The fight for second place: The Halifax debate

The fourth and second last Liberal leadership debate took place at the Pier 21 Museum in Halifax. The big difference this time is that we had one candidate self-eliminate, being of course hot republican mess George Takach, who dropped out last week to support Justin Trudeau. That said, the bottom three were still the bottom three and should all have been eliminated by now if we were conducting this leadership race by the RuPaul’s Drag Race model that I’ve been advocating, and the middle tier would be in the make-or-break points in their bids for leadership. But alas, that is not the case.

Today’s format focused a lot more on one-on-one debates, the first group being on policy themes, the second group being open debate. That was where things actually got interesting, since there was again a lot of “violent agreement” on the set policy topics. And really, the bottom three – David Bertschi, with his sense of delusion, Martin Cauchon fresh from the time tunnel to 1995, and Karen McCrimmon, who adopted this kind of half-whisper “bad Irish Setter training voice” – said almost nothing of note. Martha Hall Findlay pretty much solidified her place in the middle tier by not saying anything of real note, and by continually trying to reframe questions but to little avail – this week it was “We say women’s issues, but women are the majority and they’re economic and Canadian issues.” Great – but then say something worthwhile about it if you’re going to try and reframe it like that. And Coyne almost had a really great policy question to Hall Findlay at one point about west coast pipelines, until Hall Findlay clarified what her position was and rendered it somewhat moot.

There were really only three good exchanges of the debate – Marc Garneau and Joyce Murray had a worthwhile exchange on the whole “electoral cooperation” plan, but that exchange was subsequently put to shame when Murray tried to pin Justin Trudeau on the topic, and tried to point out that two-thirds of Canadians want proportional representation. (I’m sure that two-thirds of Canadians also want a pony, but anyway). Trudeau smacked that point down – that for as much as Murray believes that PR will be a more cooperative system, it’s shown to make things even more partisan and to fixate people on micro-issues – and he’s entirely right. Murray kept trying to insist that she was listening to what the people wanted, but the point was largely lost by then. Toward the end, Trudeau and Garneau had another head-to-head, where Garneau tried to pin Trudeau on specific policy points, Trudeau handed back several, but when Garneau brought up the middle class, it appeared that Trudeau thought he was joking – especially after the previous debate – and he started going on about leadership and engagement, bulldozing past Garneau’s attempts to pin specifics on the topic (such as it was).

During closing statements, Trudeau was the one who blew it out of the water, talking about the hope and promise represented by Pier 21, and while he was a bit breathy and dramatic throughout, he ended on a strong point about democratic engagement being what Harper was really worried about – not him personally. And the room was his. Hall Findlay spent most of her closing responding to previous debate points, and Garneau made a dig about a “proven leader,” and that leadership wasn’t an entry-level position – which he later admitted were digs at Trudeau, and presumably those who hadn’t even won their own seats – but it was too late.

Overall, it seems that Joyce Murray and Garneau are now fighting for second place, and while Murray still has a lot of trouble with clear delivery of points, she has the “progressive” movement in the country vouching for her “cooperation” plan, as fantastical as it may be. It also remains to be seen how many people will actually sign up and sign onto said plan (and I’m guessing fewer than you might think). Garneau is trying to hammer home on the “leadership experience” point, but Trudeau articulated well what he sees as the difference between the two – the top-down approach that Garneau is proposing, and the bottom-up model that he is trying to re-engage with, and he came to that point several times in the debate, one of the best being on the topic of getting more women elected. Trudeau said that this wasn’t something that should be done through quotas, but by ensuring that the grassroots riding associations were robust in their own recruitment efforts – the rather opposite approach to the top-down or quick-fix approaches that often get put forward.

The race remains Trudeau’s to lose, and for everyone who says that he’s not putting anything in the window, well, I’m not sure that they’re paying enough attention.