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Who won the first Canadian federal leaders’ debate of 2015?

Dave Gordon - Thursday, 6 August, 2015

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Who won the first Canadian federal leaders’ debate?

The answer – even from the television pundits – is that it’s a tough call.

More or less, each leader held their own, played to their strengths and none were flustered.

Interestingly, the most significant takeaways from the debate weren’t policy discussion, or who had the best answers. It was that there was no unforgettable zinger – nothing said to effectively cut another leader into shreds.

It was a very “Canadian” discussion, with respect to the lack of sparks.

This is in contrast to the electricity of some historically memorable debates:

Many will recall in 2011 when Michael Ignatieff was seared by Jack Layton for not showing up to work for the majority of his time as MP.

In 1984, Brian Mulroney scored a huge debate victory against then-prime minister John Turner by saying “you had a choice, sir!”, referring to patronage positions.

Of course, we can’t expect every debate to be fiery.

So, there were no boneheaded remarks, and no real gotcha moments.

Then again, there are still a few debates yet to come, with more opportunity to hear lines that will make headlines.

An undecided voter probably would be confused by all of the facts and figures aimlessly thrown around, and altogether perplexed by the cross-talk.

If you went into it already partisan, there was no reason to believe your leader performed weakly.

Topics covered included: the US oil pipeline, climate change, Senate reform, military intervention, Quebec separation, the economy, and voting reform.

To my mind, this was a “Twitter” debate: few answers were more than a few sentences long before another leader interrupted. I’m loath to watch another debate in that same format. It forces a situation where an answer has to be sound-byteish and over-simplified.

Paul Wells, the moderator from Maclean’s magazine, should have moved seamlessly from leader to leader, asking the same question, rather than allowing a pile-on of voices that created a cacophony of quibble.

As in the US debates, there should have been time limits or time allowances for each response, and reproof of anyone who attempts a rude railroading of another’s speech.

Along those lines, Trudeau talked over Stephen Harper far too many times, making him sound childlike. He shouted over the prime minister “that’s not true!” as though he was in a schoolyard.

If you took a shot of vodka for each “um” and “uh” Trudeau uttered, you’d probably barely make it through the first quarter of the debate.

Trudeau also sounded rushed, speaking rapidly, either through nervousness, or an attempt not to get railroaded by the others. That took away from any statesman-like aura he had potential to show.

If this was a debate on who “looked” like a world leader, Trudeau did not pass the test.

Neither did Elizabeth May. She sounded a bit kvetchy, and in a desperate attempt to win an ally with the NDP leader on one issue, she turned to Mulcair asking “will you stand by me? Will you?”

But to her credit, she pointedly exposed the quibbling and interrupting of the leaders talk, at a poignant time when the discussion took place about parliamentary decorum.

She sounded downright clumsy when attempting to describe Islamic fundamentalism and ISIS threats, as if she felt she was skating on thin politically correct ice that could bite her later.

A good point from May: forty per cent of Canadians sit at home on Election night. She wants to fix that problem, and was the only leader to mention First Nations participation in decision-making.

Tom Mulcair played against type, without crunched forehead lines or shoving a finger in the air, as we’re used to seeing in the parliament. To his credit, he answered most questions with a smile, and tried hard to seem easygoing. Probably trying too hard at times, with borderline condescension.

In a hopeless attempt to score tomorrow’s newspaper headlines with a catch-phrase, he kept haranguing Trudeau with “what’s your number?” regarding how many votes it would take to pass a Quebec separation referendum.

Trudeau said “nine”, referring to the number of Supreme Court Justices, then elaborating on the Court’s decision that one vote over fifty per cent is insufficient.

(As an interesting aside, I’d be interested to know if the rest of Canada wants a referendum on whether Quebec should stay – and what that number should be.)

Surprisingly, Mulcair condemned Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin, noting the military occupation of Ukraine.

All in all, however, Mulcair offered bromides and forgettable lines, sounding too rehearsed, too politician-y, canned and almost amateurish.

Stephen Harper played it cool, and not surprisingly was attacked from all sides. It looked like a pile-on Harper debate, than leaders taking their own stand on issues.

On the topic of Quebec separation, Harper said the discussion was largely irrelevant because Quebeckers resoundingly rejected the Parti Quebecois two years ago.

Acknowledging that the oil pipelines are largely an American decision, he expanded on his policies that he said combined environmental protection with economic growth.

I’m uncertain if Harper’s blunt honesty in accepting a possible incoming recession helped him or hindered him.

But I thought he was remiss in not mentioning – and not emphasizing – Canada’s impressive financial development in recent years, especially when so many other countries are going bankrupt.

On the topic of the Senate, Wells asked Harper if he would apologize for the scandal-plagued Senators. The prime minister said he would not apologize for something that someone else did.

Harper was accused of lying by Mulcair and Trudeau, for appointing 59 Senators, when he promised he would not. Harper responded that he filled those spots out of necessity, but have since left 22 seats vacant.

Harper also elaborated on the fact that, in consultation with other provinces, the prospects of abolition of the Senate look dim.

Trudeau chimed in that, under his leadership, Liberal Senators have the option to vote with their consciences, but Harper’s rejoinder was that Liberal Senators always vote Liberal anyway.

In terms of voting reform, Harper stated that Canadians are firmly supportive of the first-past-the-post system, and have rejected other systems of voting in provincial referendums of the past.

Maybe to make things more interesting, Canada needs a Donald Trump equivalent to add some electricity.


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