Liberals One-on-One

The moderator failed to ask the tough questions, such as “Mr. Bertschi, why on earth are you wearing that scarf?

My mind has been on the Ontario Liberal leadership race the past few months, so I’ll admit to not having paid close attention to the federal contest. Not wanting to feel left out the next time a lively debate over Karen McCrimmon’s proposals on income tax reform breaks out at a dinner party, I decided to tie myself down and watch the second Liberal Leadership Debate this weekend.

Of course “debate” is a charitable way to describe what took place Saturday, in much the same way “race” is a charitable way to describe Justin Trudeau’s victory march. Rather than the conventional debate format, Liberals were treated to defeated Calgary Centre by-election candidate Harvey Locke conducting nine separate one-in-one interviews. Sort of like Barbara Walters’ “10 most fascinating people”, except there were 9 people, and most of them weren’t very fascinating.

This format marked quite the deviation from the norm, so candidates could be forgiven for displaying a bit of confusion – I believe Marc Garneau thought he was a contestant on the Bachelorette, as he led off talking about how much he loves to vacuum and cook (his specialty is frittata). Snap this man up ladies!

Kidding aside, I actually think this was a worthwhile exercise. There are 5 official debates before the National Showcase, so why not experiment with different formats? After all, whoever wins will likely participate in 2 debates over the next five years and hundreds, if not thousands, of interviews. Personally, I found that Martha Hall Findlay, Deborah Coyne, and David Bertschi performed much better under this format than they did at the first debate, and that’s useful information for Liberals to consider while deciding who to support.

The interview format also puts the lie to the claim that leadership race debates are true debates, comparable to the ones we see in general election. Even though the media always acts surprised when leadership candidates trip over each other offering self-congratulatory pats on the back, that’s to be expected – no one wants to find themselves in the next “do you think it is easy to make priorities” commercial and, in the end, leadership candidates are all part of the same team and all share largely the same vision for the country. Forget the ellusive knock-out punch, there’s rarely so much as air boxing.

This leaves candidates with few opportunities for clash and rebuttal, turning the “debate” into nothing more than a series of 15-second sound bytes. So if we aren’t getting anything more than talking points, why not expand them out, offering candidates an opportunity to display substance?

And that’s exactly what we got Saturday. Case in point was Martha Hall Findlay’s response to a question on the breakout issue of this race – supply management. In two minutes, she provided a history and explanation of the system, rebutted 6 common arguments for the status quo, and gave an impassioned plea for change. It’s the type of substantive appeal you would never see in a debate, yet it shed a lot of light on the issue and on Martha’s candidacy.

So the problem was not so much the format, but the timidity with which Mr. Locke approached his job as moderator. He lobbed batting practice softballs, along the lines of “so…climate change…that’s a big deal, huh?”. Obviously enough, Locke’s role isn’t to dig for a “gotcha moment” or embarrass anyone, but there were times when a follow-up was called for. Take the question to Martin Cauchon on supply management. Cauchon gave an impassioned plea to preserve the system, for the sake of food safety, arguing that dismantling it would lead to contaminated eggs and milk. Surely that deserved some kind of follow up or, at the very least, a “say what?”.

On the few occasions Locke did ask follow-ups, it actually allowed the candidates shine. Probed on a toss-away point about minimum sentences, David Bertschi gave a very compelling argument against them. When Locke asked George Takach about international and border problems that would flow from pot legalization, Talach was able to confidently point to Washington State’s recent vote to legalize, showing he’d given the issue due consideration.

In US primaries, leadership candidates are treated like full fledged presidential contenders, allowing voters to separate the chaff from the wheat. The Liberal Party is searching for someone who can withstand the rigors and nastiness of an all-out election campaign, so it does the candidates a disservice to treat them with the kid gloves in these leadership forums. Only by asking the tough questions will we be able to see who is able to give compelling answers.

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13 responses to “Liberals One-on-One”

  1. The recent federal NDP race and provincial Liberal race have been timid affairs, which is, as far as I can tell, a reaction to the Chretien-Martin wars. Nobody wants to be that guy stirring the pot in the party. The conventional wisdom is that the people with nothing to lose will be the first to drop the gloves. Neither of the races I cited previously had a single, clear front-runner like JT is in this race, so this should be the race where someone finally comes out and goes negative, especially given his glaring weaknesses. But then again this is the party perhaps most loathe to engage in that sort of horseplay. So how badly do Garneau, Murray, Cauchon and MHF want to win or want JT to lose?

    Also when will these also-rans start to run out of money and idealism? I give the crown to Takach so far as the only one who’s really made any serious noise; the Scarf, the Colonel and JT’s not-really-stepmom — please take a bow.

    • I guess the problem facing the other 8 is that if Trudeau is going to win, they don’t want to burn their bridges with the man who could be the Liberal leader for the rest of their political careers.

      Which is why it would be great to have a credible journalist (say, Steve Paiken) asking the candidates the tough questions during the debates.

  2. They needed a real journalist to challenge them and their ideas.

    I thought MHF stood out in the first debate, and did well in this one too.

  3. I figured this format was pretty well as good as we can hope for with so many candidates. The drawbacks are that it really isn’t a debate, as Dan pointed out, and if the moderator is being soft, the candidates aren’t tested, and the perceived front runner can’t really be touched.

    Still, I thought this was a good way to see what the candidates are about. I do wish some of the virtually-no-chancers would step aside and allow some actual debates to happen. (Not that I would want to walk away from the $75 000 I’d have spent. Yikes.)

    I wasn’t really opposed to any of the candidates outright, other than that several lack the presence of a leader (I hate making judgments like this). Murray speaks to my own political leanings, Hall Findley made a good impression as did Garneau, and Trudeau says lots of the right things but I’m still very skeptical. The rest seem fine, but I just don’t see it happening. I’m still undecided.

  4. This one on one time allowed a clear separation between status quo and “I have an idea”. Despite the impending coronation of JT, I know he will not be anywhere near the top of my ballot. He simply tells people what they want to hear in vague broad brush strokes and doesn’t inspire any notion of change forthcoming. I was most impressed with Findlay, Coyne, Murray and Tacach with McCrimmon needing a bit more polish.

    • Some of Martin’s critiques are valid, but I would argue that the role of a leadership contest is not to entertain pundits and the media.

      And I’d also argue that the LPC race, and Trudeau in particular, have already received far more and far more positive press than the NDP received in their race.

      • True re: entertaining the pundits, although it couldn’t hurt if they were interested or perceived the frontrunner to be challenged by his opponents.

        I’ve been finding that most of the Trudeau press (and thus most of the leadership press) I’ve seen has been of the following types:

        (1) Trudeau has star power, does well in polls, but where is the substance?

        (2) Trudeau has a gaffe/awkward moment (resurfaced Alberta comments, seemingly contradictory statements on the gun registry)

        (3) Trudeau has this policy stance (e.g., favours legalized marijuana, likes the Nexen takeover, dislikes Northern Gateway)

        Type 1 has been the most frequent.

        These don’t really strike me as overly positive things. Type 1 seems like a mostly negative assessment opinion-wise, although the polling data is certainly encouraging for him (and Liberals). Type 2 is surely negative press, and type 3 is purely objective coverage (good/bad/neutral depending on whether you like what you hear).

        Perhaps I have a different view of positive v. negative press?

        • That seems like a fair analysis, though I tend to think the overall tone towards Justin has been largely positive.

          And I think every time he puts out a policy position, it helps counter-act the perceptions around point number 1, regardless of whether or not people agree or disagree with his position.

          So, yeah, hopefully Justin keeps puting out policy positions. And I hope these topics are debated, and that Justin comes across as knowing his stuff when pressed on them.

  5. Having all these useless candidates just makes it easier for Trudeau. I think he’d have a tougher time if only the real candidates, him, MHF, and Garneau, were the ones in debates.

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