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NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, left, and Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole participate in the federal election English-language leaders' debate in Gatineau, Que., on September 9, 2021.

JUSTIN TANG/AFP/Getty Images

The things politicians will say on TV during election campaigns; honestly, it would make a cat laugh. Anyone of voting age is familiar with the phenomenon of boasting, insincerity and weasel words.

And we all know that it’s characteristic of politicians to underplay their own intelligence on TV, lest they alienate the on-the-fence dolts. But the so-called federal leaders’ debate on Thursday evening took the cake. What happened across multiple Canadian TV channels was the worst of the worst, an example of utter failure in Canadian television, and a disgraceful insult to the intelligence of viewers and voters.

That was not a debate, it was a farce. The fact that the political leaders even agreed to participate in the format is an indictment of their collective intelligence.

English-language leaders’ debate: Justin Trudeau put on defensive over early election call, foreign policy

Every election campaign is essentially the selling of people and policies mainly through television. But the leaders’ debate is where TV and politics truly intersect. This is a truism, and it’s why every U.S. presidential campaign climaxes in a TV debate that everyone, including a vast number of Canadians, is glued to. Nobody could possibly have been glued to this disaster unless they were paid employees of the political parties involved.

Moderator Shachi Kurl took the view that her job was to stop the leaders from talking. This was a peculiar tack to take. You see, at its best, television coverage isolates and highlights the strengths and flaws of individuals. It goes to the core. It can push aside propaganda and posturing. Politicians and the public know this. It’s why the U.S. debates proceed with deep seriousness. Here, in election debate after election debate, the event has tended to descend into bickering and masquerade. That was supposed to end and gravity allowed to prevail.

Not so. Thursday’s television event was like an episode of Family Feud from hell. It could have used Family Feud Canada host Gerry Dee to add sobriety and calm. Dee might have prevented viewers from fleeing quickly to the thrilling tennis match on TSN. Kurl is unlikely to have done that.

Who won? A cat would cackle at that question. Given the ridiculous format and Kurl’s persistent interruptions, the only winner was the moderator’s attitude. Apparently, the format was to sometimes allow a leader to answer a direct question but also allow hectoring interruptions from another speaker and, at that point, the original speaker was told to shut up.

This baroque interpretation of “debate” was particularly injurious to Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau who was, naturally, the target of the other leaders. Mainly, he wanted to confront Erin O’Toole. The format didn’t allow for that, which is about as ridiculous as the Family Feud format.

The absurd, rinky-dink quality of the TV debate only added to the sense that this entire election is a surreal and unfunny joke. Roving gangs of crackpots have pestered Trudeau’s campaign, shouting abuse and even pelting stones. Next, these gangs have surrounded hospitals and heaped abuse on health care workers. This is Canada now; a place where elections are shouty, nasty affairs, detached from any sense of Canada that we previously held.

COVID has done that and yet COVID-related issues were barely touched upon in this travesty of a debate. It felt like hours before the relevant issues – vaccinations, economic revival for a COVID-devastated economy – were even touched upon. Most of the issues raised and argued about in the scattershot format could have been talked about 20 years ago. The reality of the moment was entirely absent.

If anyone was favoured by the way the debate unfolded it was probably O’Toole. It is a likely fact that a lot of guys look in the mirror and see Erin O’Toole. They think, “I’m not handsome, blessed with fine hair and a hit with the ladies. I’m more like that guy. He’s me.” A chameleon who has adopted more personae than David Bowie, O’Toole was able to use the scattershot format to avoid specifics and keep on being the equivocator who is all surface and agnostic about everything.

Trudeau suffered the worst. Throughout the campaign, as seen on TV, he has embraced a performative type of seriousness. Often, he sounds like he’s playing a Cruise Director. In those TV commercials, right after he says, “Let’s keep moving forward for everyone,” you expect him to continue, “Viking. Exploring the world in comfort again.” On Thursday night’s shambles of a debate he looked bewildered. As he should be. Whoever on his staff agreed to this format deserves to be fired.

We make a lot of television in Canada. Some of it is brilliant and some of it is mediocre. The worst of it is truly, truly awful. This botched election debate is down at the bottom of the list; an indictment of everyone involved from the host to every politician who attempted to speak during the shambles.

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