2011 CA Election, Ray D'Cruz

Election Debates’ Verdict: Harper wins Canadian Leaders’ Debate

Winner: Stephen Harper

Scores: Harper 80 | Ignatieff 77 | Layton 73 | Duceppe 70

Judge: Ray D’Cruz

Three years, it seems, is not a long time in Canadian politics. The three returning speakers picked where they left off: Stephen Harper (Conservative) used every opportunity to talk about the economy, Gilles Duceppe (Bloc Quebecois) steered a straight course for his favourite talking points and Jack Layton (NDP) got personal. There was one new face, Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff.

The debate was a close call because it was a debate in two parts: firstly whose policies are best for Canada and secondly whether Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper is fit to govern. Mr Harper did well on the first part, but took plenty of hits on the second part. In the end, his calm, detail-oriented approach worked and he won the debate. He was strongest on the economy, reasonable on social issues and dogged on governance. His closest competitor Mr Ignatieff landed some telling blows, but he ultimately lacked more positive vision for Canada. Too much of his debate was simply about why Mr Harper is unfit to govern. Mr Layton’s approach was overly personal and indulgent. Mr Duceppe was in a debate of his own, disinterested in the average voter.

The first question focused on the continuing corporate tax cuts favoured by the Conservative Government. Mr Harper’s message was simple enough: low taxes create growth and jobs that fund social services. The other three speakers insisted that voters had to choose between allocating money for tax cuts and improving social services. Mr Harper argued it was a false choice because tax cuts, through economic growth, made services affordable. His strong performance later in the debate on health care funding worked well with this approach. He cited expert claims that 200,000 jobs $40B in government would be lost if tax cuts were abandoned. It needed to be countered with contradictory evidence but it wasn’t – by any of the three speakers. By the end of the debate, this core disagreement remained, and Mr Harper’s arguments and evidence remained unmet.

Instead Mr Ignatieff, Mr Layton and Mr Duceppe let their outrage about Mr Harper’s “contempt” of parliament take hold. They zeroed in on future financial commitments (the cost of military jets and new prisons) and Mr Harper’s keenness to hide these expenses and other budget details from parliament. This, they claimed, was why Canadians were back at the ballot box.

Mr Harper defended himself well on two fronts. Firstly he argued that the expenditure that his interlocutors opposed would not impact the upcoming budget. Secondly he argued that the overall navigation by the Conservatives through difficult economic times was sound, and that Canada’s emergence from these difficult times was strong. This was not really challenged yet it went to the overall economic credibility of the government.

Indeed, Mr Harper returned to his safe zone, the economy, time and time again. Sometimes it was too much, and voters may have wondered whether Mr Harper thought he was running a country or an economy.  But in a mass of issues over two hours, and with his credibility under fire, it made him look like a safe pair of hands.

One the second issue of governance, Mr Harper didn’t do so well. His recollection of a 2004 meeting with Mr Layton and Mr Duceppe lacked credibility. Mr Harper was attacked for his treatment of specific international agencies and offered irrelevant rebuttal (citing functional relationships with other agencies). The attacks on his parliamentary approach and processes were messy but held together. Mr Harper was calm and measured throughout, but it was hard to escape the conclusion, through sheer weight of examples and conviction, that the Harper Government lacked transparency and cleanliness.

Mr Ignatieff came second. He hit some high points, particularly on the questions of crime, international relations and governance. These were the moments he looked like a leader. His rebuttal of the Omnibus Crime Bill and attack on the gun register was very strong, with Mr Harper in response quoting former police officers who his own colleagues! But Mr Ignatieff did not offer enough positive economic and social argument to win this debate. His case was essentially a negative one about Mr Harper, which at times he struggled to reconcile with Liberal support for certain Conservative policies. His compelling appeal for better governance was brutally undermined by Mr Layton’s accusation that Mr Ignatieff was also contemptuous of parliamentary, missing 70% of votes. Mr Ignatieff had no response, other than a very awkward smile. It was an important moment in the debate for someone running on a platform of cleaning up the parliamentary process. There may have been a good excuse. He needed one at that moment.

Mr Layton came third. He had some memorable moments, such as the one mentioned above, but his obsession with how people have been changed by politics (and impliedly how he has not) and his lack of policy details (with the exception of health and small business tax cuts) was telling. He looked particularly uncomfortable on the subject of the gun register.

Mr Duceppe came fourth. He probably doesn’t care. He was interested in certain talking points, regardless of the question and laboured them painfully and repetitiously. He was speaking to a sectional audience, and whether he won the debate in their eyes is probably the only relevant consideration for Bloc Quebecois.

The format of the 2011 debate was dramatically different. Gone was the organic five-way panel discussion from 2008, replaced by a highly structured debate. There were six questions, submitted by voters, each of which occupied 20 minutes of the debate – a two-hour marathon in all. The internal structure of each question was the same for all six questions: two speakers in turn would go head to head for five or six minutes before the other two speakers joined in. While the rotation of speakers was a bit strange, the 20-minute focus on an issue worked. It encouraged depth, good interaction and direct questioning between participants. At times, speakers started to get very repetitious. They came back to the same talking points and the same examples. It was quite alarming to think that a 20-minute segment might produce such repetition, but it did. The speakers didn’t really adapt well to this new format. They should have treated each segment as a debate in its own right, with a clear vision to open, some arguments, examples and rebuttal in between, and neatly concluded at the end.

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