Alberta’s Election Leaders’ Debate: Disappointing, But Who’s to Blame?
Thursday’s debate between UCP Premier, Danielle Smith, and NDP Leader, Rachel Notley, was more substantial and crisp than the average. The content was mostly presented by Notley, while Smith’s contribution was largely rhetorical, if not sophomoric. But there was little interruption or talking over one another.
Still, one was left deeply dissatisfied. The format, which limited the whole debate to an hour of TV time, with leaders’ interventions limited to 45 seconds each, was clearly not intended to dig deep into the challenges facing this province, serious though they may be. This was simply a political boxing match in search of a knock-out punch.
Given that limited context, the real objective of a strategic participant is to come out of the experience with as much dignity as possible. The winner in those terms was clearly Rachel Notley. Smith’s perennial gaffes precede her and her Trumpian dismissal of them as “grainy videos”, despite their currency, had a pathological quality.
The debate underlined the immaturity and insubstantial nature of our democratic practice. We seem trapped in a world where serious public examination of the issues confronting us is impossible, however desirable.
Real leadership, in the sense of someone prepared to stand up and try to convince the public of the logic of their policy positions, has been absent from Canadian politics for some time now. In its place is a craven effort to avoid all controversy (indeed, the very substance of policy debates) for fear of being purposely misrepresented by one’s political opponents. All sides assume they are pitching to an unthinking, ill-informed electorate super prone to being mislead by the all-pervasive social media.
Electoral debates today are noteworthy for what they don’t talk about. Thursday’s debate was unenlightening, avoiding as it did debate over alternative responses to climate change, planning for the inevitable transition to a post-fossil future, the intricacies and benefits of a carbon tax, the fleecing of Alberta’s patrimony by foreign-owned oil corporations, why privatization of our health care system is a bad idea, the relative merits of public and private sectors in addressing social goals (health care, education, fire-fighting, not the least), taxation and the value for money spent on public services, let alone discussion of the root cause of most of our woes, our devotion to infinite growth and profligate consumption. The triviality of this debate in the face of such challenges is surely the biggest take-home.
Yet, media commentary on the debate seemed to assume the participants were responsible for its failings. That is clearly passing the buck. Albertans got the debate they deserved. What we saw was our insubstantial selves reflected back at us.
In the end, Notley was right, the choice left to Albertans is a matter of trust. Who do you trust to navigate the shoals ahead of our lurching ship of state? Who will best lead us through the increasing number of environmental and health crises that are inevitable in our future? Will UCP voters wake up to the very real threat posed by someone who likens mask wearers to Nazis, thinks she has the power to pardon criminals, that she can set mortgage rates, manage pensions, and even imagine taking Alberta out of Confederation?
Must we take Danielle Smith seriously? As absurd as her behaviour and utterances may be, the answer is still, yes. The threat posed by a government she leads is very real. An unthinking electorate is capable of making the wrong choice at the worst possible moment in this province’s history. I hope to be proven wrong.
Edmonton, 21 May, 2023