A True Debate

trudeau thumbs up
For a while we could pretend the Liberal leadership debates were going to effect the outcome of the race. It was just over a month ago that Martha Hall Findlay jabbed Justin Trudeau about his privileged upbringing, prompting many to wonder if this would be the turning point. A few weeks ago, all eyes were on the Trudeau-Garneau exchange, after the astronaut badgered the frontrunner over his lack of policy and substance.

Yesterday, everyone knew that what happened in Montreal would have little bearing on the outcome of a race which has already been decided. For a press corps who covers politics like sporting events, this was like sitting through the third period of a blowout – the signs of boredom were visible on Twitter, and their questions to the candidates in post debate scrums were essentially variations of “why aren’t you dropping out?“.

In response to said question, Deborah Coyne conceded she couldn’t win, but re-iterated the importance of debating ideas.

Indeed, if you looked beyond the sport and spectacle of it, there was real substance to be gleamed from yesterday’s debate.

In addition to what seem to have become the compulsory debate topics of pot legalization and supply management, there were meaningful exchanges on C-54, CIDA, open nominations, and the retirement age. There weren’t a lot of sound byte zingers, but for a party trying to figure out what it stands for, these were topics that needed to be discussed. Martha Hall Findlay and Deborah Coyne had a great exchange on education, identifying problems, quoting figures, and offering solutions. Later, it would be Findlay and Murray weighing the pros and cons of pipelines. And everyone got to have their say about co-operation with the Greens and NDP. While I’m not a co-operation proponent, it’s a debate the party needs to have, and it’s important for voters to know exactly where the frontrunner stands.

On that question, there was no doubt. Trudeau initiated the debate with Murray, and promptly dismissed co-operation as a “single minded, win-at-all-costs” idea that would remove choices from voters and leave Mulcair as PM. He, quite rightly in my opinion, argued that voters would not respond to a “hodge podge coalition” whose only uniting message was that they weren’t Stephen Harper. In the NDP leadership race, Mulcair’s victory slammed the orange door shut on co-operation, and it is now assured that Trudeau’s will have the exact same effect on the red door.

Another issue the Liberal Party needs to sort out is the “Quebec question”, especially in light of new Quebec Liberal leader Philippe Couillard’s musings this week. And once again, the next Liberal leader left no doubts where he stood. After touching on the topic in a break out debate with Martin Cauchon, Trudeau tossed out his prepared closing statement to revisit the issue. He talked of moving past “old squabbles and quarrels”, arguing we’ve spent too long trying to buy off Quebec rather than asking Quebecers to be at the table building the future of Canada.

Trudeau’s detractors will dismiss this as more “hopey changey” baffle-gab that sounds pretty but means nothing. However, in the process of gabbing, Trudeau said “non” to another round of constitutional talks and re-iterated his support for the Clarity Act. More importantly, he said it in language voters can relate to and feel good about – something Jack Layton was a master of, but Michael Ignatieff could never quite pull off. In two years, Trudeau will need to debate Thomas Mulcair on this very topic, so the practice was helpful.

Indeed, if this leadership race has been nothing more than a training exercise for Justin Trudeau, it’s training that will serve him well very soon.

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13 responses to “A True Debate”

  1. I don’t understand Joyce Murray’s cooperation thing. I understood this when Nathan Cullen was running for the NDP, and the Liberals had no permanent leader. But as you say, the orange door is closed. So why bother with this? Trudeau looks like the best way to defeat or ‘minoritize’ the Conservatives to me, so if that’s the main goal (it shouldn’t be the only goal), why no just get behind him instead?

    This debate and the ‘Just watch me’ moment also have revealed something about Trudeau’s sense of humour and apparent sauciness. I am thinking of his amusing response to Joyce’s announcement that the greens wouldn’t run a candidate in Labrador (‘I encourage all Green Party supporters to vote Liberal’ or something to that effect). I have absolutely no problem with a bit of humour and cheekiness permeating our politics. Although perhaps using October Crisis language in this manner is not the most appropriate choice.

    • I think politicians are at their best when it looks like they’re relaxed, comfortable, and having fun. So it’s good to see Justin in that mode.

      As for the co-operation thing, I agree it’s kind of pointless when the NDP is against it, but I think it’s good to have Joyce running, if only so the Liberals can definitely reject the idea.

    • “Just watch me” has long since been divorced from its particular context. It’s just Trudeau’s catchphrase at this point.

      • Well it certainly doesn’t bother me. Quite the opposite actually. However, I was born way after the Cotober crisis, so I thought perhaps to those alive at the time the remark might find some offence. I was thus influenced by an annoying op-ed in the National Post that I stopped reading after the first two paragraphs. I guess it still had some kind of impact.

      • I tend to think anyone who would be upset by the reference are probably people who would never vote for Justin Trudeau in a million years.

        That said, it’s likely best for Justin to not overdo the nostalgia thing – he needs to be his own man. But a playful reference like this every now and then likely does more good than harm.

  2. I enjoyed this debate most of all and see that Trudeau’s closing statement has had some impact in the press. The NP has a good writeup on this.

    I also liked Trudeau’s “cheeky” answer on Labrador, especially given the circumstances.

    The Greens won 139 votes in 2011 and given the turnout in by-elections and the fact that votes don’t simply follow the leader, it would seem the Libs may pick up a couple dozen votes from this deal at the cost of whatever backlash is associated with it. No sense getting into all that, so Trudeau’s cheeky response was a good comeback. If this is Joyce’s “success” story, does she have any clue of the real work the Libs need to do to gain voter trust?

  3. Yesterday, everyone knew that what happened in Montreal would have little bearing on the outcome of a race which has already been decided.

    Yep, always was going to be a coronation.

    • Back in December, I posted a “predict the outcome” contest on this blog. And while pretty much everyone said JT would win, I believe most of the entries had him under 50% on the first ballot.

      Yes, he was likely going to win this thing, but I don’t think everyone always expected a win of quite this magnitude.

  4. Michael Harkov, how does 9 entrants, and any Canadian being allowed to vote, for FREE, make this a coronation??? A number of us have discussed this, and with targeting, a serious challenger would have been able to make a major impact, simply by running a modern campaign.

    Is this what we’ll see in April? I don’t think so… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aGLN1kREJ2Q

    And like Dan, I think this has been a pretty good testing process for Trudeau. This is no sure thing, but the amount of scrutiny, interviews, questions etc thrown at Trudeau over the last 12+ months have been a very good gauntlet to prepare him for the rigours of leadership, if nothing else.

  5. I attended this debate. And I was disappointed to note that when I went by the candidate tables, JT’s was the only one that didn’t have a pamphlet of some kind. What does that say?

    However, I thought he did have some good moments. In addition to the two you mention, his answer to Deborah Coyne’s question on lowering the voting age to 16 was humourous and went over very well.

    I’m particularly glad to see him and MHF come out so strongly against Joyce Murray’s proposal for “co-operation”. Also his strong stance against further attempts to re-open the Constitution (which received massive applause from the room). I hope he continues to speak as strongly or even more strongly on those points. Especially if it is true that he has the race sewn up (which is what everyone’s been saying).

    • Thanks for the first-hand recap.

      It was interesting to see both Trudeau and MHF come out so strongly against co-operation in this debate. They were certainly far more aggresive on this issue than they’ve been in past debates.

    • On the one hand; yes, you’re right. He was talking around the issue, even though MHF pointed out quite correctly that his answer wasn’t really an answer to her question.

      On the other hand, I fear that voters tend not to look into these issues in too much depth, and I think JT sounded confident and plausible enough in the answers he did give that many people wouldn’t question them further. So I’m not sure Mulcair or Harper could have put him on the spot any better than MHF did.

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