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Wednesday, June 16, 2004

The "Debate"

Last night's debate format gave the leaders lots of opportunities to clarify their positions, to pose questions, and to respond to accusations. It's too bad that they instead chose to reiterate talking points, without really paying any attention to the words of the others.

Nonetheless, the most telling moments came when they let themselves out of the bubbles their handlers put them in (or at least, appeared to do so).

Harper's best moment, I thought, was when he turned into policy-wonk guy when he went on a bit of a riff about health-care privatization. He was debating with Layton at the time, and here's what I recall as the gist of the conversation:

Harper: My people have told me not to say any of this, but there's already plenty of private involvement in the public health system, and if it doesn't interfere with equality of access, what's the problem?

Layton: The SomeGuy report has examined that question, and it's so much more expensive to deliver that way.
Hey, look. It's a policy discussion! They're talking about ideas!

Layton (continuing): Mr. Harper, your only goal is to assist your corporate friends.
Well, so much for that.

(continuing) Harper: Gray. Gray gray. Gray gray gray, gray gray.

Layton: Black! Black white! White white black black, white black!
If, all evening, all the leaders had been as forthcoming as Harper was in that exchange, voters might have been able to discover some real differences and make some real decisions. Can you imagine, the day after a national leaders' debate, the major media not asking who won and lost, but testing the veracity of various claims and counterclaims? I know - it's a crazy dream.

Martin spent the evening answering questions of his own invention, occasionally getting frustrated that he wasn't being given the room to answer said imaginary questions. Again, I'll paraphrase:

Layton: If you're such a hero on gay marriage rights, why didn't you bring legislation instead of leaving the reference with the courts and hiding behind the Charter?

Martin: Hiding behind the Charter? I stand behind the Charter. It's the greatest piece of legislation in the whole wide world! Rights are rights are rights, and it's too bad Mr. Harper doesn't understand that.

Don: Wha?
And this sort of ignoring of the questions went on all night --- Harper and Martin were both doing it, but Martin was the king. And it combined very poorly with the frustrated face he would make when he wasn't given the chance to jump in to give his non-answer to a question, while the poser would go on posing and posing (which I wrote about more briefly last night). Harper at least had the good sense to stay out of the way when he wasn't being pressed for his non-answers.

Layton? I reviewed him a bit yesterday. He looked too overmanaged, and he seemed incapable of stepping outside of his talking points. He had some excellent questions, but never let his opponents answer for good or ill. And with the exception of the Duceppe Clarity Act exchange, he was rarely forced to work from the defensive. During the exchange on privatization of health, I would have been really happy to hear Harper pose the following:

(In Don's imagination, as my mind drifts from another non-conversation) Harper: If you're so dead-set against any privatization in the health system, will you be closing the network of private abortion clinics across the country? How do you think that might impact a woman's right to choose?
Harper might have been wise not to pose that, actually, because it might have made Layton appear animated for a moment.

Finally, Duceppe. What can I say? He was relaxed, he was frank, he asked some tough questions and then gave Martin (practically always Martin) the space to answer some other, imaginary question. Then he'd ask the real question again. He wouldn't yell it through Martin's answer, he'd just ask it again. Very effective. When he was under attack, he came clean, even though it moved away from the BQ strategy:

Duceppe: Yeah, I'm a seperatist. So are lots of Quebecers. That's not going to change, Mr. Harper. (Don's imagination takes over again.) At least we don't talk in code about "firewalls". Maybe someone needs to apply the Clarity Act rules to that whole bit.
It wasn't a good debate. That's too bad, because I think there are many real differences among the parties. Here I am again, at the same point I find myself after so many of these posts: why can't Canada have an honest and open discussion of ideas and policy, and let voters choose after hearing that discussion? Why do the parties seem so afraid of that conversation?

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