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Alberta's Leaders Debate: Math is hard, English is harder

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Image: Flickr/Dave Cournoyer

"I know the math is difficult." Jim Prentice to Rachel Notley during the Leaders Debate April 23, 2015

Ms. Soapbox doesn't like math. As a child she thought numbers had personalities. Eights, sixes and nines were nice numbers; fours, fives and twos were sharp and nasty. Math was "difficult" because it was full of numerical personalities jostling for supremacy.

Imagine her surprise when the Leaders Debate revealed that numbers were treacherous too.



In the Debate Mr. Prentice tried to discredit the Wildrose by arguing that their numbers didn't "add up" and they couldn't possibly reduce public spending by $18 billion as promised. Wildrose leader Mr. Jean retorted that Jack Mintz, a well-respected economist and advisor to Mr. Prentice, had reviewed the WR budget and concluded the numbers did indeed "add up".

So let me get this straight. Jack Mintz, reviewed both the PC budget and the Wildrose budget and said they both "add up" even though the PCs say the Wildrose budget falls $18 billion short.

Yep, numbers are treacherous.

So forget the numbers (they're elastic and will say anything if you squeeze them hard enough). Focus on Mr. Prentice's words.

In December 2014 a somber Mr. Prentice warned Albertans that tanking oil prices had created an "unprecedented" fiscal crisis that he could fix with a "once in a generation" budget. The budget would include "tough choices" that required Mr. Prentice to seek a fresh mandate before he could, in good conscience, take action.

Then he launched a barrage of trial balloons, like flares flying off a sinking ship, to test how just how "tough" he dared to be.

Fast forward to Debate night.



Mr. Prentice's opening and closing statements indicate that in the space of three short months he's had a change of heart. Yes, Albertans are facing "important challenges," even "significant challenges," but "we are not facing challenges that are greater than what we've faced in the past and overcome."  Been there, done that, ready to do it again.

The focus now was on "stability" and "leadership" and on who would provide a "realistic plan" (take that, Wildrose!) that harnesses "our free enterprise spirit" (take that, NDP!) and optimism" (take that, Grim Jim!)


The Wildrose: $18 billion in waste

Mr. Prentice's attempt to undermine the Wildrose plan was hobbled by the fact that Mr. Jean refused to provide any details on where the $18 billion in cuts would come from. All Mr. Jean would say was "look it up, it's on page five".

So Mr. Prentice swung his attention to Ms. Notley, the only opponent he deemed worthy a "serious discussion...about the future of the province."

The NDP: corporate tax and royalty review

Actually Mr. Prentice focused on Ms. Notley right from the start, turning to Ms. Notley ten times more frequently than Dr. Swann and three times more frequently than Mr. Jean. Oh, and was it just me, or did Mr. Prentice show his nervousness by calling her Ms. Notchley twice???

Mr. Prentice attacked her proposal to increase corporate taxes to 12 per cent, arguing that it would destroy the "Alberta Advantage" and kill jobs. Ms. Notley pointed out that B.C. raised corporate taxes and jobs increased and that Ontario decreased corporate taxes and lost jobs.

Her point (in words, not numbers) was that it's not that simple: the Alberta Advantage is more than just having the lowest corporate taxes in the nation. It includes having no sales tax, an educated workforce, decent healthcare and so on.

Mr. Prentice ridiculed the NDP plan to create a resource commission, saying that the results of the last royalty review were "devastating".

Ms. Notley replied that the royalty review did not cause the international drop in oil prices (she's right, Alberta may think it's the centre of the oil universe, but it's not OPEC), and the commission would be a transparent forum to ensure Albertans get the best value for their natural resources.

This exchange illustrates why it's critical to think about the words.

Mr. Prentice is fearmongering. He attempted to tar Notley's resource commission with his own government's half-hearted attempt to improve royalty returns. It ended disastrously because his government allowed Big Oil to make the government the scapegoat when oil prices dropped in response to global market forces.

Ms. Notley's proposal is something entirely different. She's calling for a standing commission created under Bill 209 to ensure transparency and accountability in the management of Alberta's natural resources. The commission would make recommendations on royalty rates, value-added proposals and long term sustainability of non-renewable resources to the Legislature which presumably would include a few representatives of the PC party to keep them from going hog wild.        


The Liberals: little traction

Dr. Swann made some excellent comments about healthcare and the environment. He was all but ignored by Mr. Prentice who was singularly focussed on destroying Ms. Notley's credibility.


Words matter

Cognitive linguist, George Lakoff, says "TV debates are not primarily about policy details and the numbers, [they're] about choosing a moral leader."

Mr. Prentice went into this election expecting a coronation. Instead he's fighting for his political life. He chose his words carefully during the Debate and he'll choose his words carefully over the next eight days.

Will his words reflect moral leadership or will he default to Harperesque attacks on Ms. Notley and the NDP? Will he respect Albertans struggling to make up their minds or continue to throw around platitudes telling them that their "spirit", "ingenuity" and "optimism" will overcome these not-out-of-the-ordinary challenges?

Words matter, especially for a politician who called an unnecessary election and is now in a three-way race to the finish line.


Image: Flickr/Dave Cournoyer

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