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Who Won the Debate?

Ten Tyee contributors weigh in on who scored, who bored, and that crime wave in Gibsons. Tell us your winner.

By  Tyee Staff and Contributors 13 Apr 2011 | TheTyee.ca

Mark Leiren-Young

Ever since America's Nixon-Kennedy debates where the radio listeners all thought Nixon knocked out Kennedy, but all the TV viewers saw was the shining smile of Camelot making the grumpy old man sweat like he was being interrogated by the Gestapo, political debates have been all about optics. I gather from the twitterverse that the ReformaTory™ leader looked directly at the camera and ignored his opponents the way he does questions from the media after he hits his five-a-day limit. What I don't know is whether The-Man-Who-Would-be-Trudeau ™ spent the whole debate staring at his shoelaces because, if he didn't, it sure sounded like Mikey was the big winner (other than mediator Steve Paikin who clearly enjoyed telling everyone to behave).

The moment that came off on CBC radio as genuinely passionate -- no matter how well-scripted and over-rehearsed it was, "This is not bickering Mr. Harper, this is democracy." Jack's attempt to create a Gordon Wilson moment after that and act like Mike and Steve were just bickering was one of the rare moments when he didn't sound like he deserved a seat at the grown-ups table. Jack knows the difference between bickering and debate and pretended he didn't, so he could use his pre-scripted line, which was a shame because some of his genuinely off-the-cuff zingers actually zung.

Meanwhile, the Blochead sounded indifferent to the proceedings except when he revelled in stating that both Jack and Steve were suffering from selective memory issues over their 2004 coalition, or was it a cooperation agreement, or was it a memo, or was it just their hockey pool? Only Gilles seemed to remember.

As Steve tries to rewrite the rules of Parliamentary democracy to suit his demographics, or is that demogogics, to "whoever has the most seats wins," it became apparent that the ReformaTories are betting that as long as taxes aren't raised, Canadian voters won't care if parliament is turned into a hospital overflow ward when the Ottawa Tim Horton's fills up. Clearly the key players in this election are incompetent Social Studies and History teachers who failed to explain parliamentary democracy to future voters, nevermind any party leader other than the guy who wants to leave the country. He also seems to be banking on the idea that Canadians find elections boring since he kept referring to this one as "unnecessary." Perhaps his pitch on the French debate could be, "vote for me and you'll never have to vote again."

Of course, for all I know Mikey was wearing Groucho glasses, Jack was wearing a Leafs jersey, Gilles was mooning Paikin and Steve H. was sweating like Nixon in a Finnish sauna -- in which case I'm really looking forward to the instant replays.

Mark Leiren-Young is a regular contributor to The Tyee and an author and filmmaker.

David Beers

If televised debates are theatre, Stephen Harper inhabited the role he wanted, right down to the staging (positioned away from the harassing chorus of three), gestures (hands presented upturned, signaling welcoming inclusion), tone (measured calm juuuuuust verging on patronizing exasperation), and straight-faced delivery of a scripted fantasy (Trouble maker? Who me? I'm just a nice guy wishing I could get back to working together in that place I revere, the Parliament).

Ignatieff played right into how the Cons want to cast him -- humourless, eyes blacked out by shadow casting brows, and outraged that somehow not he but Steve gets to be PM (you haven't EARNED it! he accused more than once).

Duceppe irritated at every chance by reminding that he could care less about those of us who don't live in Quebec. Layton gets the prize for irritating the least.

Harper, though, benefitted most in this debate by playing the patient teacher -- like when he explained to the befuddled audience that whoever wins an election gets to be PM, while over there, across the stage, the other three argued over who was in which coalition which time, and whether they'd go do it again, and with whom, if and when they lose.

David Beers is editor of The Tyee.

Shannon Rupp

If delivering humiliating quips is the measure of a win then you could call this leadership debate the Jack and Gilles show.

Jack Layton drew guffaws from the studio audience when he noted that he had no idea why Stephen Harper was planning to build more prisons when the crooks seem so comfortable in the Senate.

From the moment Gilles Duceppe kicked-off the debate by zinging Harper with the wry observation that the Prime Minister was "answering a citizen's question for the first time in the campaign" it was clear that this was Harper's event to lose. And he did.

While Harper stayed on message -- we have the best economy in the world, this is an unnecessary election -- the Bubble Boy strategy that pundits have been noting for weeks was on display for the whole country to see. His creepy, icy demeanor was made worse by his choice to talk directly to the camera and avoid engaging with the other leaders.

By contrast, Michael Ignatieff, the least polished performer of the quartet, looked human. He stumbled occasionally but he also sounded, dare I say it, smart. Where Iggy was earnest, looking like a guy willing to grapple with difficult issues, Harper was robot, delivering the message track over and over again.

Ignatieff held Harper to account, particularly on the Prime Minister's refusal to accept that he has an obligation to answer the House truthfully and debate and defend his actions. Harper kept calling the debate "bickering" leaving the Green's Elizabeth May to tweet that he doesn't understand Parliamentary democracy.

Ignatieff and Duceppe stopped just short calling Harper a liar, but there's no doubt they were saying that. They challenged Harper on the leaked Auditor General's report -- even forcing him to say that he wants to see the final version released immediately – and Duceppe nailed him on his scheme to organize the opposition into a coalition with himself as PM when the previous Liberal government was in power.

Throughout the two hours, viewers were treated to the disturbing sight of Harper lying to our faces. It's one thing to read reporters' copy saying that Harper lies, but it was chilling to see those dead eyes facing the camera as he denied the truth.

But all the leaders failed -- and the lack of a woman's perspective became obvious -- when Canada's foreign policy was discussed and Harper had the audacity to raise his track record on foreign aid for child and maternal health, which includes denying funding for abortions. All three men were silent on Harper’s attack on women's rights to reproductive health.

While there's no doubt Harper was the loser, the only leader with some claim to winning was Duceppe. He's a quick-witted pit bull. And even when he's criticizing his competitors for not recognizing Quebec as a nation, I kept thinking that if he wants to give B.C. this kind of representation in Ottawa, I'll vote Bloc.

Shannon Rupp is a contributing editor to The Tyee.

Crawford Kilian

The clear winner: Jack Layton. He made his points clearly, but more importantly, his body language expressed confidence. His grin conveyed an amused scorn for his opponents' positions.

The clear loser: Stephen Harper. In fairness, he was the victim of the worst makeup job since JFK beat Nixon in the 1960 US presidential debate. But his body language was defensive, his tone was almost always a patient, patronizing whine, and his pained smirk exposed a man who is a stranger to joy. He never went on the offensive.

Gilles Duceppe, with nothing to lose, was the most relaxed, and in the early stages he mugged shamelessly as he waited to go for Harper's throat. He also had the most fun reminding Harper of their 2004 hotel tryst with Layton, where Harper hoped to form a coalition with himself as PM.

In third place: Michael Ignatieff, who could be animated at times and made some strong points about the Conservatives' contempt not just for Parliament but for the Canadian people. But Layton zinged him with his 70 per cent absenteeism.

Best one-liner of the night: Layton. "I don't why we’re talking about prisons when the crooks are so happy in the Senate."

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

Steve Burgess

Micro-communities -- candidates play to them. Jack Layton just got elected Prime Minister of Twitter for using the phrase "hashtag fail."

Politics can be pretty simple sometimes.

To be fair not all tweeters liked it. But folks love shout-outs and if you followed the debates on Twitter you'd think "hashtag fail' was the key issue. On the other hand, the candidates missed a golden opportunity when a taped question came from a guy in a Canucks shirt.

Why not make a quick political calculation, cut Quebec loose and say, "My friends, there is no doubt where Canada's best hope for a Cup can be found."

Layton had the most talked about lines for both good and ill. The "ill" part came when he said "bling." And I don't mean Jack was "illin'." Word.

But he actually got a laugh in the room when he said more prisons are not needed when "crooks seem so happy in the Senate." Zing!

Most of all it was a competition of strategies. Ignatieff might as well have been wearing pink to back up his theme: Harper is a bully.

If you were betting on use of the phrase "Mr. Harper shuts down whatever he can't control," I hope you put the rent on "over."

Harper's strategy was exemplified by his eyes -- look straight at the camera, not your insignificant opponents.

Harper had his moments, particularly taking on Duceppe on the issue of English-speaking immigrants. But many will find his I'm-not-looking-at-you style off-putting. In fact I'd estimate the percentage of Tyee readers who hold that opinion to round off at 100 per cent. The rest of the country may well feel he looked prime ministerial. You never know with those electorate types.

Steve Burgess writes about culture for The Tyee and is author of a new memoir Who Killed Mom?

Charles Campbell

What did I wish for from the federal leaders' debate? The graceful extemporization of Barack Obama? The "Aha!" moment of former BC Liberal leader Gordon Wilson? Maybe a little Elizabeth May?

Well, there was no hope of any of that. What we got, despite certain brief moments of frisson, was the usual old male hacks in a reality TV show that played like the bastard child of Question Period and American Idol. They did their little set pieces, often heedless of the subject they were asked to discuss, they wagged their fingers, they didn't change many minds.

Michael Ignatieff proved that he is quite a bit better than his polling results, but he nevertheless repeats himself overmuch for a seasoned academic debater. Stephen Harper proved that he's a cautious, bloodless comptroller, but he nevertheless admitted that he wants a majority so he can do all the things the current Parliament won't allow him to do. Jack Layton and Gilles Duceppe proved that they are generally attractive, thoughtful people who will continue to try and shape national policy from the sidelines, without the complicating responsibility of having actual power.

Did I miss anything?

Harper is hoping for majority by attrition. If we hate watching such spectacles enough, maybe we'll give him a majority so we can be rid of them. Score 1 for Steve the Haircut. Ignatieff is hoping for minority by suspicion. He has Harper's growing record of concealment in his favour, and the Prime Minister's trust score will certainly suffer a bit for the pummeling he took on the night. Score 1 for Mike the Igghead.

So put me down as predicting Harper will fall two seats short of a majority.

I did miss May, who in such a scenario might be quite powerful -- if she wins her seat. In the Green Party leader's first remark on CBC TV after the debate, she quietly noted that there isn't much empirical evidence that cutting corporate taxes creates jobs, and that Canada already has quite possibly the lowest corporate rate among members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. I wish that Jack, Giles, or Michael had mentioned that, because for far too many people it would have been actual news.

Charles Campbell is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

Colleen Kimmett

Jack Layton won the debate. He came out strong with a reference to Stephen Harper's former self – someone who wanted to change Ottawa and clean it up from scandal, waste and political posturing – to a leader who wasted billions on window dressing for an international economic summit that had no discernable economic benefit to Canadians. "You used to care. . . what changed?" he asked.

Although Harper deflected this and other criticisms with admirable ease and grace for someone who was being hammered from all sides, Layton kept on point by pointing out that the government has a choice to make when it comes to spending: You can't cut taxes, continue six per cent healthcare transfers to the provinces, and pay for mega-prisons and fighter jets all at the same time.

Layton also hit on a key point that could win him some immigrant votes that Harper may have alienated by extending wait times for elderly parents who want to join their children here in Canada. "Harper is encouraging more people to come here as temporary foreign workers. . . that's not how we built this country," he said. "Family reunification is the key thing."

Layton's calls for more women in parliament as a necessity to tackle the underlying issue of violence against women was a good move, and more sensitive than Ignatieff's assertion that guns kill women, and he was the only leader to bring up the issue of poverty -- in particular, aboriginal poverty -- during the crime and justice part of the debate.

Generally, I liked the oppositions' discussion on crime and justice. Duceppe, Ignatieff and the Layton agree to disagree that we need more prisons and harsher sentences deter crime, an unproven theory that Harper seems ideologically attached to despite the fact that most Canadians are not. Crime seemed to be where there was the most measured, reasoned and harmonious debate between the parties – at least the opposition parties.

Another highlight in the debate was the pointed question that Paikin put to all candidates: how will you pay for everything you promise? Here I think is where Ignatieff actually shone, quoting figures confidently and succinctly.

I don't think the campaign is in a new mode. I wish that opposition agreement on key issues in this debate -- such as budgetary spending priorities, such as crime -- could have sparked the potential for a coalition (after all, the majority of Canadians did not vote for Stephen Harper) but for some reason (which will probably prove to be detrimental to the Liberal Party and the Canadian people in the long run) Ignatieff again shot down that possibility.

Colleen Kimmett writes about food, the environment and sustainability for The Tyee and others.

Katie Hyslop

If the competition were based on best one-liners, Jack Layton and his bling would surely not fail. But when it came to staying on message, remaining poised and collected, the winner is Conservative Party leader Stephen Harper.

The debate began with a question from a regular-Canadian-Joe asking about corporate tax cuts, but quickly spiralled into a three-man attack on Harper -- a trend that would continue throughout the debate. All three former opposition-party leaders addressed Harper, still thinking of him as the prime minister they needed to undermine, instead of addressing the public they needed to convince. But Harper looked mainly at camera --and consequently the Canadian public -- for almost the entire debate.

During a debate, facts seem to matter little. Harper continually emphasized that coalitions are not part of Canadian democracy, which is false, and claimed another minority government would take Canada's economy off-track, despite proroguing Parliament when the recession began in 2008. But he was the one leader who spent most of the time defending his government and their proposed budget, which, conveniently for him, is what his platform is based on. No matter what attacks were thrown his way, he used it to deliver his message, and that may convince some of the undecided voters to turn from little c to big C Conservatives.

Katie Hyslop is covering the federal election for The Tyee, and writes about education for the Tyee Solutions Society.

Bill Tieleman

The federal election leaders' debate was wisely not broadcast in prime-time in B.C. -- likely because it hardly featured the material needed for a hit television show.

While there was Jeopardy, there was no winner at the end.

But the leaders' performances did often seem suited for So You Think You Can Dance.

Shuffling the most was Prime Minister Stephen Harper -- under sustained attack throughout the debate from the other three leaders and straining at times to appear unflustered by their jabs.

Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff started off on the right foot, giving Harper a series of kicks that hurt -- but ultimately repeated them over and over until he became tiresome.

NDP leader Jack Layton was in surprisingly good dancing form for someone recovering from hip surgery -- and even got off one of the night's best lines by saying Harper would have needed Layton's cane if Ignatieff hadn't been propping him up for two years.

And Gilles Duceppe tap danced all over Harper, knowing that even a fall in the English debate couldn't hurt him in Quebec.

Overall, Ignatieff and Layton may have gained a step on Harper -- but two hours of argument likely had most of the audience changing channels.

Bill Tieleman is a columnist for The Tyee and 24 Hours Vancouver newspaper.

Andrew MacLeod

Off the top, from a Western Canadian perspective, there's something surreal about watching a debate where one of the four participants represents a party for which we can't vote. Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe made some good points and some that were easy to disagree with, but for people in most ridings in the country, what he has to say is irrelevant.

Adding to the surrealism is the fact that the leader of a party that runs candidates across the country, that received nearly a million votes last election and that gets some $1.6 million in public funding, was left out. That's Elizabeth May of course, whose barring from the debate has been widely discussed.

Beyond that, each of the leaders achieved their likely goals for the evening.

Conservative Stephen Harper succeeded at appearing relatively calm and prime ministerial, something he's had five years of practice on. Agree with him or not, he held his own on questions about the long gun registry, multiculturalism and his strange interpretation of Canadian electoral law.

Liberal Michael Ignatieff repeated at least four times that Harper is a control freak who tries to shut down what he can't control, a message that sunk in, while portraying the NDP as incapable of forming a government and therefore not worth voting for. His arguments for balance in our approach to justice and the need to make choices at budget time are correct, if hard to explain in a snippy debate format.

NDP leader Jack Layton argued as much against Ignatieff as against Harper, accusing him as he has Liberals during past elections of propping up Harper's government and helping him implement his agenda, including the unpopular HST in British Columbia and Ontario. Layton painted Ignatieff more than once as just the latest carrier of Liberal arrogance and entitlement, not to mention a hypocrite for opposing things on the hustings that he'd voted for in the house (when he showed up to vote at all). Job done.

Who won? I suspect most Canadians think the winner was whoever they already agreed with and that few minds or votes were changed. My sense was they deserve each other, and the four of them working together should hash it out in a coalition, or at least another minority government, having to put forward their best ideas and defend them.

Two more surreal things to mention . . .

At the start of the debate, the moderator said they'd received 6,000 questions and the producers had read all of them. During the two hour debate, they used a grand total of six of those questions, or one out of a thousand.

They were broad enough, and the leaders loose enough in their responses, that much ground was covered. But the format would have benefitted from some kind of rapid-fire round where more issues were covered.

Finally, what's with one of those questioners, resident of peaceful Gibsons, B.C. Len Gould, being so concerned about crime?

Here's what Money Magazine had to say while naming Gibsons fourth on a list of "next most livable cities": "An idyllic retreat for seafaring types who want to escape big city life while staying a stone's throw away from the big city. The weather is mild year-round, the restaurants are up to big city standards and there is little crime."

Go Canucks.

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee’s Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria.

Who do you think won the debate and why? Please tell us in a comment below...  [Tyee]

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