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Election 2021

We Needed a Debate. We Got a Snark Fest

What a mess of a format. No candidate won, watchers lost, and key facts never had a chance.

Michael Harris 10 Sep

Michael Harris, a Tyee contributing editor, is a highly awarded journalist and documentary maker. Author of Party of One, the bestselling exposé of the Harper government, his investigations have sparked four commissions of inquiry.

Let’s not play make-believe. Last night’s English-language leaders’ “debate” was a category-five flop.

Although it was billed as the biggest event of Election 2021, the format made it virtually impossible for any coherent or revealing exchange between the five participants. So what voters got was not a debate, but a snark fest, peppered with posturing, glibness and a sorry spectacle of one-upmanship.

Justin Trudeau did not win. Erin O’Toole did not win. Jagmeet Singh did not win. Annamie Paul did not win. And Yves-Francois Blanchet did not win. It all came down to a pointless draw for undecided voters.

For all the huffing and puffing, with questions from a ruthlessly intrusive moderator, journalists who didn’t get followup questions, and regular Canadians, the five leaders themselves were as poorly served as the audience. It was like watching a game of speed chess, in which the leaders raced through their largely superficial answers before they were cut off by the moderator.

“Given the ridiculous format and [Shachi] Kurl’s persistent interruptions, the only winner was the moderator’s attitude,” wrote the Globe and Mail’s TV critic, John Doyle. “Apparently, the format was to sometimes allow a leader to answer a direct question but also allow hectoring interruptions from another speaker, and, at that point, the original speaker was told to shut up.”

The confrontation that everyone was waiting for, Trudeau versus O’Toole, never materialized in any coherent way. Given that one of those two men will be prime minister in just ten days, at least according to the current polling, it was a squandered opportunity of monumental proportions.

Had there been a substantive exchange between the two leaders, Trudeau would have been able to probe some of O’Toole’s signature platform policies that have now been costed by the Parliamentary Budget Officer. Those costings reveal that the Conservative party's child care plan, for example, is nowhere near what the public was led to believe it was.

The way Erin O’Toole has been selling the Conservative plan, families would get a direct cash infusion through an improved child-care tax credit, roughly equivalent to the Liberal cash promise. The Liberal plan is to send $29.8 billion to the provinces over five years, with the goal of creating $10-a-day child care.

Before the Conservative platform was costed, the Liberal plan was a little jammier, but not by much. But as the Globe and Mail’s editorial board writes, there is now a huge difference between plans when they come with the numbers.

“It turns out that the Conservatives would replace the nearly $30-billion in child-care transfers to the provinces with just $2.6 billion in child tax credits to individuals. The Conservatives will honour the first year of deals signed by the Liberal government, delivering provinces a one-time transfer of $3.1 billion. But thereafter, the Tories would replace child-care transfers with a child-care tax-credit worth approximately 91 per cent less,” the editorial board wrote.

Instead of that kind of in-depth discussion, viewers were treated to acerbic exchanges like the one between Green party Leader Annamie Paul and the Bloc’s Yves-Francois Blanchet, neither of whom has a snowball’s chance in hell of forming the next government.

Paul offered to “educate” the Bloc leader about the reality of racism. Blanchet replied that it was not an offer, but an insult. The Bloc leader already felt aggrieved after the moderator had earlier raised the issues of racism and xenophobia in a question about Quebec’s Bill 21.

Paul was also involved in another vitriolic exchange, after she claimed that Trudeau was not really a feminist, reminding the audience that he had driven two strong women, Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott, out of his party over the SNC-Lavalin affair.

Trudeau replied that he didn’t need advice on caucus management from Paul, a pointed reference to the chaotic internal state of the Green party, which has been temporarily swept under the rug because of the election call.

Of course, all the TV networks clipped those exchanges, and that is what will be seen by Canadians who watched US Open tennis last night instead of the debate. Leylah Annie Fernandez put on a much better show.

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole landed the best low blow of this third-rate cage fight. He told the audience that Trudeau was planning to tax the proceeds of home sales, citing page 30 of the Liberal platform document.

Call it payback for Trudeau’s humiliation of O’Toole in one of the French language debates. O’Toole denied that he would end the ban on military-style assault weapons. Trudeau pointed out that the pledge O’Toole denied was contained on page 90 of the Conservative platform document.

The format prevented Trudeau from replying to O’Toole’s misleading charge about taxing home sales. That is a pity. The Liberal tax O’Toole referred to applies only to real estate speculators who flip houses within a year of buying them, with the effect of driving up prices in an already overheated housing sector.

The bottom line on last night’s debate is a new format for these events has to be developed. The key change must be to allow leaders to engage in substantive exchanges that go beyond the infernal talking points that all parties resort to when the conversation turns superficial. Otherwise, the public is served up a cold buffet of cheap shots and shallow posturing.

As Duane Bratt, a political science professor at Mount Royal University in Calgary, told the New York Times about the debate, “If this was the first time you were paying attention to the election you were not well served.”  [Tyee]

Read more: Election 2021

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