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Danielle Smith’s Day Went Bad Long Before the Debate

A damning ethics report and dumped candidate upstaged a leaders’ debate draw.

David Climenhaga 19 May 2023The Tyee

David J. Climenhaga is an award-winning journalist, author, post-secondary teacher, poet and trade union communicator. He blogs at Follow him on Twitter at @djclimenhaga.

The worst moment for Alberta Premier Danielle Smith Thursday came well before the leaders’ debate opening bell rang at 6 p.m.

That was when Alberta ethics commissioner Marguerite Trussler issued her report on Smith’s controversial telephone 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.

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,” Notley told the premier. “So, you talk about instability, that does not engender trust!”

That said, it’s open to question whether Notley’s repetition of that point made much difference to the outcome of the debate. 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 Smith her due, while she obviously doesn’t like 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 have given her UCP debate coaches palpitations as they watched.

That restraint, though, constitutes a victory of sorts for Smith, who delivered her lines most of the time with the unblushing confidence of a snake oil merchant.

As noted, 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!

Smith responded when Notley drew the short straw and had to go first. She burned up most of her time repeating 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.”

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 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.

The gives an edge to 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 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 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 — Smith must have gone home thinking it could have been worse.

As for Notley, no one can say she can’t navigate every file capably or that she doesn’t understand the policies she advocates.

Both Notley and Smith will have video clips they can share with their supporters today.

I call it a draw.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, Alberta

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