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Candidates, left to right, Leslyn Lewis, Roman Baber, Jean Charest, Scott Aitchison, Patrick Brown, and Pierre Poilievre following the Conservative Party of Canada English leadership debate in Edmonton on May 11.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

Leadership and election debates share the dubious distinction of having become essential elements of democratic life – despite their inability to deliver much value to the public beyond a series of partisan infomercials wedged between carefully rehearsed zingers.

Of the Romans, Calgacus is recorded by Tacitus as saying, “They plunder, they butcher, they ravish, and call it by the lying name of ‘empire’. They make a desert and call it ‘peace’.” Today, we hold “debates” and call them democracy.

Viewers of Wednesday’s Conservative leadership debate in Edmonton might be excused for being nudged from their torpor just beyond the 40-minute mark when moderator Tom Clark threw the candidates, and the rest of us, a curve ball.

“Believe it or not,” he said, “there are Canadians who don’t know you guys and Dr. Lewis yet. So, this is a chance to get to know a little bit about who you are.” Something different. The ears prick up. And then comes the twist. The next series of questions will be something like speed-dating for the damned.

“What book are you reading now?” Uh oh. At once the question seems both a trap, a gotcha moment waiting to happen, and a window into the soul of each candidate – or into the space where their soul should be.

Jean Charest, the legacy candidate caught between good sense and a party that has left him behind, has last read a book about Russia; he couldn’t recall the title. Leslyn Lewis said she’s reading Shackleton’s Way, a book on leadership and sacrifice. Roman Baber said he was told to read the story of David and Goliath.

“That’s been a theme throughout our campaign.” Baber said. “Sometimes people might surprise you and you might have an unlikely result.”

Scott Aitchison, the long shot with a heart of gold, said he’s reading a book on water.

“Do you remember the title?” Clark asked. “It’s called Water,” Aitchison replied. “Would you like to know what it’s about?” The gag leads to a serious note: “It’s about the future of water and the importance of water.” A lot of people will die in the years to come, as many have before, because not enough of us care about water.

Patrick Brown says there’s no time to read while campaigning. But he likes legal novels and loved Horatio Alger growing up: “rags to riches stories, which is our Canadian dream.” He’s hustling. Quietly executing a plan. He hopes it will displace the front runner, Pierre Poilievre – who’s reading, of course, Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life.

“A great book, a lot of good lessons; we all need to improve ourselves and I think he has a lot of good wisdom in that book that could help anybody,” Poilievre said. Okay then.

The candidates weren’t meant to know the questions ahead of time and presumably they didn’t. Their answers still conformed to the dictates of a stage-managed production of pretending to be a human while running for high office. They’re just that good. But the infomercial section of the evening continued – wait, there’s more!

“What was the last thing you binge watched on TV?” Clark asked 10 minutes later. “There are a lot of people who want to know this,” he assured us. “It’s not just me. Trust me.” Well, if you insist.

Of the answers that followed, Poilievre’s stood out as particularly craven and opportunistic, an offering worthy of a high-school student council election.

“I think it was Netflix had a series on Trotsky, actually,” Poilievre said. The website New on Netflix tells us the series left the streaming service in November, 2020. Wherever Poilievre managed to watch Trotsky, it resonated with him.

“It helped me to better understand the diabolical evil of communism and totalitarian socialism,” he said. And in case you missed the point, he added, “But you know the bright side is it helped me appreciate the freedom that we have in Canada that we have to stand up for and defend.”

The Russian-made series was criticized as propaganda for Vladimir Putin and a partial, revisionist history marking the 100-year anniversary of the Russian Revolution. Poor old Trotsky, still misused and abused across time and borders more than 80 years after taking an ice pick to the skull in Mexico in 1940.

Poilievre, who is committed to defunding Canada’s state broadcaster, may be well advised to learn history from sources beyond made-for-TV melodrama. Perhaps he could put down Peterson’s book and try Eric Hobsbawm or Tony Judt.

Political debates aren’t going anywhere. We’re committed to them as we’re committed to pro-sports. We’re committed to pre- and post-game chatter by talking heads and partisan factotums who dissect the affair with sports-talk commentary – right down to the boxing, hockey and football metaphors.

Every so often we’re thrown for a loop with a novel addition, such as a lightning round to lighten the mood, that gives politicians a new way to cynically deploy some fodder to sell themselves. For most of us, our time would be better spent with a good book or a familiar, comforting binge re-watch.

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