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Jen Gerson: The debates are always terrible
How much do you hate this guy over that one to not-solve the country's problems?
This is the fourth installment of Gerson’s weekly election wrap ups. The first, second, and third can be found via the links. Our weekly dispatch will be published tomorrow, but only for paying subscribers.
By: Jen Gerson
Let's start with the obvious: of course that debate was awful. All the English language debates are awful.
After every single debate, Twitter is refreshed by a new round of concise invective for the process, the moderator, and the format — each time forgetting that it has ever been thus. The party leader that performs the most poorly is always defended by the angriest tweeters, and the "winners" and "losers" of the debate can usually be calculated thusly.
Look, the debate commission needs to die. Please let us all commit to that before we roll into next year's election. Let's try different locations, formats, moderators and topics. Let a thousand debate-flowers bloom in a wild and untamed garden in the hopes that this country can find some beautiful example to take root.
That said, the "format" is not entirely to blame here.
These debates suck because the party leaders are no longer debating. "Debates'' are now just brand-building exercises for media personalities. The leaders use them as an opportunity to re-hash their campaign rally schticks and throw a few over-rehearsed barbs at their opponents. The footage is then divided like a carcass between party and media; the party takes the choice cuts and throws it to the ravenously hungry partisan maw via social media. The mainstream media takes the sinewy barbs, and no one goes hungry.
This is actually what I enjoyed about Shachi Kurl's moderation style. The pollster cut anyone off before they could bulldozer over questions with prefabricated focus-grouped talking points they'd already recited half-a-dozen times on the hustings. If Justin Trudeau was the disproportionate victim of this airhorn impatience, well, I'm not sure anyone is to blame for that except himself and his debate prep team.
No one can be said to have "won" such an exercise. You "win" these "debates" not by proposing the best policies, or offering competing philosophies, or even by presenting the best rhetoric. Rather, a "winner" is determined by who comes off the best to a general public that largely doesn't follow the minute differences of respective platforms.
By that measure, no one really won Thursday's debate, but Trudeau especially did not win it. I imagine that one of the problems of being raised as a spectacle of wealth, privilege and popularity is that it doesn't quite prepare you for the moment when the worm turns, when people learn to dislike you for all the right reasons; when you are no longer given the proper deference and respect you feel is owed to you.
Trudeau came off as defensive, and flustered, taking hit after hit from other party leaders on topics ranging from his record, reconciliation and, especially, his self-interested decision to call a party in the first place. That he lacks a credible answer to why we're holding this election at all three weeks into this campaign is a deep failure, one large and deep enough to consume his prospects of forming a majority government — and his hold on the party leadership along with it.
Annamie Paul offered the best performance of the night by far, and demonstrated that the Green party as a whole is unworthy of her. Whatever private internal dramas that may be unfolding, in public that party condemns itself to obscurity by refusing to get behind a woman who is, by every measure, impressive.
Bloc leader Yves-François Blanchet made himself into an idealized avatar of a whiny and aggrieved Quebec nationalism that puts Alberta to shame. It takes a real special lack of self-awareness to imagine that Quebecers have had it rougher in this country than Indigenous people. Or that Blanchet, by virtue of his French ancestry, has suffered from greater oppression than, say, Annamie Paul. One day, the rest of Canada is going to stop humouring these insulated, thin-skinned delusions — but not before Quebec's seat count declines relative to the rest of the population’s. In the meantime, Blanchet's ability to beam pure DGAF energy into the English debates at least made him seem like a human, albeit an unpleasant one.
By this measure, Erin O'Toole "won" the debate by not losing it. I can't remember a single thing he actually said, and in such a setting this can only work to his favour.
I mean, what is there to say? On actual substantive policy issues, I couldn't escape the sense of watching a grand Kabuki theatre, increasingly divorced from any grounded reality about our fiscal situation, or our ability to deliver on complex programs or problems.
High quality, universally accessible $10 a-day-daycare? Fantasy. Federal vaccine mandates that can't be enforced? Fantasy. Balanced books? Fantasy. Taxing all the billionaires to pay for our problems? Fantasy. Convoluted tax policies to get to net-zero emissions? Fantasy. A housing policy that gets young people into the market while preserving the run-away speculative real estate fortunes of the old? Fantasy.
I have no faith in any of these people to solve any of our rapidly compounding crises, and therein lies the real problem with our debates that are not debates.
They can be reduced to one simple question: How much do you hate this guy over that one to not-solve the country's problems? Find me a debate format that fixes that!
Beyond the "debate," I observed only a few more items. The CPC's momentum certainly stalled going into this week, and I expect that energy to shift post-debate as Erin O'Toole can now redirect his focus away from debate preparation.
The Liberals remain overwhelmingly on the defensive. This can be inferred from the top-line talking points of the week; guns, and Erin O'Toole's hidden anti-vaxx agenda. These are not positions that will win the party a single vote, but they will consolidate the convictions of Liberal voters and may have helped to arrest Conservative momentum for a few days.
It's notable, also, that the Liberals have yet to score any slam dunk oppo hits against Conservatives candidates. While the caucus has its collection of loonies, already discussed here at some length at The Line, the most damaging oppo drop to date has actually targeted the Liberals' Raj Saini. No one has yet lost a news cycle to a Conservative mug pisser.
The most interesting development of this week came from provincial premier François Legault, who offered a quasi-endorsement of the Conservatives. To wit: "What I'm saying is Quebecers who are nationalists, that want the Quebec nation to have more power, have to beware of three parties — the Liberal party, the NDP and the Green party," Legault said."
This may set the groundwork for some kind of stable alliance between the CPC and the Bloc in a Conservative minority government. While there is nothing in the Conservative platform that should immediately inspire the chagrin of Alberta — and, in fact, many western provinces are entirely aligned with Quebec's desire for more autonomy from the federal government — such a coalition would have to be measured on the fine edge of a knife. Disproportionate cash transfers to Quebec will risk destabilizing O'Toole's leadership within his western base, which is already starting to chafe visibly with Maverick Party signs.
This, however, would be a post-election problem. The kind of problem that O'Toole, no doubt, would love to have.
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