Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Post-debate debrief - the Notwithstanding clause stands out

I was initially planning on giving the leaders' debate a pass, particularly after the December round. That debate was so painful to watch that my partner and I were flicking back and forth between it and Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, trying to decide which was more awful, before turning off the TV around 9:15. But, with a political junkie friend in town from PEI, we settled in for an evening of debate-watching. What follows are my initial reactions:

Steve Paikin: Great questions, and excellent juggling of the follow-ups to keep the debate moving along nicely. Top marks!

Stephen Harper: If anyone "won" this debate, Harper tied for the lead. He didn't get flustered, he stayed on message, and he acknowledged his inability to be flashy openly in his closing statement. That being said, I still get cold chills every time he tries to smile. Particular strong points for him were his clear and understandable explanation of how his health care waiting list plan would work (although you can debate its merits). He also refused to take on a constitutional amendment to the notwithstanding clause, which I think was a wise move (see Martin below). Possible weaknesses include his questionable decision to reverse the Martin government's tax cuts on the lowest income bracket - I think that was a winner for Martin. Overall, he came across as competent, if dull, and not overly scary, which was all he had to do.

Gilles Duceppe: Largely irrelevant to the debate, giving his points a test-run for tomorrow night, when "Option Canada" will actually be engaged by the other leaders. Paikin slapped him around on the referendum question and on the divisibility of Quebec, which was nice to see. Interesting as well to see him be the only one to stake out left-wing turf on crime prevention.

Jack Layton: Sadly, Jack was irrelevant last night. He rigidly stuck to his talking points on "working families", spoke without any passion, and didn't engage the other leaders in any real debate. I often felt as if he was speaking in an isolation booth, unaware of what else was going on in the room with him. I was particularly shocked that when Paikin offered him the chance to highlight two key issues that would be key to an NDP-supported budget, he waffled all over the place. That was a chance to get a clear message across, and he didn't seize it - Martin did.

Paul Martin: It's hard to predict how Martin will fare as a result of the debate. As a debator, I thought he was the strongest in the room last night. He spoke with passion, and seemed to be well in control of what he wanted to say, and how he wanted to make his point. He tried to make this an election about child care and post-secondary education last night, and to those who don't follow politics, might have looked as if he had a vision. I also liked his line about child care being "the first major new social program in a generation". Not so keen on him trotting out not just Dad, but Farmer Mom as well.

The big question about Martin's performance will be his promise for the notwithstanding clause. At first, I thought it was a brilliant ploy - the clause is not popular in English Canada, and it has been the third rail for governments other than that of Quebec. But, its existence has become an important safety valve. The option does exist to use it, although it takes extreme circumstances to warrant its invocation, and it is only operational for 5 years at a shot - at which point legislation passed under its auspices lapses unless re-passed. It is largely a symbolic out, but one that does mean that some balance exists between the courts and Parliament, rather than all-out judicial supremacy. Where this has the potential to hurt Martin the most is in Quebec, the province that has used the clause most extensively - and for its language legislation at that. Duceppe may be able to spin this promise into Martin questioning the legitimacy of the clause itself, and any legislation passed using it. It's one thing to say that the clause should not be invoked in a certain case, but quite another to say that it shouldn't exist. Plus, making such a promise two weeks before election day smacks of desperation.

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