A few harmless slaps were landed, but last night’s PC leadership debate in Edmonton was no donnybrook

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The Three Tory Amigos just before last night’s Edmonton debate. Below: Mr. Lukaszuk, who your blogger says was the debate winner, frontrunner Jim Prentice, and the challenger with the best chance, Ric McIver.

If last night’s Alberta Progressive Conservative Leadership debate in a North Edmonton Ukrainian community hall shows anything, it’s that candidates Ric McIver and Thomas Lukaszuk were slightly better brawlers than leadership frontrunner Jim Prentice.

But you’d expect the two challengers to pile onto the favoured candidate at an event like this – the only forum in the entire leadership campaign not carefully scripted by the PC Party brass and caucus members, who overwhelmingly favour Mr. Prentice’s candidacy.

It was also the only forum to permit a few moments of actual three-way debate among the candidates for Alison Redford’s tarnished crown, an aspect helped by the able moderation of CBC announcer Kim Trynacity.

Anyway, you’d expect Mr. Prentice to tread carefully, especially around the two issues that provided some difficulty for him yesterday – his recent announcement his campaign would be giving away party memberships, instead of selling them as is the party tradition, and his ideas about how Alberta Health Services should be run.

So I’m not sure how much can be deduced about how each of the Tory trio are doing from the few moments of fun the forum provided to the crowd of about 100 people, about half apparently members of the Edmonton Ukrainian community. (A small sleight of hand was managed by the event’s organizers, who moved the debate from a huge room, where the crowd would have looked pathetic, into quite a small one, which seemed impressively packed.)

To turn to the inevitable boxing metaphor, local homeboy Lukaszuk landed a couple of punches, Mr. McIver landed one, but the frontrunner escaped with no obvious bruising. There were no knockouts.

I’d have to respectfully disagree with one professional journalist who said the debate featured “a rowdy shouting match.” Voices were raised, but not for long. Decorum was maintained. As for the heckling heard by another reporter, it was mostly one guy, and he divided his attention between Mr. Prentice and Mr. McIver. I know this because he was sitting right behind me.

On the whole, I’d say all three candidates did OK, although I’d give the contest to Mr. Lukaszuk on points, if only for the best line of the evening, in which he mockingly encouraged “all Albertans to pick up a free membership from Jim and vote for me.”

He followed that up with a clever but harmless tap at Mr. McIver: “This province doesn’t need a Mr. Vague or a Dr. No” – the latter being a reference to Mr. McIver’s nickname as an austerity advocate on Calgary city council and the former a pretty fair description of Mr. Prentice’s approach to most issues.

Cut through the verbiage, though, and there was very little to separate any of the candidates on genuinely important issues other than how to run AHS.

None of them favour changing the oil and gas royalty structure (although Mr. Lukaszuk advocates more value added processing in Alberta), all of them say they want to make peace with Alberta teachers, and all of them advocate some degree of fiscal conservatism.

Not surprisingly, given the venue, all of them think warm thoughts about Ukraine, which Mr. McIver, with an unintended geographical tribute to former U.S. vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, described as our “good neighbour.”

On his call to restore board governance to the AHS and his justifications for giving away memberships when, after all, the party’s rules allow it, Mr. Prentice reminded me for all the world of a earnest Joe Clark trying to explain a complicated point to an inattentive listener.

Interestingly, the loudest cheer of the evening went to Mr. Lukaszuk’s argument the federal Temporary Foreign Workers Program needs to be replaced by real immigrants who get to stay in Canada – but this too was a point of which all three candidates are really in agreement.

The reality is that while a fine time was had by most of the people who bothered to turn out, this contest is going to be decided by membership sales and committed voters – which likely means it’s a fight between Mr. Prentice, with the support of the party establishment, and Mr. McIver, who is emphasizing political niche marketing to committed groups.

This leaves Mr. Lukaszuk without much to show but two thumbs up from Alberta Diary for his modest debating victory last night.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

Categories Alberta Politics