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I Have An Option – the Leaders Debate

June 6, 2011

Note: This is part of a political reporting assignment for a very interesting summer course I took this year at Ryerson: Power, Media and Politics. We were assigned the task of watching the legendary 1984 Canadian federal election leader’s debate, and reporting on it using the vehicle of our choice – newspaper or magazine article, blog post, radio or television report, or even audio/video podcast. Very interesting assignment, and it was a great course – highly recommended for anyone who’s out there and curious about how media, technology and politics influence each other and intersect (hint: it’s highly complicated and amazingly powerful).

Yes, I do. I have the option of breaking free from editorial diktat. I have that which numerous writers and journalists around Canada do not – financial freedom. Since I’m not relying on the good graces of a publisher for my income, and instead rely on you, my wonderful readers – I can break from the monotonous ‘knockout blow’ coverage usually afforded to leadership debates in elections.

Yes, of course Mulroney‘s “You had an option, sir” riposte to Turner’s desperately misguided attack on the former’s apparent patronage planning is the big story of the evening. After Mulroney won last night’s French debate on points, all the pundits were waiting to see how Turner would respond. And the former sprinter did not disappoint – he ran in, as headstrong as he was in `68, and promptly stumbled over a stone he had intended for the other man. That, to me, is the real story of the debate. It’s not about Ed Broadbent, who quietly bolstered his credentials with another impressive, informed, policy-driven appearance. It’s not even about Mulroney, who will take all the plaudits. It’s really about how Turner has squandered his incumbency advantage since defeating Jean Chretien, hammering in the final nails in his coffin tonight.

A little background would be helpful here. Since 1968, when Trudeaumania first began to sweep across the nation, John Turner has been tipped as one of the leading candidates for the Liberal Party leadership. He finished third place in the ’68 Liberal convention, and after a mostly poor tenure as Finance Minister, has been playing the corporate lawyer game in Bay Street. (It’s important to note that while he is often – and was today, by the ever-astute Mulroney – blamed for sinking the economy, he was just unfortunate to assume a position at a particularly bad time – just before the Arab oil embargo, responsible for the worst jolt to the global economy since the Great Depression.) Now Turner has his chance – precisely because Trudea’s star has fallen. The whole point of that resignation was to disassociate Trudeau with the Liberals, and hence allow the Liberals to hold on to their seats.

Tonight, John Turner was utilizing his energies in the worst possible way – trying to tap into Trudeaumania with a thinly disguised defence of, as Mulroney said, some of the worst patronage scandals in Canadian political history. It was playing with fire to challenge Mulroney on his patronage record, and a politician with a fraction of Turner`s intellect would have stayed awake to the reality that patronage was a dead end for anyone who appointed Trudeau`s cronies just to keep the party core happy. Indeed, any politician would have understood, after seeing how Trudeau was unceremoniously almost forced out, that the electorate was crying out for some good old fashioned change. Turner was too hesitant about distancing himself from a large chunk of the party, and thus kept the patronage appointees in place. When quizzed about this, he made that eminently unbelievable and flimsy “I had no choice” statement and then even backtracked. At one point, he denied that he had appointed mostly Liberals, but a few moments later stated “Well, they may have been Liberals….”. Just like you may be prime minister material, Mr. Turner?

Turner made a knack of making all the wrong decisions yesterday. Apart from attacking Mulroney on patronage, Turner also vigorously debated womens’ issues and youth unemployment with…Ed Broadbent. Great job, Mr. Turner. Trying to battle on womens’ rights against the NDP, a week after getting caught patting your female colleague in a distinctly unprofessional manner? Practically the definition of how to put yourself in a losing position.

It didn’t help that Turner was all over the place as a speaker. One would imagine he didn’t stammer this much as a corporate lawyer arguing with millions of dollars at stake in Bay Street – but he betrayed political rustiness more than once. He began by hinting at megalomania (“I had a profound conviction”) and proceeded to launch a personal rather than party-based appeal (“I need your help…I need your support”), and finally focused on Western Canada. While he was indeed raised in British Columbia, it would be a shock to see huge rallies for him in the West, especially after the policies adopted by the federal government in the wake of the OPEC embargo. Turner also referred frequently to his notes – never a sign of a great speaker. He lost his cool frequently, appearing fired up (naturally, since he was perceived to be losing the last election). In retrospect, Turner’s body language can be described as an almost anxiously furious body language – although it would be too cute to present a death throes analogy.

In contrast, Mulroney’s demeanour and overall performance exuded professionalism. He was dressed more smartly than any of his colleagues, with a tie projecting understated elegance and reliability. He spoke slowly, calmly, and had much more control over his speech than Turner or even Broadbent. Mulroney kept good posture, moved little, and overall suggested that he was a stable, safe choice. Relative to Turner’s fidgeting, this definitely came off as a better presentation. However, the man widely expected to be the next Prime Minister is a little too calculated by half, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him fail in the next election, unless he can revisit his effortlessly arrogant and self-assured mannerisms.

A special word must go to Ed Broadbent, who kept a great poker face while these two party leaders went hammer and tongs at one another. I’m going to stick out my neck again to make a prediction – I think that under Broadbent, the NDP will achieve unprecedented success. This success will mostly be at the expense of the Liberals – and they will have begun planning already for the next campaign if they’re smart – hopefully hiring a speech coach or two, making sure the candidates are well prepped, and preparing very well indeed. My guess is that we will never see the kind of uncontrolled performance put in by Turner, ever again – especially given the polling numbers that have just arrived in my inbox. Let’s see how it plays out.

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