On debate night, the candidates did their best to keep the grim trend going, delivering a stiff recital of focus-group catch phrases, cynical obfuscation and righteous posturing on unpopular issues. As a debate it was unrecognizable -- as television, it was unwatchable.
Again, much of this was by design. It was Canada’s first six-way prime ministerial debate, a fact that reveals less about the competitiveness of Canadian elections than the debate commission’s desire to placate the egos of every Canadian politician calling themselves a “party leader.”
Two-thirds of the candidates on stage had zero path to become prime minister, but audiences were nevertheless asked to politely endure the time-wasting antics of New Democrat leader Jagmeet Singh, who polls suggest is likely to lead his party to the brink of collapse; Bloc Quebecois head Yves-Francois Blanchet, a secessionist running exclusively in Quebec; Green leader Elizabeth May, who heads a personality cult party that essentially only exists for people within shouting distance of her riding on Vancouver Island; and Maxime Bernier, whose biggest base lives on 4Chan. Out of misplaced egalitarianism, conversation was structured in gimmicky ways — “Okay, Mr. Blanchet, now you ask a question to Ms. May” — rather than one that accurately reflected the standings of the race.
The moderators, for their part, kept the discussion focused on topics fashionable with progressive urban journalists like themselves, rather than what Canadians actually list as their top concerns. Nearly an hour was devoted to climate change, indigenous reconciliation and “political polarization,” followed by an apology that time would have to be “trimmed” from the ensuing economic portion. The candidates themselves expressed incredulity that there was no segment on health care. No one seemed to notice that housing, trade, deindustrialization, drugs and foreign policy didn’t come up, either.
This biased selection of topics, coupled with the debate’s 4-to-2 imbalance between parties of the left and right, portrayed Canada as a vastly more liberal country than it is, and a place where basically all political disputes involve mild disagreement over solutions, rather than the identification of problems.
Things were not helped, in this regard, by the performance of Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, the man who had the most to gain from philosophically distinguishing himself from the pack. Instead, he simply doubled down on the empty contrarianism that has thus far powered his campaign.
The soft-spoken Scheer was uncharacteristically feisty, but in substance, his attacks mostly took the form of calling Prime Minister Justin Trudeau a liar, failure or hypocrite. Trudeau botched aboriginal pipeline consultations. Trudeau’s climate plan gives “big polluters a pass.” Trudeau proved himself a “fake feminist” for firing two strong-willed women from his cabinet.
None of these arguments originate in a place of principle, because one presumes Scheer, as a conservative, doesn’t really believe that things like aboriginal consultations, climate plans or feminism actually matter all that much. It certainly can’t be assumed he would lead an administration staffed by people who care more about such things. It was accordingly a debate strategy that offered more questions than answers about the sort of mandate Scheer seeks.
Trudeau was probably the debate’s technical victor, in that he never seemed particularly wounded by anything. His ordinarily obnoxious sanctimony also seemed less so in the company of Singh and May, whose exaggerated concern over the distinctions among Canada’s progressive parties personified the narcissism of small differences. In an alternate universe, right-wing Bernier could have been a standout star. In ours, he remains far too hampered by poor English skills to close his populist pitch.
To the extent an election debate is ever useful to the general public, it’s as a means of assessing the vision and competence of those with a credible chance of leading the country. The prime minister occupies an exceedingly powerful office, after all, in charge of everything from appointing Supreme Court judges to managing the fallout of natural disasters.
Canada’s debates long ago abandoned any pretense that the electorate is capable of performing such a holistic assessment. Debates now mostly consist of cautious politicians spouting overrehearsed one-liners to either humiliate their rivals for the cameras or pitch proposals designed to seduce the fickle middle class (tax credits for kiddie sports! Discount dental plans!).
Watching an archived version of the debate with a friend after work, he opined that the spectacle gave him fresh respect for the country’s previous prime minister.
“Say what you will about Stephen Harper,” he said, “but at least you always knew he had a healthy contempt for this sort of thing.”
Last night robbed Canadians of even that vicarious satisfaction.