The Conservatives' Edmonton debate: Yikes
You ran out of paddles during the lightning round question on binge watching. Sad trombone for you!
Well, that was a national disgrace.
What is it about the last two years that made the Conservative Party of Canada’s Leadership Election Organizing Committee decide Canadians are yearning for shorter conversations about sillier questions?
Who came out of last week’s thoughtful debate at the Canada Strong and Free conference — at least, the questions and the format permitted thoughtfulness, although candidates varied in their ability or willingness to deliver it — thinking there weren’t enough questions about TV viewing habits?
Who surveyed the issue landscape that will face Justin Trudeau on Thursday and would face his successor — war in Europe, inflation, labour shortages, stark conflict between climate targets and natural-resource export imperatives, long-cheated and still-difficult Indigenous reconciliation, exiting from COVID — and thought, “Keep the answers short. We want time to hear them out on what’s on their playlists”?
As a mechanism for allowing Canadians to weigh the judgment of six people, one of whom might, after all, be the next prime minister, the evening was a write-off. We learned that Leslyn Lewis likes “Coltrane” and was eager not to be asked to name a second musician, that Jean Charest likes Charles Aznavour and doesn’t know how to pronounce Pat Metheny, that moderator Tom Clark isn’t sure how to pronounce Roman Baber, and that Charest and Scott Aitchison were reckless enough to trigger the dreaded sad-trombone sound effect for the sin of mentioning the prime minister of Canada by name during a political debate.
Probably you didn’t watch the debate. Probably you read that last paragraph and thought, well, Wells has finally lost his mind, it had to happen eventually. But no, this is a faithful record of… of… of whatever that was that just happened in Edmonton. Sorry, I’m stuck with the material. There is no way I could make this stuff up. If I were making something up, it would be funnier.
Clearly the organizers fell prey to two of the most fashionable current temptations in debate design: “Keep it snappy” and “Let’s get to know these candidates as people.” As though the decline of modern government were caused by excessive reflection and insufficient attention to our leaders’ public image.
So on Day 81 of a Russian invasion of Ukraine, candidates had less than a minute to deliver their thoughts on direct Canadian military intervention in Ukraine. They got 15 seconds to disclose their thoughts on the 94 Calls to Action of the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission. This is 0.16 seconds per Call to Action.
This segment was followed by “the lightning round.” Again I swear I’m not making this up.
At one point big goofy plastic prop paddles were handed out to the bemused candidates. This whole column is a test of your credulity, I get that. Be strong. Stare into the madness. “Here’s the trick,” Clark said. “There are six questions and you can only use your paddle five times.”
This, of course, is a reference to the Suez Crisis, when St. Laurent prevailed against Nasser and Anthony Eden by holding back one of his paddle uses. Pierre Poilievre in Edmonton, in contrast, used his paddle too many times too early. And then he had to stand there helpless while the other candidates, the ones who hadn’t squandered their paddle-waving opportunities, got to debate more topics. Though of course not in more detail, because answers don’t matter, except of course the answers to key questions like “What are you binge watching?” and “Who would you like to meet?”, which were actual questions that were put to real people who aspire to serious responsibilities.
The good news is, there’s plenty of time to fix the format before the next debate, which will be in two weeks in Laval, Que. and will be held in a language most of these candidates don’t speak. Also that will be the last official, party-sanctioned debate. This thing in Edmonton was the first and last scheduled official English debate. That should be an outrage, but frankly I’m in a mood to upgrade it to “a huge relief.”
Anyway. Candidates filed onstage before the debate began and took up position behind their podiums. So there was no preliminary handshaking of any kind, which relieved Poilievre of the burden of deciding whether to repeat his refusal, in the unofficial Ottawa debate, to shake Charest’s hand. I suspect if given the opportunity he’d have played nicer. I don’t know whether Poilievre repents from the hot accusatory tone he used in the Ottawa debate, but for whatever reason, he was cooler this time. It was Charest who was shouty. Use bitcoin to hedge against inflation? “This is lunacy,” Charest said.
Patrick Brown, who has been tweeting from rallies that draw large numbers of new Canadians, showed up for a kind of Brown-Charest tag team against Poilievre on the front-runner’s support for the so-called truckers’ convoy and on his cryptocurrency fixation. Brown added references to the “barbaric cultural practices” telephone snitch line that was advocated by the sinking Harper government in 2015, conveniently when Brown was out of federal politics but Poilievre was still in cabinet.
On substance, Poilievre took several opportunities to take less categorical views than some of his opponents. He’s for supply management in agricultural, essentially because he thinks the policy would be too expensive to scrap. Should Canada spend 2% of its GDP on defence? Absolutely, other candidates said. Poilievre said he’d “work toward that goal.” Clark smartly pressed him to clarify: how long would that take? Poilievre said he’d be in no hurry: rushing would leave “a bunch of bureaucrats in DND trying to shovel money out the door… they can’t spend the money they have right now.” I could have done without the cartoonishly rote blaming of bureaucrats, who in the hypothesis at hand would be shovelling only because politicians had handed them a goofy policy, but at least it was an answer that spilled past any 15-second time limit.
Roman Baber, a Soviet-born provincial Conservative who was turfed from Ontario premier Doug Ford’s caucus for criticizing COVID lockdowns, surprised me by arguing against a crime-and-punishment approach to drug addiction and possession. This suggests Baber, whose thing is “freedom,” is willing to follow that conviction into places that don’t particularly help him in a leadership contest. This and Baber’s generally constructive on-stage attitude made me begin to rethink the guy. A bit, anyway.
At one point Charest accused Poilievre of calling for Bank of Canada governor Tiff Macklem to be fired. Oh, come on, I thought, now you’re just making stuff up. Then Poilievre said that’s exactly what he wants, and it turns out I just missed the latest news. Poilievre called for Macklem’s removal earlier on Wednesday. We’ve been having our own debate in Pundit-land: last week I wrote that Poilievre’s bite on monetary policy was conspicuously milder than his bark. Andrew Coyne replied that, no, this is a real attack on the Bank’s independence. It’s good of Poilievre to clarify things. Coyne’s right. This is an attack on the Bank’s independence. Sorry to have been naive.
I always wonder about the precedent of unprecedented things, though. In 1990 a Bank of Canada governor, John Crow, ran high interest rates to fight inflation — roughly the opposite of the Bank’s recent approach, though in very different circumstances. What did the Liberals do in response? Why, what any responsible opposition party does, of course. They ran against the governor of the Bank of Canada. In this cover story from an old magazine, a bank economist said the Crow was running “a stupid policy.” That economist soon ran for Parliament and landed in Jean Chrétien’s cabinet, while Crow was replaced with a successor who was deemed more acceptable to the Liberals. “Mr. Crow's policies had been attacked by many Liberals, including the new Prime Minister, Jean Chretien,” the New York Times reported at the time.
But what am I doing, discussing real things at tedious length? It’s time for the candidates to show us how they look in swimwear.