July 14, 2020

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Opinion

Too many personalities, too little time at leaders' debate

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang</p><p>Liberal leader Justin Trudeau shakes hands with Conservative leader Andrew Scheer as People's Party of Canada leader Maxime Bernier, Bloc Quebecois leader Yves-Francois Blanchet and Green Party leader Elizabeth May leave the stage following the Federal leaders debate in Gatineau, Que. on Monday.</p>

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau shakes hands with Conservative leader Andrew Scheer as People's Party of Canada leader Maxime Bernier, Bloc Quebecois leader Yves-Francois Blanchet and Green Party leader Elizabeth May leave the stage following the Federal leaders debate in Gatineau, Que. on Monday.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 7/10/2019 (280 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

If you were wondering if it was possible for six different political leaders to effectively debate federal election issues, you got your answer at Monday night’s televised, English-language showdown.

It didn’t work.

Despite a promising format that combined one-on-one and open exchanges, and two full uninterrupted hours of television time, this debate just couldn’t escape a torrent of mind-numbing overtalk and bickering. In many ways, it was really doomed before it started.

The election debates commission decided the Bloc Québécois could continue to participate in what is essentially a national debate. It also decided to extend an invitation to Maxime Bernie, leader of the People’s Party of Canada. That expanded the debate roster from what should have been four to six leaders.

What did we get? Too many big personalities. Too little time to get deep into the pressing issues of this campaign. Too many canned campaign slogans instead of thoughtful answers. Just about every promising moment descended into a symphony of overtalk and finger pointing.

That is not to say that the moderators of the federal debate did not make heroic efforts to keep the exchanges flowing. In fact, it might have been one of the best moderated debates in Canadian political history; the questions were clear and concise, the decisions to cut off leaders were firm and just.

But the debate could never escape the sheer burden of all those leaders. That does not mean there were not winners and losers.

The big winner, by default, is probably Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, who as the incumbent had the most to lose. Locked in a statistical dead heat with Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, Trudeau is vulnerable in a campaign where he is still straining under his abominable decisions to wear black and brown-face makeup as a younger man.

Trudeau did not score many direct hits on the other five leaders, but neither did he suffer any major setbacks. It was a lot harder to knock Trudeau off his game when prickly exchanges descended into unintelligible overtalking.

That is not to say that some of the other leaders did not take their best shots.

Scheer took a big chance in the early going, using his first opportunity at the microphone to hammer Trudeau on the blackface scandal. This was a big risk given that leaders rarely ever become the spokespeople for the nastiest elements of a campaign.

Scheer did well with his attack, accusing Trudeau of wearing many masks: one as a feminist; one as a champion of the environment; one as a supporter of indigenous people.

And then, Scheer went all in for what was easily his best moment: "Mr. Trudeau, you are a phony and you are a fraud and you do not deserve to govern this country."

To be really effective in a debate attack, you need the other leader to blink, or pause, or flinch. Trudeau held firm, controlled his expressions and - perhaps most importantly - never stopped hurling responses back at his attackers.

And what of the other leaders?

The Bloc Quebecois’ participation in a federal election debate is always a bit awkward. However, in this instance, BQ Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet was a capable participant, even if he did not contribute much to the national debate.

Maxime Bernier, leader of the People’s Party of Canada, had hoped the debate would position him, and his new party, as a legitimate option in this election. If he has even a modicum of self-awareness, he will be disappointed today.

Early in the debate, Bernier was asked a devastating question by moderator Lisa LaFlamme of CTV news if - based on his incendiary comments about socialism, globalism, immigration and multiculturalism - he has the temperament to be prime minister? It was a clear trap and Bernie wandered into it like a blindfolded elephant falling over a cliff.

Bernier was decidedly unapologetic when reminded of all of the offensive things he has said. However, whenever the other leaders got their chance to bludgeon Bernier with his own appalling words and ideas, he responded by shouting over them and creating an unintelligible torrent of garbled words.

Ultimately, it was if all of the other leaders grew weary of Bernier’s attempts to bully his way into the flow of the debate; their retorts became increasingly hostile. "You don’t deserve a platform," NDP Leader Singh told Bernier at one point, a thought that must have been top of mind for many voters watching on television.

Singh and Green Party Leader Elizabeth May were easily the best overall performers in the debate, but it may not mean much in the end given that only Bernier and Blanchet have less chance of becoming prime minister.

Still, Singh was the undisputed champion of the one-liner in this debate. Several times, he broke up childish yelling matches between Trudeau and Scheer with piercing interjections.

"What you have here is Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Scheer arguing about who’s worse for Canada," Singh said, attempting to position the NDP as a third, truly national option.

"You do not need to choose between Mr. Delay and Mr. Deny," Singh said at another pause in the Trudeau-Scheer bickerfest over climate change. "There is another option."

May was, as she has been in past debates, arguably the most informed and most confident leader when it came to debating climate change, which has fast become the top issue in this campaign.

Lamentably, the overstuffed debate format did not really allow for true, probative comparison of the pledges each party was making. All that voters know is that all six leaders think that the ideas offered by their opponents were inadequate.

The broad strokes of history will record this as the largest number of leaders to participate in a televised Canadian election debate. However, as we clearly saw on Monday night, "largest "does not easily translate into "most useful."

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Dan Lett

Dan Lett
Columnist

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

Read full biography

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