Verdict In: I Want Harper and Layton to Lead this Country

Now if only there was a system that ensured that neither leader was entrusted with near-dictatorial powers, making them as arrogant as Martin or Chretien; forcing them to negotiate and work together instead. What could we possibly do… Oh, I know!

Much as I hate to admit it: Stephen Harper looks prime ministerial. And as you’ll see by downloading the latest version of the Hotstove, Conservatives and New Democrats alike were gushing over their respective leaders’ performance, and the response is genuine. And as I believe I said on the podcast, Duceppe came across as the most intelligent, most capable leader of the bunch — I just wish he believed in Canada. Even Martin did well — by exceeding my low expectations.

But I think Harper was the clear winner in this debate, learning from his mistakes in previous campaigns and coming across as genuine and statesmanlike. Two moments in particular stand out: the adept way he deflected moderator Steve Paiken’s question about the promises the Reform Party broke, and the exchange between himself and Layton when Paiken tried to trip up the Conservative leader with talk about majority rule. When Layton rebuked suggestions that the NDP should commit their support to any particular party at this point of the campaign, and Paiken made it look like Layton was batting away Harper’s olive branch, Harper remained calm and said that elections were not the place for negotiating parliamentary coalitions. Who was Mr. Angry? That would be Mr. Martin.

Layton was the second place finisher, staying on message, and only occasionally sounding a little too earnest. He too is learning from his mistakes. After being criticized for mentioning Ed Broadbent’s name too much in the last debate, the only leader to mention the retiring NDP statesman was, of all people, Stephen Harper. Layton, in my opinion, is about a year away from becoming as adept a campaigner and as brilliant a statesman as Broadbent himself. Throughout the debate, he had the air of a leader coming into his own. Not there yet, but soon will be.

And it was a very interesting debate during the national unity section, wherein Gilles Duceppe almost convinced me to be a sovereigntist. Well, not really, but the way he kicked the legs out from under Paul Martin, and the way Paul Martin proceeded to give Duceppe ground (acknowledging the fiscal imbalance; almost calling Quebec a nation — Quebec may well be a nation, but there’s got to be a better strategy for a federalist prime minister to follow when debating the leader of the sovereigntist forces) made Duceppe look strong and Martin look weak. One interesting thing though was how often Duceppe swiped at Harper, making me think that Duceppe might be hearing Conservative footsteps in Quebec.

The star of the debate, though was moderator Steve Paiken, of TVO’s Studio 2. He handled the new format fantastically, asking follow-up questions and allowing the rebuttals to roll, producing an interesting two hours of television. The questions he asked — with the exception of the super-tasteless question that opened up the crime segment — challenged each of the leaders on their various hot-buttons. The leaders responded, and the result was an animated affair and a sense that all four leaders are actually quite adept politicians, able to think on their feet.

Here are a few other things I wrote about the debate on the fly:

  • Opening statements chosen by draw.

    • First Martin, then Harper, then Duceppe, then Layton - in order of seat totals by parliament. Does that seem random to you?!
  • Harper’s statements on Canadian’s increasing tax burdens and the fall of real incomes is demonstratably false. Pity they didn’t call him at it.

  • Duceppe’s opening statement is short and sweet, taking shots at both Martin and Harper. Hmm…

  • RCMP Income Trust investigation comes up early, with Paiken asking if the opposition parties have evidence of any wrongdoing. Layton scores points despite avoiding the direct question. His answer, that the RCMP has the responsibility to investigate the evidence at hand, comes late. Harper has a stronger answer with more evidence up front.

  • Martin comes out swinging against the allegations, but Duceppe plays Cheshire cat. He brings up Liberal accusations against Michael Wilson, and Marcel Masse’s resignation.

  • The first free-for-all can be paraphrased thus: Paiken says “Mr. Harper, you’ve accused Mr. Martin of sailing ships under different flags in order to avoid taxes. Mr. Martin, you’ve accused Mr. Harper of not loving Canada enough. Would you like to care to don these boxing gloves and go at it like real men?”

  • Good mixup, though. I like it.

  • Harper’s response to the moderator’s mention of the Reform Party’s record was very, very strong. He got his point in, and seemed pleased to address the answer. Yes, it was a benefit that he was able to say that he never opted into the parliamentary pension plan, but he responded to a very strong question with no sign of the Mr. Angry persona.

  • Duceppe’s attack on Harper suggests that he’s hearing the Conservative’s footsteps in Quebec.

  • Harper’s expression during Layton’s response, questioning Harper’s transparency, did look a little angry. Not sure what he could do about that.

  • Martin goes on about the other leaders’ personal attacks, and then personally attacks Harper for his values, particularly support of the Iraq war and for Ballistic Missile Defence. Wasn’t Martin sweet on these things until he became Prime Minister. At least Harper has values; would you care to get some, Mr. Martin?

  • Hmm… Moderator broke the format and asked Duceppe to challenge Harper’s statement that he did reveal the names of his contributors for the previous parties he led. A fact check! On a debate! Yay! And, fair’s fair, Harper gets a second rebuttal. He was somewhat bruised here.

  • Proportional representation question aimed at Duceppe — the leader of one of the parties that would suffer if it was implemented. Does not answer the question. Martin responds. Makes noises, but does not answer the question — though good point about civility in government — Harper acknowledges his party doesn’t have it on the platform. He doesn’t seem ready to support PR, but at least he addresses the question head on. Layton starts out sounding like a man alone, but gets stronger. Duceppe lends him a hand in the rebuttal.

  • In this debate, it almost seems as if Duceppe and Layton are tag-teaming. It’s a pity Duceppe is a sovereigntist. The BQ would work really, really well with the NDP.

  • Who wrote the question to lead off the crime segment? If X policies were enacted twelve years ago, would these victims be alive today? How tasteless is that?! The leaders manage to skate around it. Layton appears to have the strongest platform, in my opinion. In the rebuttal, things get interesting. The moderator is challenging both Harper and Martin on flaws in their statements. Harper fares better. Layton does well too.

  • Duceppe gets asked about private health care (interesting, since Quebec is the province with most of it). Speaks well for provincial responsibility. “Go with your health card and not with your credit card” is a neat slogan. Martin turns this into a question about sovereignty.

  • Layton gets this question first. Talks about health care, with a neat finesse using the Notwithstanding Clause on the Quebec private care decision. Martin attacks Harper on values, doesn’t talk about his values.

  • Who’s feeding the questions to Paiken, or did Paiken write all of these himself? The referendum question asked to Duceppe was brilliant. To Duceppe’s credit, he has an explanation why the same-sex marriage question should be put to rest and Quebec sovereignty not. He also wins points for stressing that, as a nation, he doesn’t see Quebec as being better than Canada, but that he wants Quebec and Canada to deal with each other as equals.

  • A question that I would like to ask Duceppe in all honesty: in your view of the current Canadian federation, are there two nations here, or ten? Or some number in between?

  • Layton’s tie: Orange-Red
    Duceppe’s tie: Black/Silver
    Harper’s tie: Blue
    Martin’s tie: Red.
    How delightfully partisan!

That’s all I wrote!

One other thing: I somehow missed Martin’s surprise announcement that he’d scrap the Notwithstanding Clause. I don’t know how I did that. But that was very, very random.

Martin does realize he’s talking about an amendment to the constitution here, doesn’t he? That requires the approval of at least seven provinces in this country comprising fifty percent of the population. How serious can he be about this major bit of nation building if he suddenly springs this announcement on us, with no forewarning, during a debate with just two weeks left to go in an election?!

Oh, and he handed Harper a gift, here. Harper’s response, which must have been off-the-cuff, was remarkable: removing the notwithstanding clause gives us an American system where the judiciary reigns supreme. Canada should be somewhere between that and the British system where the parliament reigns supreme.

In one fell stroke, Harper got two monkeys off his back: the sense that he’d kow-tow to the Americans, and that he’d put the boot to our judges. And he got to say that he supported the current arrangement of the Charter and the constitution.

It might be worth watching the French debates tomorrow night, if only to see how the dynamic between Duceppe and Harper plays out. The way Duceppe went after Harper suggests that the Bloc may fear a surge of Conservative support in that province. Duceppe may be lining Harper up for something. We’ll see.

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