First Leaders' Debate Is Civil

They kept it civil, but there was a lot of tension, and a lot at stake, in the first round of the debates.

First Leaders' Debate Is Civil

They kept it civil, but there was a lot of tension, and a lot at stake, in the first round of the debates. And then the clouds parted, the skies cleared, and through the crisp air of fast-gathering winter Canadians spied something so rare and beautiful they wondered, at first, whether it might only be a mirage:

Democracy.

Real issues were put on the table, angry voices shamed into silence. Well, Scott Reid's, at any rate. The men who would lead the country made convoy in the direction of the setting sun and landed in Vancouver, gateway to fabled Chindia, where ordinary people - Dorothy from Orillia, Doris from Winnipeg, Gary in the middle of a well-stocked gun shop - were allowed to quiz the great men. And the candidates, who had spent 17 months acting like profound twits for three-quarters of an hour every weekday at 2:15 (11:15 on Fridays), found in them some of the civility of statesmen.

They kept a proper tongue. They did not interrupt. Across the country, grateful parents unshielded the eyes of small children. It was okay to watch again.

Let's just never let this campaign end.

On second thought, yeah, you're right, it can't last. Even during Thursday's and Friday's televised debates, the veneer of ancient Athens could easily be peeled back to reveal something that looked too regulated and artificial to be entirely credible. More like Singapore, perhaps. If the leaders didn't interrupt one another it was because their microphones were cut off when they weren't the designated speaker. The real people, with their mostly excellent questions, only seemed to be speaking unmediated: in fact, as the English-language debate host Trina McQueen kept reminding us, their questions had been selected from among 10,000 submissions - by the same journalistic organizations that always get to decide what gets asked. We're still the gatekeepers, folks. Can't be helped.

And if the leaders debated mostly in calm and civil tones, they're still only human. They still found plenty of ways to avoid serious confrontation with the embarrassing parts of their own records, their contradictions, their evasions.

I know several people whose favourite moment in the English-language debate came when Gilles DUCEPPE, who is working hard to drag Quebecers into their third record-breaking existential crisis (fourth, if you count the 1992 Charlottetown interlude), drew himself up to his full height and lectured Stephen HARPER on the subject of same-sex marriage: "We already had a free vote on that, so I think we shouldn't have a free vote on a question that was resolved every six months. That was decided, and I think we have to live with that." Sauce for the goose, buddy.

Jack LAYTON, the NDP leader, who needed a strong performance (remember him? Anyone? Anyone?) and by many accounts delivered one, pleaded so many times for "more NDP MPs" that he may have been hoping we would send him reinforcements just to make him stop asking.

Stephen Harper, sick of being told he has a hidden agenda, shifted into too-much-information mode, laying out his agenda in so much detail he could not be accused of hiding anything: "A Conservative government will clean up politics in Ottawa, cut taxes starting with the GST, crack down on crime, bring in a patient guarantee for wait times in health care, support parents directly with the costs of child care, assist students, workers, small businesses, seniors, and rebuild our armed forces." Deep breath. At one point, stung by accusations he'd forgotten his candidates' names on his first campaign trip to Quebec, Harper rattled off the names of four of them, apropos of very little. See? He does know people. Eventually.

Then there was Paul MARTIN. He has proved to be a survivor, if nothing else, and he showed up game and grimly ready for battle, like Sylvester Stallone in one of the later Rocky movies - IV perhaps, or maybe V. Several times on this tour the Liberal leader has made effective use of what might be called the Charest technique, after the manner young Jean Charest used to employ when he was in federal politics: when reasoned argument stops delivering useful returns, as it always will at some point for all of us, just start swinging for the fences.

Probably the strongest moment for Martin, in terms of pure showmanship anyway, came on the file that has so often seemed to befuddle him: the Quebec secession question. The screen showed ordinary Canadian Don Matheson, standing outside in the snow in Deseronto, Ont., asking a question dear to this writer's heart: how could the federal government respond to an attempt by the Quebec government to issue and enforce a unilateral declaration of independence?

It's the kind of esoteric and unlovely question few politicans bother to bone up on. Most who do, including Harper, have decided they do not want to depress Quebec voters by talking about it. "I don't obviously want to go so far down the path as this particular voter's talking," Harper said, before reminding everyone of Liberal corruption.

The right answer, incidentally, is: in any province that attempts an unconstitutional secession, the federal government is obligated by the Constitution to do its job and to simply keep governing. It then falls to the provincial government, not only to ignore the law, but actually to try to usurp federal authority by intercepting pension cheques, rounding up inconveniently federalist judges and port inspectors, ignoring cascades of partitionist referendums in communities across Quebec while insisting that its own referendum be recognized around the world, and so on. It is the kind of impossible task whose prospect will soon make even Parti Québécois Leader André Boisclair abandon his fantasies of unilateral secession.

Martin, like Layton and Duceppe, nodded as briefly as he could to international law, before deciding it was time for a Charest moment. "This is my country and my children were born and raised in Quebec," he told Duceppe, "and you're not going to go to them and say that you're going to find some backdoor way of taking my country or dividing Quebec family against Quebec family. We do have an opportunity, and Quebecers understand this, to build a country which is without parallel." He continued in the same manner before concluding, "and you're not going to win, Mr. Duceppe. Let me tell you that."

In its substance, Martin's answer was rather similar to his proposed ban on handguns: a newsflash from the Planet of Easier Said Than Done. But it made an exciting news clip in a debate that was, to the chagrin of the hyper-caffeinated press gallery, custom-designed to provide very few exciting clips.

The headline-making news from the debates - sorry to be getting to it so late if you were relying on me for your headlines - were Harper's continued attempts to satisfy his base by opposing same-sex marriage while foreclosing arguments that he is being socially backward. The Conservative leader has returned frequently to this territory, never happily, but knowing he must define himself on the issue or the Liberals will be happy to define him.

He opened the campaign by reiterating the Conservative promise of a free parliamentary vote on gay marriage. On Thursday in French he said he would not use the Constitution's notwithstanding clause to override gay rights - if Parliament does hold a free vote, and if a majority of MPs (led by what would almost certainly be a minority government) does vote to re-stigmatize same-sex marriage, and if a court does decide that Charter rights must trump Parliament's vote. In effect, the Conservative leader is setting up a chain of what-ifs so long and rickety that at some point the problem would simply go away and Conservatives would have to admit they could not repeal the fait accompli of same-sex marriage. It is probably the best he can do with this lemon of an issue, but it would be a stretch to call it lemonade.

Martin, apprised on Thursday of Harper's no-notwithstanding-clause stance, attacked him for it on Friday. The Liberal's problem is that, while he attacks the Conservative for being backward, he is plainly a product of his time and upbringing who cannot bring himself to say he thinks it is a good thing for gay men and lesbians to share the bounties of marriage. So he hides in thickets of constitutional argument.

"It is the responsibility of the prime minister to defend the Charter of Rights," Martin said. "And the prime minister cannot cherry-pick among rights that he happens to like or ones that he doesn't happen to like. He must defend all rights." When he talks like this, Martin leaves little doubt which rights he doesn't happen to like and which he would cherry-pick in the absence of a Charter.

Whereas Layton, wonder of wonders, actually manages to talk about gay people. His interest in frankly defending real people consistently makes Martin's constitutional arguments seem like the shallow dodge they are. The question that sparked Friday's exchange on same-sex marriage came from Pat White of Ottawa, whose daughter Suzy wants to settle down with her same-sex partner. Harper and Martin steered well clear of Pat and Suzy and Suzy's partner in their answers. Layton was not so gingerly.

"Well, Pat, first of all, I can feel the pride in your voice as you speak about your daughter and your hopes for her in the future," the NDP leader said. He counted himself "very proud that the NDP was able to stand strongly in the House" for gay rights.

It was a role the NDP leader was able to play all night - the role he says he played in the last Parliament and the one he wants to play in the next: as the proofreader and auditor of Liberal pieties. He played that role most effectively in calling Martin out on the Liberal leader's jaw-dropping attempt to lecture the U.S. government about environmental clean living. On the substance, it is worth reiterating that Canada's greenhouse-gas emissions have risen far more rapidly than the Americans', despite Canada's sham ratification of the Kyoto accord. Martin has about as much right to lecture the Americans on environmental propriety as he would to worry about their national unity or the quality of their late-night talk-show hosts: he's in a glass house.

"What we've seen from Mr. Martin is the picking of phony battles. And you know, when you pick a phony battle, you're going to have to deal with the consequences," Layton said. "It's hypocrisy for you to be pointing your fingers at the Americans when you don't deliver on your own promises for the environment."

The polls so far in the election have shown little movement, a phenomenon that, like quiet debates, seems custom-designed to torment pundits. (Privately, the more experienced pollsters have been reminding reporters that polls rarely show much movement in the early days of a campaign. The vertiginous collapse of the Liberal vote in the early days of the 2004 campaign should, in this context, be seen as more of an exception than the rule.)

But there is already a lot going on in this campaign. Harper has been disappointing portions of the Conservative base - tax-policy mavens, evangelicals - with a tortoise's campaign of constant, plodding progress. Martin is trying for a home run every time he gets to bat, and while it is an ungainly spectacle, it would be premature to assume he won't connect with one of his wild swings. Layton did just about as well as he could during the one chance he has had, so far, to remind Canadians that he's still there. And Duceppe is the tough kid on the street corner that nobody seems able to dislodge. They only look calm on the outside. There is so much tension in this little constellation of leaders, so much at stake, that they cannot remain tranquil for long. The little interlude of civility that closed 2005 will soon seem only a fond memory.

Maclean's December 26, 2005