The worst moment in yesterday’s televised leader’s debate for Alberta Premier Danielle Smith came well before the hourlong event’s opening bell rang at 6 p.m.
That was when Alberta Ethics Commissioner Marguerite Trussler issued her report on Ms. Smith’s controversial telephone chit-chat last January with separatist anti-vaccine preacher Artur Pawlowski about what the premier could do to get him off the charges he faced for his part in the Coutts border blockade a year earlier.
Ms. Trussler’s report was damning, finding that the Premier contravened the Conflicts of Interest Act, and, worse, that, “the purpose of Premier Smith’s call was to influence a decision of the Crown to prosecute Mr. Pawlowski. … It is improper for any elected official to try to interfere with the administration of justice by interfering in a prosecution. … It is a threat to democracy …”
With the report out in time for Alberta NDP strategists to give it a thorough read before the debate, Opposition Leader Rachel Notley was handed a cudgel with which to beat the premier, which she did repeatedly and effectively.
“You’re found to have broken the law in order to interfere with the system of justice to assist with somebody who had been charged with attempting to get people to commit violence against police officers,” Ms. Notley told the premier. “So, you talk about instability, that does not engender trust!”
That said, it’s open to question whether Ms. Notley’s repetition of that point made much difference to the outcome of the debate. Leastways, I doubt very many people turn on a political debate like last night’s and stick with it to the bitter end unless they’re committed to supporting one leader or the other.
And to give Ms. Smith her due, while she obviously doesn’t like Mr. Notley, or vice versa, she kept her head and never allowed herself to be goaded into straying from her talking points. It looked to me as if she got pretty close a couple of times, though, which must’ve given her UCP debate coaches palpitations as they watched.
That restraint, though, constitutes of victory of sorts for Ms. Smith, who delivered her lines most of the time with the unblushing confidence of a snake oil merchant.
As noted, Ms. Notley got some shots in, but in my opinion she wasted too much time on preambles and qualifications, effective in Parliamentary debate or a court of law, but deadly in a time-limited format with a bunch of journalists acting as a committee of moderators determined to get in the way of brisk debate.
I mean, seriously, who goes to one of these things and asks the participants to “please tell us one specific policy your opponent has put forward that you agree with, and why”?
Jeeze, Louise! That’s like asking a couple of pugilists to pause and dance a foxtrot for two minutes midway through a slugfest!
Ms. Smith’s response when Ms. Notley drew the short straw and had to go first: She burned up most of her time repeating Ms. Notley’s answer, then pulled up another one of her policies she reckoned the NDP could go along with. As Postmedia national political columnist Andrew Coyne tweeted: “Just utterly classless.”
Accordingly, the opening sequence of last night’s debate was the most entertaining, when both leaders came out swinging, and it looked more like a real sparring bout than these things usually do, or anything that followed.
Which was a slight problem for Ms. Notley, since she got stronger and less hesitant as the debate proceeded, and landed more punches as the hour continued. But did any undecided voters stick around long enough to see how it was going. Not very many, I suspect.
This gives an edge to Ms. Smith, who given the advantage Conservatives enjoy thanks to the tilted Alberta electoral map and incumbency, only needed to stay on her feet to be able to claim a success. And that she did, even summing up with an appropriately teary peroration about how much she loves Alberta that might even have fooled a few viewers out there.
The looks that played across Ms. Smith’s face when she wasn’t talking, though, weren’t necessarily going to persuade anyone of her fitness for office.
Still, given the horrible day she must have had – having to accept Ms. Trussler’s report and knuckle under to demands that she promise her transphobic candidate in Lacombe-Ponoka won’t be allowed to sit in the UCP Caucus if she’s elected, which in that riding she will be – Ms. Smith must have gone home thinking it could have been worse.
As for Ms. Notley, no one can say she can’t navigate every file capably or that she doesn’t understand the policies she advocates.
Both Ms. Notley and Ms. Smith will have video clips they can share with their supporters today.
I call it a draw.
This is Alberta: Consequences are few for Conservative misdeeds
Margeurite Trussler’s report about Ms. Smith’s interventions on behalf of Mr. Pawlowski concluded on this discordant note: “I make no recommendations with respect to sanctions against the premier for consideration of the Legislative Assembly of Alberta but reserve the right to make recommendations once the Legislative Assembly is back in session.”
In other words, after the election.
“I also recommend,” she continued rather plaintively, that “the Legislative Assembly of Alberta consider whether to amend the Conflicts of Interest Act to provide for a stay of any ongoing investigation from the time that the writ drops for an election until the election results are certified. … Not having such a provision puts the Ethics Commissioner and the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly in an extremely difficult position with respect to the timing and release of any report.” (Emphasis added.)
How inconvenient for both of them to feel pressure to make a report at a time when it might actually have a meaningful impact on the offender!
In a similar vein, under pressure to do something about self-disgraced Lacombe-Ponoka UCP candidate Jennifer Johnson’s hateful comparison of trans children in schools to poop in cookie dough – delivered to the chuckles of her fellow participants in a home schooling conference – the premier rendered her judgment.
“I have informed Ms. Johnson that should she win a seat as the UCP candidate for Lacombe-Ponoka, she will not sit as a member of the United Conservative caucus in the Legislature,” Ms. Smith said in a statement published by the UCP Caucus.
“I encourage all candidates from all parties not to use this or any other election to provoke distrust, anxiety and hate between people for political purposes,” she concluded self-righteously. “It is time to move forward.”
In other words, “Nothing to see here folks, move along, please.”
Surely no one believes that if the election is decided with a margin of one or two seats, Ms. Johnson will not be swiftly welcomed back.