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Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Canada's Political Debate: Not Ready for Prime Time?

Last night, the English-language debates among the four Parliamentary party leaders were broadcast in Canada.

Tonight, the French-language debate will take place - one day prior to the originally scheduled broadcast. It was moved up by a day, so as not to conflict with something truly of importance in Quebec, the first Stanley Cup playoff between Montreal and Boston.

Hockey-mad Quebeckers (like their counterparts in the rest of the country) would have ignored the debates almost entirely. So it was a smart move by the broadcast consortium.

I was asked to comment on CP24, the all news local cable channel in Toronto, owned and operated by CTV, Canada's largest and most successful commercial network. CTV is in turn, owned by Bell Media.

It was a lively affair, with CP24 running tweets from viewers in a crawl underneath the live coverage of the debate. The tweets were much more lively than the debate itself, and as usual, it allowed the viewers to ignore the program and concentrate on the smart and smart-alecky remarks at the bottom of the screen.

As a piece of television, the debates were substance-rich, which meant they were lousy TV. As Trina McQueen, the former head of CBC News and CTV remarked, if a political debate is to be good TV, it should resemble "So You Think You Can Lead Canada."  None of the above seemed to have much rhythm last night.

The party leaders talked about taxes, Canada's declining international reputation, immigration, crime and health care. The Prime Minister was on the defensive on every subject, but, as others have noted, his steely eyed lack of affect allowed him to play the role of "teflon man."

The opposition leaders occasionally scored a rhetorical point or two.

NDP leader Jack Layton was best in this version of "Question Period." He ought to since he's had more Parliamentary experience. Gilles Duceppe, the separatist leader of the Bloc Qu├ębecois had nothing to lose, so his shots were pretty good. Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff seemed to be channeling his inner academic which allowed him to lecture in a rather unconvincing way. Like my prof in early modern English history, he said some interesting things, but will they be on the exam? Prime Minister Stephen Harper was...well, his usual self.

Television is probably the last place where we should expect clarity on political matters. The leaders were caught between trying to be substantial in a medium that mostly disparages content. The audience they were seeking wasn't the voters, but the political journalists and commentators who would give one or none the thumbs up or down later that night.

The conclusion was that Harper won, simply by not blinking. Layton won by giving the NDP supporters the illusion of victory which again - won't turn into seats in the House of Commons on May 2nd.

Duceppe was there as a foil for the others, although he did get off a couple of zingers at Harper's expense.

Ignatieff was solid, but in the end just not compelling. Which is so surprising.

I remember him when he was on the BBC as a commentator in the late 1980s. He was smart, fast, cerebral and hip. Katherine Whitehorn in The Observer called him "the thinking woman's crumpet.

Have a look here and you'll see some of those qualities.

Coming back to Canada seems to have drained all that energy out of him. Can he shake off his handlers and go back to what he once was? With only two weeks left in the campaign, it doesn't look likely.

Last night's debates probably didn't change many peoples' minds. The issues and the leaders haven't made that magic connection with the voters. But it was a virtuous and civic couple of hours.

Compared to our fellow North Americans south of the border, I guess Canadians should consider themselves lucky to be so bored.

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