity Danielle Smith missed to put her foot on gender politics and help stamp it out. And the way she could have done that is by ignoring this story completely.

By rolling her eyes and moving on she would have rendered the dumb, late-hour bleatings of a university-aged kid nobody had ever heard of before irrelevant. The reason Ms. Smith has no children is no one's business – and it should have remained that way.

This is not to say that we don't still have some way to go when it comes to women in politics. If Ms. Smith's name were Daniel instead of Danielle we likely wouldn't even be having this discussion.

But sometimes you propagate musty stereotypes by dignifying unworthy questions with a response. That's what happened here. Except in this case the reasons for doing it are somewhat questionable.