Leaders' debate

Moderator Shachi Kurl asked careful, relevant questions of the federal party leaders in debate Thursday, then spent much of her time cutting off answers.

BY IAN PATTISON

The first thing that must be said about Thursday night’s leaders’ debate is that the format stunk. There was no provision for real debate among the five party leaders and no time to delve into the five issues -- affordability, climate, COVID-19 recovery, leadership and accountability and reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples -- any one of which could have used one of the two hours to give viewers a clearer idea of where each party stood.

Proceedings were stifling and felt contrived. Political debates often include time for one-on-one exchanges followed by so-called lightning rounds to get short answers on lesser issues. This night was all lightning round.

Moderator Shachi Kurl asked careful, relevant questions, then spent much of her time shrilly cutting off answers. “Mr. Trudeau you’ve got ten seconds to respond.” Really?

Kurl fawned over media questioners who were allowed as much time as they wanted to question -- and interrupt -- the leaders whose exasperation with her abrupt tactics were all one needed to conclude the entire debate format needs a frame-off restoration.

For starters, there needs to be more than one. And as offensive as his views are, People’s Party of Canada leader Maxime Bernier should be included, at least in early rounds to either catch fire or burn out. Ultimately, at least one should be a contenders-only debate with no more than four leaders.

A mix of big-panel and small-panel debates would give a more thorough vetting of leaders, parties, policies and issues. They would engage a bigger audience that reaches well beyond the usual rabid followers of politics.

On Thursday, Prime Minister and Liberal leader Justin Trudeau was naturally the chief target but again, the format allowed hardly any time for him -- or any of them -- to counter claims that were often made without context. On the rare occasions he was given an opportunity to say more than a few words, Trudeau more than held his own against persistent attacks by his chief rivals, Conservative Erin O’Toole and New Democrat Jagmeet Singh who seemed to be having a good time despite disciplinarian Kurl.

For all intents and purposes, wrote one observer, Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet and Green Leader Annamie Paul were bystanders, though both were comfortable and well-prepared.

A common refrain from Trudeau’s opponents was that he’s done little to nothing about a number of pressing issues during his latest short time in office. Calling the earliest possible election COVID-19 bearing down for a fourth time was easily Trudeau’s biggest mistake. But on other matters he deserves more slack than he got.

The biggest issue facing Canadians and the world is climate change. Earth’s tipping point looms in ferocious and unprecedented weather events. The latest United Nations climate analysis is scarier than anything that Stephen King ever wrote.

Trudeau had committed to a 17-per-cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 under the Copenhagen accord and to 30 per cent by 2050 under the Paris agreement.

He didn’t reach the 2020 target as the sheer size of the task dawned on the world, but he’s committed Canada to beat the Paris target by 10 points, reaching 40 per cent fewer GHGs by 2050.

O’Toole insisted Trudeau’s targets don't take into account the challenges facing the Western Canadian oil patch (ignoring the fact the government bought a pipeline to further those interests) and the overall Canadian economy, and has proposed lesser goals as protection measures. Less is not good in this case and with the economy so heavily dependent on resources it will take time and a herculean effort to transition Alberta and Saskatchewan in particular to new, clean forms of energy production.

Speeding up the timetable, as Singh suggests in alleging Trudeau failures, is just not realistic. And those failures aren’t as bad as Singh claims. (His own climate policy is light on details.) Emissions have risen consistently from 2016 to 2019, but only by a small amount — from 707 megatonnes to 730 in 2019 -- and are projected to decrease annually from 2020, reaching 503 Mt by 2030.

FIRST NATIONS WATER

The other leaders remain fond of blaming Trudeau for the fact that clean drinking water is still not available on all of Canada’s First Nations. Indeed, the Liberals missed their promise to end all water advisories by March of this year.

But most advisories -- 109 -- have been lifted leaving some 50 still to solve. The government has allocated more than $3 billion to resolve the issue. That’s an average of $60 million per reserve, a testament to both the government’s commitment and the enormity of the task.

Again, context is important. A drinking water advisory can apply to a single building or to an entire water system. Some system breakdowns result from lack of maintenance or an absence of trained personnel. Longer-term water advisories needing infrastructure funding from Ottawa are often hobbled by a funding policy that hasn't been updated in 30 years.

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said earlier this year the government is committed to funding 100 per cent of the operations and maintenance costs for water and wastewater on reserves. He said there are project plans in place to lift all remaining boil water advisories, but he couldn't say when he expects them all to be lifted. So there is progress and while the Liberals, should they prevail on Sept. 20, must be held to account on that commitment, they should also get credit for the successes to date.

As for Trudeau’s chief rival, and possibly Canada’s next prime minister, a headline in Thursday’s Globe and Mail may have said it best: “If you don’t like Erin O’Toole’s position on something, just wait a few minutes.” From climate policy to gun control, vaccination requirements for federal employees and domestic travellers to abortion, O’Toole has casually flipped the politically expedient switch to try and maintain faith among moderate voters. But his initial instincts and certainly his party’s convention policies are largely geared toward the hard Conservative base.

The 338canada website’s compendium of polls shows a declining Conservative lead resting at .5 per cent in voter preference on Saturday. The analysis projects the Liberals will win more seats, however -- 142 to 134 for the Conservatives with 33 for the NDP.

Thunder Bay-Rainy River, which for a time looked like New Democrat Yuk-Sem Won’s to lose, is now a genuine tossup. Liberal incumbent Marcus Powlowski has pulled even with Conservative Adelina Pecchia, a single point behind Won, according to 338canada’s analysis. Thunder Bay-Superior North remains incumbent Patty Hajdu’s for the taking. Kenora is leaning to Conservative incumbent Eric Melillo while Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing is “safe” in New Democrat Carol Hughes’ hands.

Obviously, this election is still up for grabs. The parties have nine days in which to complete their pitches. Thursday’s debate did little to help people make up their minds so your newspaper, your TV and radio and your phone are where this fight will finish.

As for your local candidates, read their campaign material. Listen and discuss if they knock on your door. Be nice! Have incumbents been effective in improving your riding? Are the challengers offering realistic, local ideas or simply parroting the line from party HQ? These are the people who will be responsible to you after Sept. 20. Give them a fair hearing, then decide, and vote.

Ian Pattison is retired as editorial page editor of The Chronicle-Journal, but still shares his thoughts on current affairs.