A few too many: the Vancouver Liberal leadership debate

Sunday was the first of five Liberal leadership debates, and it certainly showcased a few things – mostly the seriousness with which we should be paying attention to some of the also-rans, and how the field needs to be whittled down. Because it does. The nine candidates were about four too many in this round, and it should be whittled down even more as they proceed. I almost have this vision of the remaining debates being run like RuPaul’s Drag Race, where every week, the bottom two candidates must debate for their lives, at which point RuPaul will declare to one queen candidate “chanté, you stay,” and the other to “sashay away,” until we are down to the top three.

But a boy can dream.

There were some dud performances on stage Sunday. In alphabetical order:

  • David Bertschi was poorly briefed. “Harper shouldn’t be ignoring India!” Err, except that Harper just made a major trade mission there a couple of months ago, and Bertschi seems to have missed the media eating up the controversy over him taking his own motorcade with him. Also, having six children is some kind of qualification for leadership, apparently.
  • Martin Cauchon looked like he walked out of a time tunnel from 2007. Late to the game, he seemed focused mostly on trying to one-up Trudeau at every opportunity, but saying even less than Trudeau did whenever he tried.
  • Karen McCrimmon did have a few good moments, like when she made the very salient point about electoral cooperation being the easy way out, and avoiding the hard work that is politics, and that fewer electoral choices were less democratic. But she also had some very spectacular failures, like “cooperation” being a supposedly tangible policy point, or vague talk of competing national petitions – status quo versus everything else – on the subject of electoral reform.
  • George Takach – Or as he is otherwise known on this blog, hot republican mess George Takach. Takach is kind of like the Martin Singh of this leadership race, only instead of the drinking game being pharmacare, it’s “digital economy.” Yes, Takach will solve Aboriginal issues through fibre-optic networks (not sure he’s quite costed that one out yet), and his answer to electoral cooperation is the digital economy. He also says that Canada can have free trade with protectionism (no, seriously), and he insisted that Garneau can’t also be the technology candidate if he’s the space candidate. Hot. Mess. Apparently Takach’s secret weapon will be organising the gamer community around the country to help him organise, and knock on doors, and – oh, what’s that? You’re in the middle of a raid right now? Oh, terribly sorry. I’ll let you get back to your MMO, no rush.

The middle-weight performances were Joyce Murray and Deborah Coyne. Murray is positioning herself as the “cooperation” and “progressive” candidate, and she wasn’t about to let the idea of electoral cooperation go, and kept insisting against all eight other voices arrayed against her that they had to first defeat Harper before they could achieve anything else, and that the way to do that was electoral cooperation. (Because nothing says democracy like offering the choice between Conservative and Other.) Coyne on the other hand is positioning herself as the strong national candidate, with her “One Canada for All Canadians” slogan, and has put some serious policy thought behind it. And she didn’t flail about on stage either, unlike some of the other also-rans.

Which leaves the actual contenders – Justin Trudeau, Marc Garneau, and Martha Hall Findlay. Trudeau did what he needed to, which was to not fall on his face. Add to that, he came out with a couple of important points for the audience, such as reminding them on the question of electoral cooperation that it wasn’t enough just to defeat Harper, but that they needed to have a vision to offer to Canadians, which is something that seems to get lost when people start playing electoral math. Marc Garneau showed a lot of energy and enthusiasm to counter the notion that he’s boring, and he made a lot of coded references to his experience, to contrast Trudeau’s relative lack thereof. And Hall Findlay not only had a firm grasp of policy (some of which is heretical to current Liberal doctrine), but she made some of the points that the other candidates missed, like the need to work with provincial and municipal governments when the question of housing came up ad nauseum, or how it was the NDP who teamed up with Harper to bring down the Martin government and spelled the end of the Kelowna Accords. You know, the kinds of partisan points to appeal to the voters that the others ignored while they made swipes at Harper, some of them rather tasteless ones at that.

As for the format of the debate, it was probably done as well as it could be considering that there were nine candidates on the stage, and most of the time there was little spontaneous exchange, though the moderator did try to keep the pace going a couple of times. More than that, however, it was the questions that needed work. Sure, it was great in theory that they were from members of the audience, but they should have been better vetted – or thought through in the first place. And once per topic should have been enough, rather than coming back to each one three or four times. Yes, Aboriginal issues are topical, and trade with the Pacific Rim is a good question for a Vancouver audience, but housing? That’s a provincial responsibility. And why it kept coming up over and over again, including with the five-minute story from this one woman, who then called her daughter up to finish asking the question – that was evidence of poor organisation. The continued obsession with electoral cooperation was also grating after a while – it wasn’t an edifying discussion, nor was it something that a party in the midst of a rebuilding cycle needs to discuss because it undermines the entire purpose of a rebuilding exercise.

Let’s hope that by the Winnipeg debate, we’ll have a couple of fewer candidates on the stage, and maybe a little more time for actual debate, because there was too little back-and-forth rather than just a bunch of short speeches read into the record masquerading as debate. Which is a little like the House of Commons these days, when you think about it.