A short history of leaders' debates in Alberta elections
Alberta's first TV leaders debate was in 1993
I’m Dave Cournoyer and this is the Daveberta Substack.
United Conservative Party leader Danielle Smith and Alberta NDP leader Rachel Notley will face each other at 6:00 pm tonight in the only televised leaders debate of Alberta’s election campaign.
This is the first time Alberta has had a TV debate featuring only two party leaders, but both people taking the stage have experience doing this before.
This is Notley’s third televised debate since 2015 and it’s Smith’s second.
Smith was leader of the Wildrose Party when she took to the debate stage with Progressive Conservative leader Alison Redford and other party leaders in 2012.
The debate is a marquee event because it is usually one of the only times during a campaign where the party leaders will publicly interact in the same space for an extended period of time.
Whatever happens on stage tonight, both leaders’ parties will claim victory and push out video clips on social media showing their leader in a positive light and their opponent from less friendly angles. There might be a winner. There might be a loser. It might be a draw.
How Smith responds to any questions about the absolutely monstrous comments made by Lacombe-Ponoka UCP candidate Jennifer Johnson about transgender children could be one of the most important moments of the night.
We will have to watch and see whether the debate will have an impact on the campaign or whether it will be a soon-forgotten milquetoast event.
It’s going to be interesting to watch.
PS. I shared a few more thoughts on today’s leaders debates in today’s POLITICO’s Ottawa Playbook.
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A short history of leaders’ debates in Alberta elections
Ahead of tonight’s debate, I have compiled a quick history of leaders’ debates during provincial elections in Alberta.
Social Credit leader Ernest Manning, Progressive Conservative leader Peter Lougheed, Liberal leader Michael Maccagno and NDP leader Neil Reimer participated in this debate, which was a first in an Alberta election.
Lougheed initially challenged Manning, who had served as Premier since 1943, to a televised debate but a public debate was held instead. The meeting was sponsored by the City Centre Church Council and held at McDougall United Church in downtown Edmonton. The four leaders fielded questions from the audience of 1,200 in the packed church.
The Edmonton Journal reported on May 17, 1967 that “Peter Lougheed’s star shone brightly over Edmonton…” and the Calgary Herald reported “…Manning was booed by a small contingent of hecklers” while the new leader of the PCs “appeared to score heavily and draw the most applause.”
At the time of the debate, Manning and Maccagno were the only leaders elected to the Legislature. Reimer was not an MLA but his party had one MLA, Garth Turcott, who had been elected in a 1965 by-election in Pincher Creek-Crowsnest.
Lougheed was not an MLA and his party had not elected an MLA since the 1959 election but in this election he would win in Calgary-West and become Leader of the Official Opposition. He would then lead the PCs to win the next election and serve as premier from 1971 to 1985.
Despite the success of his 1967 debate appearance, Lougheed declined to participate in any other leaders debates when challenged by opposition leaders in the four elections between 1971 and 1982.
“I’ve said at the outset, we’ve had four years of debate in the legislature,” Lougheed told reporters in 1979 after declining to debate NDP leader Grant Notley. “The time for a debate is past. We don’t run a campaign reacting to the opposition.”
PC leader Don Getty also refused to debate his opponents on television in the 1986 and 1989 elections.
“He’ll be hiding so far under his bed I won’t be able to find him with a broomstick,” Liberal Party leader Nick Taylor warned of Getty if the television stations did not start organizing a debate well-ahead of the 1986 election.
After NDP leader Ray Martin challenged Getty to a debate in 1986, the PC campaign responded with an unserious proposal to hold a debate with the leaders of every registered opposition party (including the Communist Party and the fringe right-wing Western Canada Concept, Confederation of Regions, and Heritage parties).
Martin predictably declined.
“We want the debate. We want a serious debate though - not 10 people with three minutes apiece talking to the camera. That doesn’t make any sense,” said Martin.
But Taylor didn’t decline.
“If they ask me to stand on my head in a corner and read my speech in Esperanto, I’ll do it if that’s what everybody agrees to,” Taylor said of Getty’s proposal.
Despite Taylor’s enthusiasm the debate didn’t happen, though he was elected to the Legislature in 1986 and served as an MLA until he was appointed to the Senate in 1996.
The first televised leaders’ debates in an Alberta election happened in 1993. PC Party leader Ralph Klein, Liberal leader Laurence Decore and NDP leader Ray Martin participated in two televised debates.
Martin had served as Leader of the Official Opposition since 1984 but he was being squeezed out by the growing popularity of the fiscally conservative politics of Klein (the former mayor of Calgary) and Decore (the former mayor of Edmonton).
The first debate was held on May 27 in-front of a live studio audience and was broadcast on CFCN in Calgary and CFRN in Edmonton. The second debate was held on June 7 without a live studio audience on Channel 2&7 in Calgary and ITV in Edmonton at the same time as Game 4 of the Stanley Cup final (Go Habs!) was being broadcast elsewhere.
Klein’s initial reluctance to participate in the first debate led Decore to hold a press conference with the premier’s Liberal opponent in Calgary-Elbow, Madeleine King, and a giant stuffed chicken.
“This is a chicken,” Decore said while gesturing toward the giant stuffed chicken standing next to him and his infamous Debt Clock. “And the chicken is a representation of the fact that the conservative party historically, and now into this election, refuses to engage in debate,” he explained..
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