NDP environment critic Marlin Schmidt. Image: David J. Climenhaga

When you’ve got a slippery political opponent on the ropes with a completely legitimate issue, what’s it profit a New Democrat to stand up in the legislature and create a massive distraction from the fight the party’s winning with one that has no advantage for it?

This is what NDP environment critic Marlin Schmidt did in the house yesterday when he rose up on his hind legs and rambled on about how it might have been better if Margaret Thatcher had died 30 years earlier than she did.

It was a bizarre performance. United Conservative Party press secretaries must have wept with joy and relief.

Finally they had an opportunity to be self-righteous about an issue with no relevance to anything, thereby getting the focus off the fact Premier Jason Kenney stubbornly refuses to fire a speech writer with a long and reprehensible history of penning commentary fairly described as racist, sexist, homophobic and Islamophobic.

Opposition leader Rachel Notley has worked hard to keep the light on Paul Bunner’s appalling views, which there is no evidence he has ever changed, and on Premier Kenney’s determination to stand by his unsavoury man.

It’s an issue the goes right to the true dark heart of the UCP. It has enormous public sympathy and support in Alberta today.

During Monday’s question period, Notley cornered Kenney three times on his tolerance for intolerance. Each time he weaseled out of answering with responses that were evasive, immaterial and irrelevant.

Citing calls by various First Nations chiefs for Bunner to be fired, Notley noted that “the premier has waffled on this question for more than 10 days.” She asked: “Premier, will you show the Treaty 8 chiefs some respect and dismiss your racist speech writer today?”

Bobbing and weaving, Kenney accused the NDP of character assassination — which suggests he thinks Bunner’s views are reasonable, even if he disagrees. He did not answer the question.

Notley tried again and asked Kenney why is his “personal relationship with his racist speech writer more important to him than Alberta’s treaty relationships with First Nations?”

This time, the premier touted recent remarks he’s made opposing racism and the federal government’s apology for residential schools when he was an MP, accused the Opposition of “politics of personal destruction,” and cited controversial remarks on other topics made NDP MLAs in the distant past. He did not answer the question.

“Wow. The premier has really done his research to defend a man who says that Black Lives Matter is racist and incites violence,” Notley shot back. “The premier says: personnel is policy. He is right. This is about the premier, not his speechwriter. Why is the premier defending such a foul racist and keeping him in the highest office in the province. Why?”

This time Kenney accused the NDP of “identity politics” and added a Trumpian boast “this government has done more, I believe, than any modern government to move from reconciliation to reconciliation of economic opportunity.” He did not answer the question. The passage, found on Page 1753 of hansard, is instructive.

Kenney’s performance sounded like a sotto voce endorsement of Bunner’s odious views. And since Bunner obviously isn’t going anywhere, at least until he can make a graceful exit to a corporate sinecure, this is an excellent issue for the NDP to continue to press.

But with his weird exhibition, Schmidt seemed to be doing his level best to hose it all away.

What was in it for the NDP to have an influential MLA, a former cabinet minister, stand up in the House and say of a British prime minister who left office almost 30 years ago and has been dead these seven years that “the only thing that I regret about Margaret Thatcher’s death is that it happened probably 30 years too late”?

What would an old political pro like Brian Mason, who led the Alberta NDP from 2004 to 2014, make of this? Not much, I’d wager.

I’m no fan of Thatcher. The woman did enormous harm and her ugly economic legacy haunts us still. But the point of Schmidt’s political judgment, for which he apologized at the prompting of the Speaker, beats the hell out of me.

Thatcher hobnobbed with vicious dictators, encouraged foreign racists (over the opposition of Brian Mulroney, Canada’s Conservative prime minister at the time), and wreaked economic destruction on her own country from which it has never recovered. But what’s the point of damning her damnable record when most Albertans have only a vague idea of who she was and what she did?

There’s a time and place for a teaching moment about the evils of Thatcherism. Yesterday in the legislature, when the focus should have been on Premier Kenney’s authoritarian policies and his racist coddling, certainly wasn’t it.

As was recently noted in this space, despite her appalling legacy, Thatcher was occasionally right, as when she dismissed referenda as “a device for dictators and demagogues.” Despite her fears of an all-powerful European Union, I doubt she would have countenanced an exercise in national destruction like the sloppy Brexit referendum.

Kenney, as is well known, cheered the U.K.’s catastrophic Brexit vote and applauds referenda like the one that all but made Vladimir Putin president for life of Russia last week as the highest form of democracy.

If Mr. Kenney builds a statue to Thatcher, by all means, let’s smear it with paint and pull it down.

In the mean time, though, let’s keep the spotlight shining where it’s needed most — including on our premier’s determination to maintain a cozy space for racism in the bosom of his government.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on his blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Image: David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe...