ILLUSTRATIONS: Wildrose Leader Brian Jean, who “most Albertans would have a hard time picking out of a police lineup of Leprechauns,” has the most incentive to try something wild and crazy tonight. Actual Alberta political leaders may not appear exactly as illustrated. Below: The real Premier Jim Prentice, NDP Leader Rachel Notley, Mr. Jean and Liberal Leader David Swann.

Everyone is wondering if tonight’s televised leadership debate can be a game changer.

The prevailing wisdom – which in this case is actually pretty wise – is that such a moment is not very likely to happen, even if things get rowdy.

Just the same – another bit of conventional wisdom that happens to be right – debates matter more when a political race is close, as this one increasingly appears to be.

So when it’s time to file our copy tonight, the odds are good most journos and bloggers will be intoning that “no punches were landed” on Premier Jim Prentice by the other three amigos who were allowed to take part in the debate by Global TV. But you just never know …

After all, such things do occur from time to time, and when they do, they occasionally change the course of a campaign.

Famous Canadian examples include Conservative challenger Brian Mulroney’s 1984 TKO of Liberal John Turner in response to new prime minister’s whinge that he had no option but to leave controversial appointments made by Pierre Trudeau unchallenged.

“You had an option, sir – to say ‘no’ – and you chose to say ‘yes’ to the old attitudes and the old stories of the Liberal Party,” Mr. Mulroney responded, ringing Mr. Turner’s bell so loudly it could be heard across the country. “That sir, if I may say respectfully, that is not good enough for Canadians!”

Or there was the double-knockout in 1991 by then-little-known B.C. Liberal Leader Gordon Wilson, an amateur thespian who managed to score a ringing point on both his Social Credit and NDP opponents at the moment they finally paused in their squabbling.

“This reminds me of the Legislature and here’s a classic example of why nothing ever gets done in the province of British Columbia,” he dryly interjected. Overnight, Mr. Wilson’s party’s chances went from chicken feed to chicken salad!

Tonight, we will have four candidates, three of whom are lawyers and have at least theoretically been trained in formal debate, but only one of whom is likely to be in a position to benefit much from the unexpected.

In Mr. Prentice, the PCs have a leader who reinforces the negative prejudices many Albertans already have about his party – that it’s arrogant, entitled and out of touch. He needs to appear smart, reasonable and calmly fend off the most outrageous attacks, perhaps with just enough asperity to let viewers know they’re dealing with “extremists.” At this point, he may be close to unsalvageable, so his best strategy is probably to keep it low key. The fact his speaking style is dull as ditchwater may actually help. Sufficiently soporific answers may cause viewers to pass out and miss telling shots by his opponents. If this were a hockey game, his job would be to keep the puck tied up in a corner while the clock runs out. There’s not much incentive for him to pop any surprises, unless he has a good one about the Wildrose leader.

In Rachel Notley, the Alberta NDP has a leader whom Albertans find the most trustworthy and the capable. They also think she’s a genuinely nice person. So she won’t benefit from rude surprises, quarrelsome counterchecks or a flurry of roundhouse punches, metaphorically speaking. Indeed, with her party doing very well in the polls, she may have the most to lose. That said, she’s also the debate participant least likely to lose it, it’s said here. Still, there’s not much incentive for Ms. Notley to incite a wild brouhaha.

In Brian Jean, however, the Wildrose Party has a brand new leader who is almost a blank slate. Who is he? What’s he done? Nobody seems to know – there’s astonishingly, frustratingly little in public about the man just yet. As a friend of mine puts it, “most Albertans would have a hard time picking him out of a police lineup of Leprechauns.” So he’s the candidate with the most to gain from a Gordon Wilson moment, and the person most likely to try for it. I doubt many Albertans have much idea if he’s got it in him to pull it off. Maybe we’ll know tonight. He’d be smart to steer the debate away from social conservative nostrums, though – for the Wildrose, there be dragons!

Finally, in David Swann, the Alberta Liberals have an acting leader who is a decent and intelligent person but who is usually not up to the task of debating in public, as he has proved many times in the Legislature’s Question Period. I would be astonished if Dr. Swann poses a threat to anyone but himself in this debate.

The debate is scheduled to take place 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. tonight on Global TV, Shaw Cable TV and two talk radio stations, News Talk 770 in Calgary and 630 CHED in Edmonton.

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  1. You’re correct, of course. Foresight is 20/20. However, I suspect Premier Prentice may be the aggressor. Those as accustomed to the perks and deference of positional power as he, a Bank executive, Harperite minister and President of Alberta, may not be able to control the rage that comes with things not unfolding as they should. One look at Brian Jean (who?) and that extremist woman (she’s NDP, WTF!) and snap, the gloves are off, nuke the board, make somebody pay and look for a better job. It’s no fun when you’re not going to be boss!

  2. I actually disagree with you that the NDP has the most to lose in the debate. The PC has a 44-year dynasty to lose in this election. Notley attacking the record of his party of the last few years might do more meaningful damage than just going after Prentice personally. Now, if I’m a NDP strategist, I’ll advise Notley to use the debate to speak all the strategic voters in 2012, and the Liberal/Alberta Party/Green voters in this election. Sell the hope that a vote for NDP will at least put the PCs in a minority government, thus the opposition parties will actually matter in the next Legislature.

    On another note, my favourite debate moment is during the 2011 Federal election leaders’ debate, Jack Layton asked Michael Ignatieff about having the worst attendance record of all MPs.

  3. Somewhat off-topic vis-a-vis the debate, but I’ve been pondering the prediction of a number of pundits that we may see a minority government emerge after May 5th, and that it may involve a number of regional blocs: NDP in Edmonton, PC in Calgary, & Wildrose in “TROA”, i.e. the smaller cities & rural.

    I continue to be mystified by rural Albertans’ almost rote preference for hard-core right-wing politics, the more conservative the better. The NDP’s predecessor, the CCF, had its origins as a Depression-era agrarian populist movement. Just take a look at the Regina Manifesto, its foundational document: It’s focus on rural issues and the rights of farmers still resonates today. Why do rural Albertans so consistently vote against their own interests? By rights rural Alberta should be prime NDP territory.

  4. It is really a 2 party debate. The Conservatives still pushing private schools, private health care as they continue to cut funding. Hold the status quo on oil discounts. Albertan’s pay the oil Carbon tax with their royalty money. this will stay as will the discount of 30% or more in place on our oil sales by this province. The privatization of water, allotments now being held by oil companies.

    When they ask for a basin of water they are given a swimming pool and are prepared to sell their excess allotment to cities and towns as you have seen in the past.

    A 30.00 addition to your power bill for line build brings in a billion to the Government every 2 years. This will stay. The Heritage Trust fund is gone; 700 billion used in place of taxes.

    The Wild Rose party agree with all of these Conservative moves and have a few more of their own. Doing away with transfer payment even though they need the agreement of 6 other provinces to do so, they are holding with that game plan. Laying off a huge segment of Government managers who became managers in names only to fit the wage classification they were in when they took an incremental raise. WRP will accelerate the speed in which we come to totally private medicine. Calls to medi centers will be about 50 bucks a pop out of your pockets.

    On the other side we have the NDP who recognizing their game plan and has come forward with a solid platform to roll back cuts to education and health care and added a few gems of their own on top of this.

    Their tax program hits only the very highest earners low income and small and medium business are not touched by increases.

    Their banner reads:
    Improved public health care (not the status-quo)

    Accessible, affordable education. (Private schools presently get lions share and there is no post graduate support) Tuition is high because Government support is low. Most of you couldn’t afford university now if your education would allow you to try.

    Affordable, safe seniors care. (Alberta has had a crush of mistreatment in the totally private US owned care hospice that is only slightly government funded. No cash brings on a DNR tag on the back of your chair and relatives must give 2 days notice to get an appointment for a visit. Makes you wonder!

    Full value for our natural resources. Alberta has been hedging our crude conventional and oil sands by 30% for the past 15 years. The closer we get to market the better off our producers are yet, they worry about the taxes rather than the income. This means the umbilical between Alberta and the Gulf Coast is about a lot more than oil!

    End to big Corp tax breaks.

    There are a great many reasons to support and vote for the Alberta NDP! This is just a few. Join with me.

  5. What I would pay to hear:

    Our Premier has has characterized my platform as extreme and I know Albertans disagree with him. Premier Prentice; was Peter Lougheed an extremist? Were his policies those of an extremist? Do you think Albertans are stupid?

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