This is the 13th in a series of opinion columns on the 2021 Canadian federal election, written by Josh Lieblein for The CJN—you can find more in our section called Perspectives.
Trust me: You really don’t want to be present for a Canadian election debate that has gone wildly off the rails.
I remember a brutal affair at the Devi Mandir Temple in Ajax, where aggrieved gun owners shouted challenges at once and future MP Mark Holland from the floor, who rattled off statistics in response to no effect. Liberal partisans decried the abuses of the Harper government to choruses of boos. And the NDP candidate, who made an honest living slicing meat at the local Loblaws, reeled in confusion after a stinging critique from Chris Alexander, the future Minister of Citizenship and Immigration.
Then, closer to home, there was the clown show at one of the churches lining Toronto’s St. Clair Avenue. Future Ontario Health Minister Eric Hoskins and longtime Toronto Sun columnist Sue-Ann Levy looked on in bewilderment while the self-proclaimed “Super Loser” John Turmel—the Guinness World Records holder for the most election losses—stomped up and down the debate stage in frustration after the mainstream candidates dodged one too many questions for his liking.
So maybe we should be grateful that last night’s The CJN and CIJA debate wasn’t the most energetic affair. It’s certainly in keeping with an election where we’re all afraid of angry protestors and—even worse—debate hosts that interrupt the candidates.
As I said on the stream after we tried to draw some meaningful conclusions from the jumble of pre-programmed statements, attempts at profundity, and last minute Liberal attacks on the character of Erin O’Toole: A candidate participating in one of these Purimshpiels has a careful balancing act to pull off. They must repeat their party line while trying to appear genuine. They must react to sometimes aggressive questions with empathy and firmness. They must stand out from the pack without tripping over the invisible line that separates passion from incivility. It’s a wonder that there aren’t more Canadian debates that descend into chaos.
Hanging over every debate—and this one was no exception—is the palpable tension where the candidates watch one another for an opening to deliver the dreaded “knockout”—the zinger that can sink an entire election campaign in a matter of seconds. But delivering one of these is as dangerous for the attacker as it is for the intended victim. If the moment is misjudged, or if you choose the incorrect metaphor, you’re the one who’s going to get memes made about you.
And so, the candidates mostly circled around each other, bobbing and weaving as they defended their party’s records. Community members did their best to pry some new information out of the candidates, only to find themselves subject to the same social pressure that binds the elected officials and prospective winners.
To be sure, there were many positives to the encounter. Thanks to the Zoom format, we were spared the annoying din of campaign workers applauding and cheering wildly after everything their candidate says. There was blessedly little crosstalk among the contenders, and they did us the courtesy of staying to their appointed times.
Personally, however, I can’t see this all-candidates debate format lasting much longer. The new sit-down scenario—where the party leader meets with an editorial board and takes their questions while the cameras roll—is a much better way to cover a wide variety of topics and get to know the candidates.
For something as important as your vote, however, no one encounter could or should be the decider—a sentiment that was echoed by the vast majority of our debate watchers, who said the debate didn’t do much to change their intentions.
Not an interesting outcome, but perhaps the best possible one, given the circumstances.
Josh Lieblein can be reached at [email protected] for your response to Doorstep Postings.
HEAR more weekly election thoughts from Josh on Bonjour Chai