Tonight was Alberta's only televised leaders debate, and it was an hour-and-a-half of nannering back and forth between four people, three of which are actually in the position to get the top job. The moderator was terrible, the questions kind of sucked, but overall, it was a fun ride - for me, anyway, I'm not so sure about the voters.
These are my impressions of how each of the leaders did. Lets just go down the list, in no particular order except my fascination.
David Swann, Liberal Party
I think I now understand why Swann made the decision to step away from the permanent leadership back in 2012 - he just isn't very good as a public persona. While many people praise Swann as an excellent constituency member and someone who has the right priorities for the people he seeks to represent, he just can't articulate it very well to a large audience.
When he wasn't being ignored by the other three contenders, Swann often stumbled or paused mid-sentence while trying to deliver what was obviously just warmed-over talking points, like he was trying to catch up with himself. The few good lines he had did not seem to be scripted or, if they were, they were done much better than most of the rest of his prep.
It couldn't even be called a trainwreck, because at no point did Swann ever gather up enough momentum to even ruin his chances at winning.
And that is the real tragedy of tonight, because Swann was not just sitting up there blathering - he made some excellent points, able to say what his party would do and explain why they would do it (i.e., he mentioned several times about his small business tax elimination). The man is clearly not a complete amateur, but he did not match up to the casual and/or forceful debate style of some of his opponents, making him seem under-prepared or just way out of his league. I don't think his debate performance will garner him any votes, though some of the things he proposed may interest some people who are looking for alternatives - that, at the very least, is a positive.
Brian Jean, Wildrose Party
You can tell Mr. Jean went to the Conservative backbencher school of debate - all he did was stick to one theme or point throughout the night, and barely wavered off it, no matter the topic.
The theme was, of course, Jean and the Wildrosers won't raise your taxes while the PCs have and the NDP will. That angle of course makes sense, given his party's position on the spectrum compared to the parties he has the face. It was standard Conservative mantra, which won't hurt him any and paints a nice dichotomy between himself and the other leaders, exactly what he needed to do.
In that respect, you could almost say Jean and Notley are tied as the "winners" for this debate if your measurement is "doing what they needed to do." The main difference between them, however, was the fact that Jean is a poor debater - almost as bad as Swann, in fact. Jean had several tongue-tied moments and his voice was extremely monotone throughout, not really reflecting any passion he has for what he said. He rarely engaged with the camera or his opponents, again focusing down on his no-taxes theme without necessarily responding to what others are saying. He really didn't play the part of "I want to be Premier" very well.
Still, that is fairly standard fare for these kinds of debates, so how much it matters I don't know. Jean is the front-runner at this point according to pollsters, and he didn't do or say anything that would lose him that status, with the exception of being outclassed by Notley.
Jim Prentice, Progressive Conservative
Jim, Jim, Jim - how could you go so wrong?
Prentice had a terrible night, and it wasn't necessarily because of anything he did in the debate, its mostly because of who he is - the incumbent. Having to defend a record, especially one as long and harrowed as the PC's, is never easy, especially not when recent decisions made by you haven't helped either. Notley, Jean, and even Swann were all able to attack Prentice's own record while tying it to the longevity of the PCs, hitting that Achilles' Heel of all heirs to long-serving regimes - nothing's changed, you're still the same old group, and its time for someone new.
Prentice came out swinging against Notley and the NDP from the get-go, and moved back and forth between attacking her and Jean, though Notley was his prime target throughout the night. While he was able to score some points against Jean (mostly because Jean simply didn't respond), practically every time he went up against Notley, she was able to shut him down.
For example, when he tried to attack Notley on raising corporate taxes and how one of her "union bosses" said the loss of 8,000 jobs as "nothing," Notley responded easily with a "I never said that" and then went on the attack, taking the initiative away from him. He constantly asked throughout the night if he could get a word in (rarely he could), and several times when he was asked a question by Swann, he answered offhandedly then pivoted it right back to attack Notley. Unfortunately he was just not a match for her ability to command the debate on stage, and if he had any points, he barely got them across.
In my view, the fact that Prentice went so aggressively after his opponents was a major issue to begin with. Prentice should have focused on defense, not offense. The other parties are not necessarily proposing anything radical or grandiose, and they're really only gaining traction because they're the default other options (especially in Jean's case). The best strategy would have been a direct appeal to the voters, defending yourself from attacks but essentially ignoring the other parties - the PCs are losing because voters are mad at them, not because people really think Jean or Notley would make great premiers. That chance, however, was completely squandered the second Prentice decided to go on the attack.
That being said, he did land a few hits here and there. One I particularly like, though I think he should have expanded on it much more than he did, was his attack on the NDP's poor budget estimates - an issue that plays up the standard NDP stereotype of being fiscally irresponsible. He also went after Jean for refusing to say how he would pay for services when he wouldn't consider how to get new revenue. I just don't see any of it being enough to save him or his party, however.
Rachel Notley, New Democratic Party
Clearly, the winner throughout the night was Rachel Notley - she was prepared, articulate, well-composed and controlled almost every aspect of the debate. There is no doubt in my mind that when voters look at Notley, they're going to see someone who could feasibly be Premier - much like Danielle Smith in 2012. There really isn't much more to say, given how much I've gone over in the above profiles.
Well, I suppose there is, though its probably just my own biases and assumptions about Alberta politics. Notley was in control, but her messaging, to me, seemed to be a poor fit for the kind of voters Alberta is supposed to have. She may have paid homage to Lougheed and so on, but at no point did she really speak like a conservative. She brought up how she wants to bring in new forms of taxes (a progressive income tax, for example), name-dropping Jack Layton (and the 2009 coalition attempt), and generally acted like your basic NDP Leader from any part of Canada would. I know people say that Albertans, especially in the cities, are much more progressive than their federal or provincial voting habits point to; I'm not entirely sure I buy it all the time, and I'm not entirely sure Notley's obvious centre-left rhetoric will actually play that well.
Think of it this way: the NDP have never gained much traction in Alberta beyond a few core areas because their rhetoric and platforms are generally not in tune with the views of most Albertans, who are comfortable with their low-tax, resource-rich status. That hasn't changed with Notley's NDP, as tonight showed.
Voters might be willing to give the NDP and her especially a chance, but when push comes to shove, will the natural centre-right leaning voters really get over what she stands for? The NDP often have to spend years building up public trust before voters hand them the keys, I just don't see it happening here, and Notley's performance tonight didn't convince me otherwise.
Or I could be entirely wrong and we'll see an orange wave in the province, I can absolutely accept that as a possibility. If it does happen, tonight's debate was crucial to helping Notley solidify that victory.