Alberta's leaders' debate was never really about which of four parties would win; it was about which party had to win to keep things interesting – Alison Redford's Progressive Conservatives.
Most polls show Ms. Redford trailing Wildrose, by anywhere between one and 12 per cent. If those hold, Wildrose will have plenty of seats in rural Alberta and in Calgary to win a majority, despite picking up just a handful in Edmonton, the province's centrist enclave.
The only party with a legitimate shot of catching them – that is, of making the rest of the campaign relevant – is the PCs. To catch up, Ms. Redford needed a strong performance. And what she delivered Thursday was serviceable, if unspectacular. There were neither major gaffes nor knockouts. She snuck in one-liners occasionally while under fire from the other three parties, but few (though some) were calling it a Redford win.
As such, it was considered, by default, a win for Wildrose leader Danielle Smith, who nonetheless turned in a solid performance herself.
It made the debate a possible major turning point that wasn't. A poll released Thursday evening, after it finished, showed 38 per cent of respondents thought Ms. Smith won, 28 per cent said Ms. Redford won, while 13 per cent gave it to Liberal Raj Sherman and 10 per cent thought New Democrat Brian Mason was the victor. Those numbers are practically in lock-step with where the parties stand in the polls, suggesting the pollsters merely captured partisans backing their own horse.
The parties have stark differences. Ms. Redford's party would pour money into infrastructure and has been coy about tax hikes; Ms. Smith's would save surpluses, slow infrastructure spending, give energy rebates and abolish the human rights commission; Dr. Sherman's would raise taxes and slash university tuition; Mr. Mason' would raise some taxes too, including royalties on bitumen.
All this added fuel to the debate fire. Here's a rundown of some of the notable moments:
How it went down
Entering the debate, the Liberals and New Democrats were behind the pack and had a choice: do you attack the incumbent, or the frontrunner? They went with the former, joining Ms. Smith in piling onto Ms. Redford. There may be a few reasons for this, says Duane Bratt, the chair of policy studies at Calgary's Mount Royal University. The Liberals and New Democrats have battled the PCs for 40 years and want change, but they're also seeing Edmonton as their best hope for seats. And in Edmonton, they're battling the PCs – not Wildrose. So, with it clear they won't form government themselves, helping hammer the final nail into the PCs leaves them in better shape for next time. It also let Ms. Smith, the frontrunner and likely the next premier, off the hook.
MLA pay has been a major issue in this campaign, and that continued. Ms. Smith challenged Ms. Redford to match a commitment to slash cabinet salaries; Ms. Redford has called in an independent MLA compensation review panel, and said she'd instead wait for the advice of the chair, a former judge. "I don't need a judge to tell me what to do," Ms. Smith snapped.
Health care also dominated the discussion. Wildrose supports more private delivery of care, the PCs are cagey and the Liberals and NDP are dogmatically pro-public-health care. School funding also popped up – the NDP and Liberals would focus funding to public schools, while Wildrose and the PCs support the status quo of funding private, charter and home schools as well.
Energy was noticeably absent from the debate. Virtually none of the 90 minutes focused on the energy sector, though Ms. Redford pledged to keep royalties untouched after Mr. Mason reminded viewers he'd hike them.
Whose stock rose
Neither Ms. Smith nor Ms. Redford had the most positive change as a result of their debate performance. That honour went to Mr. Mason, whose NDP entered the race with two seats, including his own, and have modest hopes for gains. Poll respondents' view of Mr. Mason had a "net improvement" of 27 per cent. NDP staff, meanwhile, have identified about half a dozen seats they have a solid shot at.
The king of zing
Each party rolled out scripted lines once in a while, but the top zingers came from Dr. Sherman. He dismissed Ms. Redford's "fudge-it budget," and slammed Ms. Smith in an attempt to cast her as a backwater conservative: "Danielle, this is Alberta, not Alabama." Even when he wasn't trying for a one-liner, there was a directness about him: "Alison, you have a record. A very bad record." Simple enough. Honorable mention here to Ms. Smith, who dismissed Ms. Redford's questions about her party's financing and whether Elections Alberta will investigate. The chief electoral officer, Ms. Smith told the PC leader is instead "so busy investigating all the illegal donations to your party."
Ms. Redford on several occasions fired back at Ms. Smith, typically trying to cast her as an extreme social conservative. One comment was on conscience rights, a Wildrose platform idea that would allow medical professionals to opt out of certain procedures. "The fact that we're actually having this discussion in this election is quite disappointing to me. Because the reason this is coming up is simply because this leader and this party didn't like what the courts already decided more than 20 years ago," Ms. Redford said.
Her second was about de-funding abortion, which Wildrose said would only go to referendum if approved by a judge. "You simply start by saying: Should we use the notwithstanding clause? Every single time you do that, a judge will have no choice but to approve that referendum no matter what it's about." Given that Ms. Smith's caucus includes people who would have preferred to use the notwithstanding clause to block gay rights, this could have been a major turning point. Instead, it fell flat.
The devastating blow
That goes to Ms. Smith, who appeared poised throughout much of the debate but hit her stride towards the end, culminating in this run-down of Ms. Redford's record. "She promised a fixed election date then didn't. She promised she would review then actually seriously consider rescinding those [proposed high-transmission]power lines, then didn't. She promised she would look into the bullying and intimidation of doctors in the health-care system, and then didn't. This is what leadership is about. It's actually saying what you're going to do, then actually doing it. If you don't believe that you can do it, then you shouldn't promise it in the first place. I think that what we've seen after six months of Redford leadership is she is the kind of leader who will say anything to get elected – and then when she's elected, it's not worth the paper it's written on." The line isn't necessarily truthful – Ms. Redford called in an independent expert panel on the power lines, and accepted its recommendation, and did have Alberta's Health Quality Council investigate doctor intimidation – but was nonetheless a direct hit on her chief opponent.
For Prof. Bratt, it's simple: "Smith won." It struck him while driving to coach a lacrosse practice after the debate. "Unless something dramatic happens in the last 10 days, it's over. I'm sitting there afterwards, driving ... and I'm going: 'Wildrose is going to win this. The only question is – how big?' If you lived in this province a long time, it's a bit of a surreal moment to have it dawn on you that there's going to be a change in government here."
Each of the political party leaders said there's plenty of time left in the campaign. The PCs still have an ample war chest. Even if they somehow scrape out a win, some observers say Ms. Redford will be lucky to hold on to her job as leader after ushering her party to the brink of collapse after its 41 years in power. PC campaign staff and MLAs who attended the debate weren't disappointed. And so it continues: Albertans head to the polls April 23, before which much can change. Thursday's debate, however, was the best chance for the PCs, the only party other than Wildrose with a reasonable chance to form government, to catch up. In that respect, for them, it's likely seen as an opportunity lost.