Judge: Ray D’Cruz
Scores: Harper 78 | Dion 76 | May 74 | Layton 73 | Duceppe 71
The five-person, 2008 Canadian Leaders’ Debate covered major electoral issues in succession: the economy (the largest single issue addressed), the environment, Afghanistan, arts and culture, healthcare, law and order, trust in the political process and electoral priorities. The structure of the debate saw each speaker provide a brief substantive speech on the particular issue before participating in moderated discussion. The debate went for two hours.
I gave a narrow win to Stephen Harper. Harper won mainly because he dominated the agenda. In a five person debate, this is significant as it allows an individual to stand out from the others. He dominated the agenda because the other four speakers attacked him as the incumbent and largely ignored each other. The rules of this debate allowed him a right of reply when attacked, meaning he had a lot of speaking time. Harper used this time to answer the questions he was asked in a genuine manner, even when under personal attack. He spoke in broad terms about his government’s achievements. He was clear in distinguishing Canada’s position from that of the US and generally outlining why Canada had a good economic policy balance – and why this would continue if re-elected. On the downside, Harper needed to provide more future-oriented policy detail (though the format – 45 second substantive comments, brief rights of reply and general discussion did not really allow for this). The attacks did have an impact however, causing Harper at times to look bereft of imaginative ideas and solutions for issues such as the environment and arts and culture.
The second reason I gave Harper the debate was a superior manner. His (we’re on the right track message) was aided by an exceedingly calm demeanour. This was all the more impressive given the personal nature of the attacks launched by Jack Layton and the aggressive questioning of Gilles Duceppe. Harper’s manner made him look on top of things in the current difficult economic climate. He looked prime ministerial while the others, at times, looked desperate. Stephane Dion was too timid and ponderous while Elizabeth May seemed academic, and at times more interested in lecturing than debating.
I gave Dion second position, following closely behind Harper. Theirs were two very different performances (though very even overall). Dion largely escaped scrutiny. His Green Shift was presented simply a broad notion (tax polllution, reduce tax on productivity) without too much detail. Again, the format did not encourage detail. However, given the boldness and newness of the policy, it needed more development. It was endorsed by May (while wryly noting its policy origins). Harper was too busy defending himself to really attack it and Layton was preoccupied attacking Harper. When the Green Shift was briefly tested (in a discussion about the position of Ontario Liberals) Dion looked decidedly shaky and uncomfortable. He did a good job of explaining what he would do if elected given the current situation, and thus started the debate well. Two things held him from the win. His lack of argumentation and detail around the Green Shift was a matter problem. While it was not properly attacked by Layton, Duceppe and May (who focused on Harper) Dion needed to develop the substantive arguments around this central policy to give it more credibility. And his timid, almost pained approach detracted from his manner. These things are of course mitigated by some of Harper’s weaknesses, and the debate might reasonably be awarded to either.
I gave third place in the debate to Elizabeth May. Her manner was direct and strong, though at times she appeared to be talking a different language, a far more academic or bureacratic language. It might have disconnected her from audience members. In terms of matter, May was good at pointing our facts, reports and generally demonstrating her knowledge of issues, but she was less successful at developing solutions. She did not provide a cogent, overall message as to why someone might vote Green or why the party existed, and what type of influence it woud bring if put into government. Dion worked harder at this overall message while Harper could rely on the public’s knowledge of him and his government to give overall impressions.
In fourth position was Jack Layton. Layton spent too long in rebuttal mode, and not enough time setting our substantive arguments (policies). His strongest point in the debate came when attacking Harper over “intensity based targets” while talking about the environment. His arguments were overshadowed by his overtly aggressive demeanour. It made him look like someone who only had an oppositional frame of reference, and therefore was not an appropriate manner for someone wanting to be prime minister and advance a positive agenda. He spent too long attacking, and not enough time outlining his own policies and developing his arguments.
The worst performer in the debate was Gilles Duceppe. He started reasonably brightly, but was absent from large parts of the debate. When he woke up he was either focussed on his marginal agenda or pursuing Harper with fanatical style of direct questioning on issues such as the reimburseable tax credit and whether supporting war in Iraq (when opposition leader) was a mistake. His highpoint in the debate was introducing the “buy Canada” discussion, though once again he drifted out of the discussion. But there was simply not enough content or presence from Duceppe in this debate.