It was selfless of Canada’s broadcasters to showcase the political party leaders with an English-language debate that couldn’t possibly be mistaken as a showcase of the broadcasters’ own abilities. The show could not have been less impressively produced if the leaders had skyped their jabs and parries in from an Internet café. I spent the first three minutes of the debate frantically switching channels because I couldn’t believe the cavernous echo-chamber sound was the official audio feed from the floor.
As for the set: corrugated metal, beige ’70s colours—at last I realized why it all looked so familiar. The broadcasters had stationed the leaders of Canada’s political parties in front of the tour bus from The Partridge Family. A subliminal message, perhaps. The old TV comedy’s theme song—Come On Get Happy—was an extended warning against fratricidal bickering. “We have a dream, we’ll go travelling together / We’ll spread a little loving and we’ll keep moving on / Something always happens whenever we’re together / We get a happy feeling when we’re singing a song.”
Yeah, not so much. These four couldn’t bear the thought of travelling together much further than they’ve come so far. The tone was set in the first exchange by Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe, in the pesky teenager role originally played by Danny Bonaduce. Stephen Harper answered one of the pre-recorded questions from an ordinary voter that have come to characterize these debates. “I would like to congratulate Mr. Harper for answering a question from a citizen,” Duceppe said, “for the first time in this campaign.”
That pretty much set the tone for the night: chippy and accusational. Later, Jack Layton, the New Democrat, asked Michael Ignatieff, the Liberal, why Ignatieff missed 70 per cent of the votes in the last session of Parliament. Layton mocked Harper’s tough-on-crime policies: “I don’t see why we need so many more prisons when the crooks seem happy in the Senate.”
Ignatieff asked Harper why ordinary Canadians have found themselves getting booted from Conservative rallies during this campaign. “What are you afraid of? Why are you afraid of the Canadian people?”
So the first serious news out of this debate is that the other leaders were so eager to tear a strip off one another, and so desperate to goad Harper into displaying his legendary temper, that the Prime Minister (for Harper is still that, and it will soon become an important detail indeed) was able to rise above the fray by refusing to take part in it.
Harper acted a little less like a talk-show host on Xanax than he did in the sit-down, everyone-at-the-same-table debates of 2008, at which he kept calling his opponents by their first names and fixed the Green party Leader Elizabeth May with the pleasantly dazed expression his advisers later called the “icy blue eyes of love.” That time he went so far overboard with his pacifist shtick that he seemed to have mentally checked out, and his polling lead in that election briefly suffered. This time he permitted himself to show a little flint now and again. But this was his fourth English-language leaders’ debate since he became leader of the united Conservatives in 2004. He has long since learned that he cannot win by shutting the others down, so he used this debate to explain how, at least in his view, he has run a moderate, collaborative government.
“Canada’s got the strongest economy on Earth and suddenly it’s plunged into the fourth election in seven years and nobody can say why,” he said at one point.
To say the least, that’s not how Harper’s opponents see it. Ignatieff accused him of abandoning Canadian families to spend billions on “jets, jails and tax cuts.” Layton wondered whether his wife Olivia Chow’s family could have immigrated to Canada if Harper had been prime minister then. The Conservative leader had to spend a large part of the night denying the premises of their attacks. “This is simply not true,” he said, and, “The contrary is the fact,” and, “I simply don’t accept the truth of those attacks,” and more of the same besides.
The danger facing Harper is precisely that he is in this election because his version of the truth is often at variance with his opponents’, and with the record. The most spectacular instance came during a hectic Monday when two different preliminary drafts of Auditor General Sheila Fraser’s investigation into funding of last summer’s G8 and G20 summits suggested the government misinformed Parliament about funding for fancy infrastructure far from the summit site.
John Baird, a favourite Harper stand-in, told reporters that Fraser’s final report was much more lenient than the first draft. Out came a new revelation: Fraser has written to a parliamentary committee saying the Conservatives misquoted her on another file to make it seem she’d lauded the government’s performance, when in fact she’d done nothing of the sort.
The details of that little nested set of apparent scandals had no chance of being aired properly inside the echo chamber of the Ottawa Conference Centre on debate night. The best the leaders could do was to hurl fragments of accusations and offer bits of defences.
It was a challenging night for Ignatieff, who has impressed observers with his performance on the road. Here he had more competition for the spotlight. Sometimes he had to get chippy to get a word in, and when challenged, especially by Layton, he was briefly at a loss for a rebuttal. What he did manage to do was to get a word in for some of his platform’s signature programs—modest aid packages for students heading to university and families caring for elderly relatives. His success will depend on whether viewers remember the Ignatieff who has a program out of the many Ignatieffs who were on offer.
Perhaps the most agile combatant onstage was Layton. The polls so far suggest he’s in some danger of losing seats and declining in his share of the popular vote, for the first time since he became NDP leader in 2003. Here he was able to act out the role he claims is his: more principled than Ignatieff in his opposition to Harper, yet somehow better able to work with any party that wants to play. “Mr. Harper thinks the idea of people working together is somehow a bad idea,” he said. “He calls it names.”
The name Layton referred to was “coalition,” the spectre Harper has preferred to brandish at every stop. Oddly, Harper didn’t talk about a coalition here until an hour into the debate, and only then in response to accusations from Duceppe and Layton, who said Harper was perfectly happy to scheme with them in 2004 against Paul Martin.
Harper has lately talked a little less about a formal, contract-on-paper “coalition” to usurp the power he feels is his, and a little more about some looser arrangement of opposition parties against him. That saps his argument’s ability to scare but increases its plausibility. Duceppe turns out to be a keen student of parliamentary democracy: “When you say that the party with the most seats forms the government,” the Bloc leader reminded Harper, “you forgot something: that party has to have the confidence of the House, with the Speech from the Throne. Otherwise, there is no democracy at all.”
Ignatieff made a similar argument. “If you get more seats than any other party you get to try and meet the House of Commons,” he said. And indeed it’s so. In a news release right after the debate, the Conservatives hammered the point: “Opposing Stephen Harper’s reintroduced budget, which Michael Ignatieff, Jack Layton and Gilles Duceppe have all vowed to do, will be a confidence vote,” the Conservative release said. “Rejecting it would clear the way for Michael Ignatieff to become prime minister with the support of the Bloc Québécois and the NDP.”
That’s actually true. It’s not how things are guaranteed to turn out, but how they may well. It’s why Harper decided two years ago his only guarantee of keeping power would be to win a majority government. Short of that, the game-theory possibilities are endless. You’ll note that this article makes no attempt to name a winner from Tuesday’s debate. What’s more intriguing is that even after the votes are counted on May 2, it may not yet be clear who’s really won.