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Election 2021

Please Advise! Who Won the Debate?

Dr. Steve thinks Jody Wilson-Raybould starred, but picks a different victor.

Steve Burgess 10 Sep 2021 |

Steve Burgess writes about politics and culture for The Tyee. Find his previous articles here.

[Editor’s note: Steve Burgess is an accredited spin doctor with a PhD in Centrifugal Rhetoric from the University of SASE, situated on the lovely campus of PO Box 7650, Cayman Islands. In this space he dispenses PR advice to politicians, the rich and famous, the troubled and well-heeled, the wealthy and gullible.]

Dear Dr. Steve:

I don’t really watch political debates to be informed. I just want to see who wins. So who did?


Zero Sum

Dear Zero:

Two consensus winners emerged. One: Marek McLeod, the nervous questioner who muttered “Oh shit...” before launching into his query about reconciliation. It was a declaration that resonated.

Two: Jody Wilson-Raybould. A drinking game for every JWR namecheck would have led to serious alcohol poisoning. Wilson-Raybould's name was thrown at Justin Trudeau all evening like so many handfuls of gravel. For someone who is not even running, JWR seemed to be the winner on points.

The debate opened on a light note when moderator Shachi Kurl asked leaders to please answer the questions they are asked. There was no laugh track, but viewers were free to chuckle in the comfort of their own homes.

It was a rocky start, with Kurl attempting to wrestle leaders into submission in the opening round (Kurl vs. Bloc Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet was among the evening's testiest exchanges). But things worked more smoothly when guest grillers (CBC's Rosemary Barton, APTN's Melissa Ridgen, Global's Mercedes Stephenson and CTV's Evan Solomon) were allowed to do the heavy lifting. That left Kurl, as moderator, to moderate.

Green Leader Annamie Paul won just by being there. Paul's first mention of Jane Philpott and Wilson-Raybould drew a rebuke from Trudeau: “I won't take lessons on caucus management from you.”

But somehow just meriting a snarky remark from the prime minister was probably a plus. And since no one else was rude enough to bring up her intra-party struggles, Paul was playing with house money all night long. And did pretty well too. (Although Paul did have an odd moment when, making a point about changing technology, she offered as an example smug candle-makers destroyed by the arrival of LED lighting. But hey, perhaps romantic LED-lit dinners are the newest thing. Who knows what these crazy kids are up to these days?)

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh was neither great nor bad. He has proved during this campaign that he can weasel with the best of them, and when pressed on making a commitment to stop the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, that is what he did. “That's a great question,” he said, and then answered a different one.

As for the big Trudeau-O'Toole showdown, it barely happened. And that is the inevitable result of the way these affairs work, or don't.

Canadian federal election debates are Rube Goldberg structures, looping and swerving and bumping in an attempt to achieve that elusive goal of fairness. Five leaders (could even have been six), all clamouring for equal time. At one point Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole aimed a potentially deadly arrow at Trudeau, who had just told a questioner that “getting through the pandemic” was his main priority. O'Toole leapt at the opportunity, asking Trudeau why, if he felt that way, had he called a pandemic election? And then... Kurl jumped in to inform Blanchet it was his turn to speak. Fairness uber alles.

Fairness also meant that at one point Paul and Singh were asked to engage in open debate on substance use issues. There's fair, and then there's pointless. Left-of-centre third-party leader debates policy issue with left-of-centre fifth-party leader? Why? Fairness, of course.

Making things that much worse for Canadian debates is the skewed nature of our political landscape that makes a single-province political party into a national force. “Monsieur Blanchet,” Kurl asked, “why would you make a better prime minister than Mr. Trudeau or Mr. O'Toole?"

Kudos to Blanchet for not bursting into a loud guffaw. You might as well ask Texas Gov. Greg Abbott whether he'd make a good CEO of Planned Parenthood. In an English-language debate Blanchet has no need to do anything but pander to his home audience, and that he blithely did. Even his occasional struggles to find the appropriate English phrase seemed calculated, as in “I don't know how to say that in English because who gives a crap? How do you say in English, ‘Go sit on a wire brush?’”

In the end the whole event seemed as awkward and unwieldy as five truck drivers in a horse costume.

So who won, ultimately? That's easy. While the debate was going on teenage Canadian tennis phenom Leylah Annie Fernandez was booking her place in the US Open finals, and the Toronto Blue Jays were completing a sweep of the hated New York Yankees. If you watched one of those channels instead, count yourself a winner.  [Tyee]

Read more: Election 2021

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