One of the nice perks of being bilingual is that you can watch Canada's political leaders debate in both languages without having to listen to their interpreters. I watched both Tuesday's English-language debate and Wednesday's French-language debate. Here are a few impressions:
1) Format: I liked how the format allowed for more one-on-one interactions. I was less pleased that camera positioning allowed, if not encouraged, leaders to not speak to each other but to talk straight at the camera (or to Canadians). Harper, in particular, often seemed like he was delivering an infomercial script. Alas, I think it probably worked for him, with the two hours serving as free advertizing time, rather than time for thoughtful exchange. As so many have said, the location and set were a disaster, from the acoustics to the decor. As I have also said before, Elizabeth May should have been in the room, especially in the English-language debates.
2) Questions: I'm just not a populist, and I thought the questions from "average Canadians" was an irritating contrivance. Many were still the questions that the media would have posed, but framed in a more awkward and partisan tone. Also, it's notable that not one of the questions in the French-language debate came from a francophone outside of Quebec (where over 1 million of them live), only 1 of the 12 Canadians came from a younger voter, and none came from a person who was a visible minority or an aboriginal Canadian.
Harper played it cool, almost reptilian (although I wouldn't go so far as to call him a kitten-eater). He stayed out of the mix in both debates, keeping his calm, and being thoroughly dismissive of the other leaders. He also dodged direct questions, which might have irked undecided voters. I think he fared fine in the English debate for what he needed to do, but he was thoroughly unimpressive and disengaged from the French-language debate. His outspoken contempt for the debate format itself, which he referred to as "bickering" or "chicanes" was all part of his strategy to prompt people to view politics as irrelevant and distasteful. I thought Ignatieff scored a good point in the English debate (and again in French) by reinforcing the necessity of democracy.
Ignatieff had some good moments in the English language debate, particularly around the issue of engagement with voters and healthy debate. But he did seem a bit hostile and unable to articulate the Liberal vision. Clearly his handlers spoke to him, because I thought he was really on his game in the French debate, repeatedly articulating Liberal promises (such as the learning passport) and generally seeming more relaxed. He also learned to address the camera more often. He also made a constant point of returning back to the original question, which might be a useful strategy to sway the undecided vote.
Layton probably read well in both debates. In the English debate, he was the voice of moral authority and concern for the working class, as is so often the role of the NDP. In French, he almost seemed impish, with a gleam in his eye as he called out the other leaders on a variety of issues. He seems more clever in French, somehow, and less dogmatic. He also avoided repeating his line about crime "and all that bling" being appealing for the young, which was embarrassing.
Duceppe was Duceppe. I think his English this year was not as strong as in 2008, for whatever reason. All he had to do was attack the other parties, knowing he will never, ever win government at the federal level. I appreciated having him there to attack Harper on issues like the would-be coalition of '04, but I find his presence in federal politics to be an irritant at best. I will be curious to see how his performance read for the soft-nationalist core in Quebec. Ignatieff tried to argue that constitutional issues were not the big priority for voters, and I'm not sure whether Duceppe has managed to convince Quebecers that this is the priority issue he needs it to be.
And now we proceed to another two and a half weeks of campaigning. Will there be an Easter surprise? Stay tuned!Recommend this Post