The Commons: Take your pick

What might you have learned from the debate?

First and foremost, apologies are probably due to Robert from Newmarket, Veselka from Mississauga, Sam from Mount Pearl, Jade from Montreal, and Patti from New Glasgow—the Average Canadians tasked with leading this debate. Each asked good, worthy questions. All were more or less ignored after about 30 seconds of the ensuing discussion. Only Len from Gibsons, who asked about justice policy, seemed to receive something like a proper and full statement of positions—an odd twist given how insipid the discussion of crime is often made to be.

So perhaps Len is to be declared the winner of this first debate of the 41st general election.

Alas, you cannot vote for Len. You must pick—in at least an existential sense—one of these men. So what might you have learned from these two hours? More specifically, what might you have seen of these men?

Mr. Duceppe was the mumbling, sarcastic troublemaker in the corner. He delighted in reminding Mr. Harper of their discussions in 2004 about cooperating to replace Paul Martin’s government. He gripped both sides of the lectern, begged incredulity at every opportunity and swaggered with a certain take-it-or-leave-it air.

Mr. Layton was smiling and self-righteous, eager to scold Mr. Ignatieff and Mr. Harper, well-stocked with a choice of one-liners to ensure he was not left out of the late night newscasts. Asking Mr. Harper what had become of him—”You’ve become what you used to oppose. What happened to you?”—he made a convincing show of seeming truly saddened.

Mr. Ignatieff began like a man who had been waiting a long while for this moment. After months of attack ads, after months of seething at Mr. Harper from the left side of the House, Mr. Ignatieff had his first opportunity on the national stage in prime time to say what he thought needed to be said and refute what he felt needed refutation. And with so much to say, he could barely figure out at first where to start. So at the outset he hesitated and stumbled and struggled to get his words out. He settled slightly as he went, but he was still the most eager for a fight, moving around in his spot, gesturing with his fists, staring down Mr. Harper with that impressive brow. He dared at one point to put his right hand on his hip. Nationwide, image consultants screamed in unison at their television screens.

Mr. Harper sought apparently to look past his counterparts. When answering questions, he spoke directly to the camera in front of him, directly to the people he hopes will be more forgiving. He adopted a pleading tone, begging for reasonableness. He only passingly made reference to the dreaded coalition he otherwise laments at every opportunity. He never once voiced his party’s frequent questioning of Mr. Ignatieff’s patriotism.

Perhaps what distinguished him most was his gall. It is perhaps what most distinguishes his entire time in power—a willingness to stand in his place and dare his opponents to call him on it.

He lamented that different versions of the Auditor General’s report were circulating around Ottawa, never minding that his own side is the source for one of those drafts. He reported that the Canadian Labour Congress supported his government’s most recent budget, never minding that the CLC has deemed such claims “misleading.” He managed to lament for partisan bickering without descending into giggles. He dabbled in subjective constitutional theory, claiming that only the party that wins the most seats gets to govern, despite his not seeming to have believed this until he became prime minister. (When Mr. Ignatieff dared not agree with him entirely, Mr. Harper’s backroom operatives screamed that here was proof of a coalition.)

If Mr. Harper slipped once it was in reply to a list of democratic abuses alleged by Mr. Ignatieff. “I don’t accept the truth of these attacks,” Mr. Harper pleaded.


The contempt of which his government was found guilty three weeks ago was referred to here as “so-called”— a simple matter of Mr. Harper having fewer votes in the House of Commons than the opposition parties. All the more reason, apparently, to give him a majority.

Parliament, Mr. Harper said at one point, was not a court of law. In fact, and in fairness to Mr. Harper, it is not. It is actually more powerful than that. The only power higher is the direct vote of the people. Indeed, Mr. Harper sought here to suggest that all of it was now placed before the population for judgment.

“We are asking Canadians to make a decision,” he said.

This was the most indisputable point made all evening. So over to you Robert, Veselka, Sam, Jade, Patti and Len.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.