French language debate proves a feast of information

Whad’ya know? An informative debate!

The polls may not move much as a result of Thursday’s French debate. But that’s not the only reason we hold these things

Conservative leader Stephen Harper, left, exchanges words with NDP leader Tom Mulcair during the French language leaders debate on Thursday in Montreal. (Adrian Wyld/CP)

Conservative leader Stephen Harper, left, exchanges words with NDP leader Tom Mulcair during the French language leaders debate on Thursday. (Adrian Wyld/CP)

Well, come on. It’s no fair letting a bunch of broadcasters organize a television debate.

And indeed, as one might have expected, the impromptu quasi-consortium that replaced the traditional broadcast cabal for the purposes of Thursday’s French-language leaders debate put on perhaps the smoothest in the series of debates that has characterized this long campaign.

Radio-Canada, Télé-Québec and La Presse were the organizers. Radio-Canada seems to have done most of the organizational heavy lifting. The tone was brisk, intellectually serious—topics ranged from subsidies for green vehicles to physician-assisted death to the influence of Scotland’s secession referendum on the terms of a future Quebec vote—and orderly. I’m about to get to the inevitable punditological hand-waving about who won and lost, but voters also watch these events for information, and there was a lot of information on offer here.

Tale of the tape: A full transcript of the Maclean’s debate

For the third debate in a row, I was struck by what didn’t happen: there was no generalized gang-up by most of the leaders against one of them. I could imagine the “one” being Stephen Harper, but I most expected it to be Tom Mulcair. The NDP leader entered this campaign as the front-runner and, even though he faded a bit, he offers the largest supply of votes the others might hope to raid. Especially in Quebec. Yet there was no extended portion of Thursday’s debate that featured the other leaders lining up to take shots at Mulcair. They all have too much business with one another. Justin Trudeau went after Harper. Harper went after Trudeau and Mulcair. Gilles Duceppe, returning to a national audience for the first time since the Bloc Québécois’s 2011 debacle, seemed listless and barely interested. So the geometries of confrontation were variable and no front-runner dynamic emerged.

If only somebody could have gotten to Mulcair at about the halfway point and said, “Boss, since they’re not all after you, you can stop pushing back.” He certainly seemed to think he was the target. It made his mood brittle at times. Trudeau accused him of having advocated bulk-water exports once upon a time. Mulcair’s eyes flashed. “You don’t like debates because your staff has to write all your lines for you,” he said. “I write my own.” To me it sounded like Jim Prentice’s snotty “Math is hard” dig against Rachel Notley in the spring’s Alberta election debate, though it’s hard to believe it will have as much resonance.

Even without the others ganging up against him, Mulcair faced a serious challenge: He had to look like a Bloc-style defender of assorted Quebec positions, and also as a plausible leader of a national government. He managed well. An NDP government would introduce a suite of new national health-related programs, he said, “but when it comes to Quebec: a right to opt out; full compensation; no conditions.”

This talk echoes the Meech Lake nightmare of nearly 30 years ago, with Mulcair intoning the incantations most cherished by Quebec nationalists. But on a far touchier subject, the wearing of Muslim religious headgear at citizenship ceremonies, Mulcair defended a position—government accommodation of difference—that isn’t particularly popular in his home province. He may gain, for being statesmanlike, what he loses by passing up a chance at populist appeal. If he’s lucky.

Harper’s statement on the niqab issue was a sort of passionate non sequitur. “I will never tell my daughter that a woman must cover her face in public,” he said. “That’s not my Canada.” Sure, great, but the question, as Trudeau noted, isn’t whether a father should tell his daughter what to wear; it’s whether a prime minister can tell a citizen what she may not wear. On this issue, as on so many, I’m not sure who managed to change any voter’s mind.

Transcript: The Globe and Mail’s leaders debate 

Even as I write this, I see some of my colleagues at other news organizations saying they thought Justin Trudeau had a strong night. It’s not what I saw. He seemed to fade in the second half, intervening less often and with less verve than, in particular, in the Maclean’s debate. It’s never easy to guess how much such things are due to human frailty and how much to calculation: Maybe Trudeau wanted to let Mulcair talk himself into trouble, or maybe this long campaign is starting to weigh on the field’s youngest leader. We’ll have other chances to see him, Harper and Mulcair again soon, with the Munk Debate on foreign policy on Monday, and the TVA French-language debate later next week.

In the meantime, I’ll be surprised if this debate moves the polls substantially. But that’s not the only point of a debate. If we have these things so voters’ choices can be better informed, then this was one of the most useful and encouraging evenings of the campaign so far.


Whad’ya know? An informative debate!

  1. Gosh, you think Justin will live until next week? Him being so young and frail and fading and all?

    Be serious, Paul.

  2. It’s true, Trudeau is just regurgitating (over and over) what his handlers are writing for him. He’s proved more than once, the CTV eastcoast interview being the lastest, that this airhead in a suit does not know what he is talking about unless his handlers, i.e. Gerald Butts, is pulling the strings for him. If voters can’t see this, or refuse to see this, then we, as a nation, are in serious, serious trouble. If he ever intoduces his “deficiet budget” numbers, and I seriously doubt he will, it’ll just show how out of touch with reality this pampered little brat really is. It’s going to be the same old same old Liberal tax your ass off, borrow billions of dollars, with no way to pay it back Liberal BS.

    • All the leaders keep repeating their talking points…Harper is the worst of the three. Trudeau is DECREASING the tax rate for the middle class while INCREASING the rate for individuals making over $200,000. Plus Trudeau will cancel the UCCB, income splitting and increasing the TFSA, all of which give money back to the really rich while 1 in 6 children in Canada live in poverty..but of course their families can’t afford to donate so Harper doesn’t care about them. Harper had the largest single year deficit in the history of Canada and also has created the largest debt in the history of Canada all the while spending over $1 Billion on partisan ads and lawyers fees to fight the Supreme Court of Canada!!! At least Trudeau has a Canadian as an advisor instead of a racist TFW from Australia. Talk about out of touch with reality!

      • Sorry – Press reports today indicate Trudeau and Co. have been importing US strategists to help them out for a long time now. But I suppose that’s different – they’re Liberals after all, Toronto’s creme de la creme.

      • But Trudeau is increasing payroll taxes, taking away from the middle class with the left hand what he is giving with the right hand. The payroll taxes are also an increase in taxes on small business. And the working poor are just being handed increases in payroll taxes.

        So net net, under Trudeau’s plan everyone is worse off, so his Bay Street buddies can profit on selling all the new government debt, and building rentier streams for the 1%, from the green infrastructure spending, like happened in Ontario, with Bay Street profiteering on the feed in tariffs for wind and solar, while sticking the consumer with skyrocketing electric bills.

    • Is anyone else getting tired of Viable Opposition using comment sections to promote their own blog? I know I am. I clicked on one of their links once. What I found was bland, platitudinous commentary from some egghead who takes himself way too seriously. I have not taken the bait since. Real intellectuals don’t need spam to get their message across. Ever.

  3. “Mulcair’s eyes flashed. ‘You don’t like debates because your staff has to write all your lines for you,’ he said. ‘I write my own.'”

    It’s obvious that he does because he never fails to mention that he’s one of ten children like it’s a badge of honor. It seems more intended to impress than to inform since not many Canadians can relate to being one of ten children. How does it prepare one to be PM?

    • Seems to be the norm in La Belle Province. I fail to see why every family had 10 -15 kids. Must be a french thing. But that aside Mulcair is going to lose Quebec because of his bullheaded view on a simple request to remove face coverings when taking the citizenship oath. If you hadn’t been following the Quebec push on their charter rights couple of years ago, this was a MAJOR issue. But who cares, keep doing what you’re doing Angry Tom. The more you have your bearded head stuck in the sand the more seats you’re going to lose. And you know what’s next. Harper up the middle. Sound familiar.

  4. Good analysis.

    Justin didn’t shine last night. He still doesn’t have to.

    He showed up. Wearing pants. There is a good segment of the punidtry that will give him a win just for that.

    Expect it to continue to drift into a two horse race with the NDP fading.

  5. It’s not only the other parties ganging up on Mulcair. Its the media too. While Mulcair is taking a cautious approach on the economy, promising balanced budgets, Trudeau is excited and shouting about his plans to deliberately go into deficit spending. How would the main stream media be playing this if the NDP were calling for deficits and the Liberals calling for balanced budgets. I’ll tell you. The main stream media would have all but written the NDP off as completely clueless and would be droning on and on about how bad they are with economic matters. The Liberals are getting a free pass on this, I think because nobody actually expects them to keep their promises. Why should this election be any different.

    • You have a point there.

  6. As he controls all, Harper will take care in selecting the designer of his daughter’s wedding dress.
    The guy might end up on CSIS watch list if he included you know a veil on it.

  7. Finally, Paul Wells and I agree about something. Mulcair’s treatment of Trudeau has been reminding me of Flaherty vs. Notley several times in these debates. And he may not pay a price for it. But every time he does that, I’m reminded how many times in my life I’ve had to endure that condescending tone and insinuation from men. I also wonder who does Mulcair respect? His default is to treat journalists the same, from what I’ve seen. If you want to do that, you’d better make sure you’re smarter than everyone else in the room and not just assuming it.

    Unfortunately, I don’t speak French so haven’t watched the debate. But if Trudeau countered Harper’s fatuous line about his daughter as deftly as that, that for me is the line of the night.

    • Jim Flaherty died before Notley became premier. I’m sure you meant Jim Prentice, not Jim Flaherty. With bozo mistakes like that, the condescension you receive from men – and I hope women – is a given. It has Nothing to do with your gender.

      • A slip like that doesn’t deserve to be labeled as “bozo” and condescension to another is nobody’s given right. My point was that if Mulcair’s tone stirs feelings like that in viewers, it might be less effective than he wants it to be. But it may not trigger it as obviously it did with Notley, because the visuals aren’t as striking. If it was a woman talking that way to another woman, and it happens, it would also apply. A woman talking like that to a man, maybe there would be the same reaction, I don’t know. It’s rare to see it on screen. Certainly unwarranted arrogance isn’t the exclusive domain of men, but in politics men still dominate.

        Mulcair makes a number of unfounded and unfair allegations of Trudeau to his face, but many people, like yourself, are willing to accept Mulcair’s assumption that he’s the intellectually superior one at face value and that it also follows he’s entitled to be rude. Others, like myself, have reason to question all that. And also to admire Trudeau’s grace in the face of Mulcair’s boorishness.

  8. [2nd try to comment]

    “but when it comes to Quebec: a right to opt out; full compensation; no conditions.”

    Did Mulcair really say that Quebec, *and only Quebec*, would have the right to opt out of new national programs with full compensation? If so, I can guarantee that that type of asymmetrical federal will not go down well in parts of the country. Ironically, BC, where Mulcair’s lesser base is, is one of them.