Paul Wells on a debate of great commotion -

Paul Wells on a debate of great commotion

Who won the Globe and Mail’s debate on the economy? Paul Wells weighs in

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau (L), NDP leader Thomas Mulcair (C) and Progressive Conservative leader Stephen Harper walk on stage before photo opportunity prior to the beginning of  the Globe and Mail Leaders Debate in Calgary, Alberta September 17, 2015. (MIKE STURK/Reuters)

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau (L), NDP leader Thomas Mulcair (C) and Conservative leader Stephen Harper walk on stage before photo opportunity prior to the beginning of the Globe and Mail Leaders Debate in Calgary, Alberta September 17, 2015. (MIKE STURK/Reuters)

At one point near the end of the Globe and Mail debate on the economy last night from Calgary, I flashed on the scene in Steven Spielberg’s movie War Horse where the horse is trapped in barbed wire in the no-man’s land between battlefield trenches, as exploding munitions light the night sky above. This is probably not the association the debate’s organizers had in mind, but the psychedelic backdrop, the confused shouting from all sides, and the knowledge that there was a live audience trapped in that room, unable to escape, brought it all rushing back to me.

Related: Lessons from a one-time debate moderator

But enough about format. Amid the shouting, I thought I could dimly perceive a debate, one whose general outline matched what you might have expected at this point in the long campaign of 2015. (Transcript: Here.) Tempers were shorter than when these men (and Elizabeth May) last convened, on a more brightly lit set, on Aug. 6. The end is closer, mistakes cost more, and the simple physical grind of six weeks on the road has made them all bears to be near. Sometimes they simply snarled. Tom Mulcair has almost completely put his reputation for hot temper behind him, but you could see it a few times on this evening and it was ferocious to behold.

In their calmer moments, each of the three prosecuted the case he wants to make for a chance to break out of the three-way polling tie that has characterized this campaign.

I suspect Justin Trudeau made the most commotion. He pivoted hard, twice, away from the core economic issues to take strong shots at Harper on tenuously related issues. Syrian refugees first, then the long-form census. (Moderator David Walmsley tried to turn the refugee talk back to the economy, but it came during a segment explicitly devoted to immigration. And refugees, like immigration more broadly, are indeed in part an economic issue. The Globe’s first instinct, to have an expansive and thoughtful discussion, was the right one.)

Related: One economy. Three visions. What the leaders want to articulate

In general, Trudeau was seeking to establish himself as the most eager, disruptive leader. “The main thing I disagree with them on is their lack of ambition for the country,” he said of Mulcair and Harper. Hence his decision to run deficits, to pay for bigger infrastructure spending than Mulcair can afford, essentially outflanking the New Democrat on the left.

Harper ran as the incumbent, which had the advantage of being true and is also a stance voters often like in this sort of debate. He waited his turn, rarely raised his voice, and often dismissed the others’ projects as simply unrealistic and naive. “Mr. Trudeau has former public servants and politicians”—as advisers; the reference was plainly to David Dodge, the longtime deputy minister who has masterminded Trudeau’s deficits-for-infrastructure plan —“who tell him it’s okay to spend more,” Harper said. “I’ve gotta tell you something: Those people will always tell you to spend more.” This was vintage Harper: world-weary, kind of funny, but also staking out his role as a man with a starkly different idea of government from all those “former public servants.”

Mulcair pursued the very clear path he has trod since even before this campaign began in 1952: as the most moderate and reassuring New Democrat you ever saw, the Tony Blair of a Canadian New Labour movement. “I personally believe the best social program is a strong family,” Mulcair said, paraphrasing Ronald Reagan; when I tweeted that line, I noted that Rebecca Blaikie, the national president of the NDP, retweeted it. It’s solid Mulcair message track, because it appeals to middle-class parents who may have been voting Conservative but are amazed to find themselves considering the NDP for the first time.

Who won? I haven’t the faintest idea. We won’t have to wait long to find out, though. The three large parties have been locked in a polling tie for a week, and close to it for a lot longer. If anyone pulls ahead or starts to fall over the next several days, it’ll be hard to ascribe that change to anything but the debate. It’s an unusually neat natural experiment.



Paul Wells on a debate of great commotion

  1. As a committed Liberal voter, I have to say I wish Trudeau would have calmed down a bit. I like the passion, but in a debate I prefer to hear what people have to say. He was not the only one talking over others, but he was the most persistent.

    Of course, that presumes that hearing what people have to say is what a debate is all about. I personally think it is about finding a zinger and attack ad material, so on that score I guess Trudeau did pretty well since he fell prey to only one semi-zinger from Mulcair.

    When it comes to what they actually said, there was nothing new there. I already think Trudeau has the best plan, and neither Harper nor Mulcair said anything new in their attacks on that plan.

    • As someone who’s not a committed Liberal voter, I thought Trudeau did pretty well. Some were put off by his style but he made his point and I feel like it stuck with voters (whether it resonated is another issue – only polls will tell).

      Reducing the debate to “finding a zinger and attack ad material” trivializes the whole event. While you might be right, and it’s likely that the main parties would agree with you, it’s a bit of a sad state of affairs when a 2 hour debate is reduced to an exercise in trying to define some sort of 10-second sound bite rather than an opportunity for thoughtful and lengthy discussions.

      • It is a sad state of affairs. I would love a debate that is about the issues, but last night, like all debates. we saw three leaders work to get their talking points in.

        I would love a real debate. At the same time, I think it is wrong to choose a PM based on who argues best.

  2. Who won? It is easier to say who did not win, and that would be Harper. Too smug, too contemptuous of everyone and he could not hide it. Trudeau was more forceful but Mulcair
    more concise and more reasoned. The race is now down to two, Mulcair or Trudeau. One down and one to go.

  3. Not sure how many times Justin said, “now is the time to invest in Canada because of our low interest rates, and our LOW DEBT to GDP”.
    So Justin was basically saying, “since Mr. Harper has been successful keeping our debt relatively low, we need to change course and SPEND!”.
    That was on a tee for Harper – missed a chance to show that Justy has no idea which end is up.
    Mulcair’s tone was just condescending and creepy.
    Paul Wells looked like he’d lost weight and developed a Scottish brogue….

    • Actually the trend to low debt to GDP predates Harper and exists more in spite of his policies than because of them. Look at the chart at this link and note the steep drop during Liberal government and relatively flat performance under Harper:

      I believe the point Trudeau was trying to make is that, spending now is necessary because despite Harper running deficits for 6 years, he did not direct money in ways that created jobs or strong economic growth.

  4. The format wasn’t very good and the set, what’s with the darkness? I know they’re selling Halloween stuff now but seriously?

    I would like to know who are “old-stock Canadians” as Harper mentioned last night and are they somehow better or in a different class than other Canadians.

    • It would be easy to list examples of “old-stock Canadians” by listing all the major Ottawa and national media pundits and commentators.
      Like this: Paul Wells, Coyne, Simpson, Ibbitson, Wherry, Hebert, Harpur, Murphy. Hey Ivison is an immigrant! Oh well. I’m sure we could add to list by going regional level as well.
      And the 4 leaders too.

  5. Is John Baird an ‘old stock’ Canadian?

    • I just want everyone to know that I am an “old-stock Canadian”.

    • Dunno. But I’m pretty sure the former head of the Canadian Alliance Party is.

  6. I thought Mulcair won because he had the best zingers, had a suitable amount of passion, described his experiences adequately, and wasn’t caught with any surprises. Harper sounded dismissive as usual. But there wasn’t a clear winner. Trudeau got a bit undisciplined at times, and was kinda broad-sided a couple times from Mulcair. He was vigourous and youthful, and pushed his deficit agenda with force.

  7. Who won the debate?

    Maclean’s did.

    Both in format and moderation the G&M debate was a disaster.

  8. While the contenders, Trudeau & Mulcair, thrash it out against Harper I am amazed that nothing is said about Canada’s security!
    Harper is a Christian. Which is very important to keep in mind. He is able to meet with world leaders. He is a respected leader of Canada. He loves his Canada and wants the best for us.
    Harper is a mature politician with experience. That in itself is also VERY important in a world that has become extremely dangerous.
    Voting in a new PM that is too young, too green or too “Left” will cause only distress for Canadians.
    I’m watching what has happened in the US with a pro-Muslim, pro-communist, leader. Is that what Canada wants? Chaos?
    My prayer is for the voters to keep this country safe with a leader who will support it’s military, Borders, and be able to communicate with world leaders! Heads up Canadians!

    • Was that satire? Because it was excellent if it was. If it wasn’t… oh yikes.

    • Well said…

  9. I thought the line was something like – this is something everybody can agree on, new and old stock Canadians,,,etc. but far be it for me to get in the way of the HDS crowd. As for winners, Trudeau did not, Mulcair looked like someone aspiring to be PM and Harper was Prime Ministerial as you would expect.

    • In fact I just found the quote it was referring to policy and went like this, “is something that both new and “existing and old-stock Canadians agree with.” Wow! Now that’s a game changer for sure. LOL!

      • Yah, comments like those are never game changers. Unless you’re counting on the ethnic vote, the one that Kenney worked so hard to get and that could quickly evaporate.

        Something like “money and ethnic vote”. The comment that forced Parizeau to resign in disgrace.

  10. When Mulcair said something like, ‘you’ve got to decide, Justin …’ I completely missed what he said next because it sounded like Steve’s words coming out of Tom’s mouth.

    • heh

  11. All I can say is to look at the Liberal website where it says they will reduce taxes on the middle class by 7%, from 22.5% to 20%. ?????? No wonder the Fib-erals will be running deficits, the cannot even do simple math. They certainly can promise to spend Millions and Millions of dollars on every cause that will buy them votes

    • The language on the website is a little confusing however, you Mr. KennyH, had the numbers wrong and you didn’t understand the math: “A Liberal government will cut the middle class income bracket by 7% (from 22% to 20.5%)”. This is a 7 % reduction in the tax rate for this income bracket.

  12. Wasn’t David Dodge the one who convinced Paul Martin they had to do something about the deficit? And wrote some document for Ontario about having to deal with theirs? I could be wrong. But Harper’s such an hysteric.

    A few years ago there was an awful debate — 2004 maybe. The yelling was out of control, the moderator was not good. It was Paul Martin and Stephen Harper, maybe Layton. Anyway, it was unlistenable, but it seemed to have no impact whatsoever.

  13. Well, you must have been happy, Paul. But other than you, I think the Consortium won the debate. Because if there’s one thing that waste of time and media attention proved, it is you really need to know how to run a debate in order to run a debate. I couldn’t watch it for more than three minutes at a time, I hated every single thing about the format, set, lighting, moderator, even camera angles. And the fact that this was such a ‘serious’ and important issue, it couldn’t accommodate such frivolous additions such as a woman or bilingualism. And I say that not as a Green or a bilingual Canadian.