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When the federal party leaders convened on Monday to butt heads in Gatineau, there was an impressive amount of discussion devoted to climate change, but nobody answered the environmental question that surely many viewers wanted to hear after two hours of enervating chaos: are cattle prods sufficiently energy efficient for indoor use? And, if so, could we make them standard-issue equipment for all debate moderators in the future?

After months of buildup, and an opening credit sequence that played like an unknowing spoof of the most boring reality-TV show in existence – call it Survivor: Parliament Hill – you could understand why the participants may have been perhaps a little over-torqued. After all, Monday’s marquee event at the Canadian Museum of History was the one and only official English-language debate in the current election cycle that would feature all six leaders. Andrew Scheer, Elizabeth May and Jagmeet Singh, especially, were champing at the bit, eager to take their shots at Justin Trudeau.

And viewers were also eager, with 9.64-million tuning to in some portion of the debate on TV, for an average audience over the two hours of 3.9 million, according to organizers. An additional 2.7-million views were registered across various digital platforms, including 925,000 on YouTube, 600,000 on Twitter, 567,000 on Facebook, and 597,000 on the other online streams provided by sites such as HuffPost Canada and the Toronto Star. CBC Radio One also measured 849,000 listeners.

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There were five seasoned journalists on the stage, too, representatives of the English-language outlets that comprise the Canadian Debate Production Partnership (CDPP): CTV’s Lisa LaFlamme kicked things off, followed by HuffPost Canada’s Althia Raj, the Toronto Star’s Susan Delacourt, Global’s Dawna Friesen, and Rosemary Barton of CBC News.

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May responds to a question during the federal leaders' debate, in Gatineau, Que., on Oct. 7, 2019.

POOL/Reuters

The producers had made an unusual choice that subtly but significantly altered the power dynamic on the stage. At most debates, the politicians form a line upstage and stand there as if awaiting a firing squad, while moderators sit downstage in front of the audience, playing the powerful role of the people’s proxy. But Monday’s debate was staged in the round, with the moderators positioned upstage, backed by a couple of rows of audience members, while the politicians were downstage, with a much larger crowd behind them.

Were the moderators cowed by the altered landscape? Or did they have difficulty finding their rhythm – each was responsible for shepherding only a single segment, 20 to 25 minutes in length – before handing off to the next one? Any one of the regular TV anchors alone would have been better than the awkward daisy chain of moderators. While it was refreshing to see a debate led by an all-women team, the presence of all five served a marketing rather than an editorial imperative, their spots on stage secured by their outlet’s membership in the debate partnership.

In any case, it took only a few minutes before the politicians began talking over each other during the one-on-one debate segments, frustrating viewers who had hoped to learn something, and slipping past their allotted time limits. LaFlamme gently chided Scheer and Maxime Bernier for interrupting each other, but she had no suggestions for how to avoid the crosstalk. The bickering continued on and off all night.

To be sure, moderating a debate is harder than it looks. It requires a level of skill that takes years to hone; like electricity in a house, you only notice when it’s missing. Moderators need to set an appropriate tone, move the proceedings along, juggle producers talking in their ear, keep the participants in line and make sure that none of the rabid partisans in the audience (at home or in the hall) can accuse you of favouritism.

More to the point, TV is no place for amateurs. Delacourt is an impressive political reporter, and she’s a knowledgeable commentator and panelist, but she flubbed repeatedly when asking questions or transitioning between speakers. At one point, she told Elizabeth May she had one minute to ask a question, when in fact May had only 25 seconds: Delacourt ended up cutting her off halfway through.

But if LaFlamme, Raj and Friesen were perfectly fine, it wasn’t until Barton took control for the last segment that viewers may have realized what had been missing all night. She was refreshingly merciless, cutting off the leaders within milliseconds after they’d hit their time limits. After hearing Justin Trudeau give an insufficient answer to a question she’d asked about climate change and the planned construction of the Trans Mountain expansion, she observed flatly: “I noticed you didn’t answer the last part of that question.”

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She didn’t give him more time to come back to it, though: He’d blown his chance. Her disapproval hung in the air.

It was the one spark in the night of what might be called journalism: an in-the-moment response to a politician’s habitual elision. In an evening that also included a series of questions from “regular Canadians” – Susan in Calgary, Paige at the University of British Columbia, Natasha from the Beausoleil First Nation, etc – the five professional reporters should have been able to distinguish themselves by stepping up, keeping the leaders on topic and at heel.

If it took until the end for viewers to feel as if the leaders weren’t simply given free rein to spout canned lines and spit fire at each other, the final few minutes were a master class in debate moderation (a.k.a. herding cats). Barton worked the breathless party leaders like an auctioneer shilling a Warhol, moving briskly from one to another, insisting everyone play by her rules. At one point, after a messy exchange between Trudeau and Scheer, Barton cut them off and three of the leaders raised their hands awkwardly, like schoolkids, hoping to be called on. “I’ve got a question!” Singh chirped. “No,” snapped Barton. “You had your chance. Ms. May wants in."

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