The brainlessness and uselessness of this week’s English-language “debate” between the leaders of Canada’s federal parties – the sole such debate of the entire campaign – was matched only by the audacious condescension of all the candidates. They clearly believe they can pass endless bickering off on the Canadian public and get away with it. That’s why the entire travesty left so many people feeling not just unenlightened and angry that hours of their lives had been tossed away like litter, but actually depressed. Underneath all the posturing and scolding and interrupting lay a profound disdain for us, the voters who make up the citizens of this country. They think we’re idiots.
Let me touch upon a few highlights of one of the most shameless evenings of public disregard I’ve had the misfortune to witness.
Shachi Kurl, the president of Angus Reid, the polling company, was the moderator of the debate. I don’t mean to be hard on Ms. Kurl – her job was impossible. She managed to corral the speakers into speaking for the brief times they were allowed to speak and into shutting TFU for the short stretches when they were supposed to be listening. True, she did it by sounding like a mom with five disobedient, spoiled brats on her hands (not so far from the truth).
But pollsters are trained in the art of posing questions that polarize people into yes-or-no answers so that the pollsters can then sell the resulting “data.” That is not a recipe for an enlightening conversation, which is what everyone was desperately hoping for. Ms. Kurl also did very little to make the candidates answer the questions she asked.
Indeed, her opening gambit was to give each leader 45 seconds (nowhere near enough time for any kind of answer about as important a subject as leadership), only to interrupt them with a challenge of her own. That format crosses the line from ineffective into irresponsible. This, after all, is a federal election, in the midst of an unprecedented global pandemic, on which huge and urgent policy decisions depend (how to recover, how to create sustainable industries to deal with climate change and post-pandemic life, etc., etc.). And to answer these enormous questions, the geniuses who set up this fiasco allowed an opening salvo of … 45 seconds!
Think about what that means. It’s not just an error of judgment on the part of the organizers of the “debate.” It’s a reflection of what they think we’ll put up with, be satisfied with. They think we’re so thick and stupid and hare-brained that we can only listen for 45 seconds before our brains blow a fuse and we have to – what, hit the fridge for some ice cream?
The intellectual condescension that lies behind the debate’s format is mind-curdling. Five minutes into it, Ms. Kurl had cut off Justin Trudeau in even his foreshortened answers no fewer than three times. No doubt she wanted to demonstrate that she wasn’t letting power have its way. But he is the incumbent leader, and it would have been helpful to hear even one of his answers, had he had time to lay it out in the first place.
Yves-Francois Blanchet, the leader of the Bloc Québécois, did his best impersonation of a drunken Jean-Paul Belmondo. Mr. Blanchet openly stated that neither he nor his party give a damn about Canada, that he is only interested in the “nation” of Quebec (whose Francophone distinctness would last less than a generation without the enveloping protection of Canadian federalism, but never mind that for now). So why is he being asked for his opinion about anything federal? Let’s end that charade and exclude the BQ from English-language federal debates on the grounds that it’s a regional party.
Annamie Paul was clearly the best debater, and her tart answers re-established her intellectual chops as a leader – a necessary move after having subjected Canadians to more than a year of gazing into the open sore of Green Party infighting. She tried to speak to the important issue of hyperpartisanship, to changing the culture of politics in Ottawa, but again, the sound bite format of the debate prevented any depth on the subject. Her repeated invoking of the ghosts of Jody Wilson-Raybould, Dr. Jane Philpott and other women who have been scalded by the Liberal Party undoubtedly portrayed Ms. Paul as a superior moral being, but from a practical point of view, the most important change in the lives of women (and the economy in general) will be the Liberals’ $10-a-day child care legislation. That subject got virtually no attention, even from Ms. Paul.
The main tactic of both Ms. Paul and Jagmeet Singh was to pile on and try to delegitimize Mr. Trudeau, the most likely effect of which will be to drive votes away from the Liberals and toward the Conservatives. In what way does that help any plank in the platform of either the Greens or the NDP – that is, if we had any detailed knowledge of those platforms? How does their respective leaders sniping help their supporters? For all their sanctimonious and image-conscious preening and prancing and sniping and snapping, all Mr. Singh and Ms. Paul likely accomplished was to reduce the odds of realizing the kind of society their supporters want to see.
Mr. Singh and Conservative leader Erin O’Toole also made it a particular habit (and the moderator let them get away with it) to interrupt Mr. Trudeau any time he got close to a clear statement of Liberal purpose, which admittedly can take a while. This is, of course, a tactic intended to cloud the Liberal message, but it is also anti-democratic in that it prevents voters from hearing what candidates have to say. Mr Trudeau does it too. They all do. Is it effective? Who knows? Is it disrespectful of voters and their needs as they try to sort out the serious business of electing the best leader? Absolutely! Does it reveal in what low, low regard the leaders (and the debate organizers, those pollsters at Angus Reid) hold all of us chickens out here in the audience? You bet it does.
Which brings us to Erin O’Toole, who has changed his stance and position on most issues so many times that he ought to be renamed Erin ReToole. Mr. O’Toole piled onto Mr. Trudeau as well. He talked a lot – the moderator was less controlling with him – but said virtually nothing of substance about anything, especially about climate change, on which subject he was keen to portray himself as a believer, despite the fact that his party recently voted against recognizing the existence of climate change. (That was last March, by the way, a mere six months ago.) Did anyone bring that up? Not that I was able to hear. Mr. O’Toole apparently does not have the necessary courage, or enough respect for Canadian voters, to clearly reveal what he believes. He was all tactics, all the time. That habit does not support the public weal. But he clearly thinks we’re too dopey to notice. It was at those times that Mr. O’Toole began to resemble the Meccano doll’s head evil Sid cranks together in Toy Story.
So what should we do with the debates? To start with, let’s stop calling them debates. They are not. It would be more revealing, in fact, to make all the candidates run a 100-yard dash. At least that way we’d get to see a demonstration of character. (A friend of mine compared the debate to the Monty Python Olympics. I must say, he’s right.)
There is a clear public desire for all the candidates to present their platforms and to have those platforms assessed by knowledgeable, independent and non-partisan thinkers so we can try to make an informed decision. So why don’t we set it up that way? Give each leader half an hour to talk, alone – to present a platform, argue for its superiority and be questioned by a bank of experts, free of interruption from the other dogs in the park. Then, once everyone (except Yves Frankly-Mon-Amour-I-Don’t-Give-A-Damn Blanchet) has had their go, bring on the fact checkers to grill the pols one by one on what they said that doesn’t add up. Only then should we grant each candidate a chance to ask one question of one other candidate (that way, we’ll see their priorities) and give said candidate a real chance to reply. After that, turn it back over to the fact checkers.
We want to hear their platforms, but we also want to witness how the candidates respond to challenges to their platforms. That’s why so many viewers were so rabidly grateful when Rosemary Barton and Evan Solomon showed up on stage: They’re experienced political journalists who know how to ask pointed questions, and they are knowledgeable enough not to let the candidates trundle out weasel answers. As it was, Mr. Singh got away with accusing Mr. Trudeau of siccing the Justice Department on Indigenous children – a grotesque and patronizing oversimplification of the facts – while Mr. O’Toole managed to slip in his favourite utterly false conspiracy disinformation, that the Liberals plan to tax the sale of your primary residence. Ms. Kurl didn’t call him on that, either.
I admit, my (utterly made-up) format for a better debate doesn’t sound like entertainment. But voters aren’t imbeciles, as the current format and last night’s candidates seem to believe. We can be serious and are quite good at it. With a more demanding and controlled format, instead of serving the political parties and their entrenched interests, the debate can serve us, the people who elect them, and who have to live with the consequences of their decisions. We have to force them to respect our intelligence and treat us as equals. They clearly won’t do it on their own.
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