Well, I finally had a chance to watch Tuesday night’s Ontario Leaders’ debate (yes, I PVR’d it. I can’t believe it either) and as a guy who moderates many comedic debates I have to say I found it hilarious: Unintentionally of course.
The format of questions being asked by average Ontario citizens in recorded video messages is an “interesting” one. But you know what would be more interesting? A LIVE audience at the debate to give some energy to the proceedings, voice encouragement for relevant points and, more importantly, chant “BULLLLLL-SHIIIIIT” when appropriate (which it would have been many times). Crowds do this at hockey games when a ref blows a call. And a lot more people watch hockey games than watched this debate.
Why is it that our leader’s debates take place in what appears to be an abandoned silo with one lone moderator, TVO’s Steve Paiken, who couldn’t be more moderate if he were a mannequin wearing a muzzle? Steve is a knowledgeable man who is passionate about politics. But for some reason he was relegated to timekeeper here, which only made sense when the actual timekeeper, a digital clock, malfunctioned (true story).
If we’re trying to get people more engaged in politics, debates like this should be live public events, with passionate, voting taxpayers. Meanwhile the moderator should be given some leeway to liven up the proceedings and/or give context when the leaders digress into an incomprehensible squawk-fest like a taping of “The View”. Heck Steve, if you want, I’ll even write you some puns for the occasion such as:
“we’re talking Ontario politics so try to Sudbury your opponent with a Trillium job plan that takes the Windsor out of your opponent’s sales and hits them right in the Dalton McGuinty’s.” Something like that.
As for the debating skills of the leaders themselves, well, there were a lot of troubling traits.
First of all, Kathleen Wynne, who has the job to lose, in my opinion, lost it. Sure, she didn’t really directly answer any of the questions that were asked (that’s the first lesson learned in “Political Speak for Dummies”) but more importantly, she didn’t make direct eye contact with the other leaders. This is, at the very least, disrespectful. But to me it’s quite terrifying. It was as if she had been hypnotized before the show to respond only to pre-recorded video questioners and the moderator, both of whom she knew would not speak back. But when directly challenged she chose to look directly at the camera, so she could lie directly to us rather than her counterparts. I kept yelling at my television “turn to your left…or turn to your right…just… turn!” But of course, Kathleen wouldn’t turn to the left or right. She stayed right in the centre. A perfect analogy for what the Liberals think Ontarians want. Perhaps Kathleen’s most major faux pas was wearing a BLUE suit, which is a bad choice for a Liberal Party representative in general. But she was also standing in front of a BLUE background. That added to the terror. It was as if a floating head with no torso, along with flailing arms, was staring at me and oblivious to all else. I’m sorry but I just can’t vote for a floating head with flailing arms that won’t make direct eye contact.
Meanwhile Tim Hudak, to his credit, made eye contact with EVERYONE who would look in his general direction. Kathleen Wynne, Andrea Horwath, Steve Paiken, the official photographer, an insect that flew by. This guy likes looking at you (which is somehow creepier than Kathleen’s NOT looking at you) and he smiles ALL the time. Now far be it for me to begrudge someone for smiling. But Mr. Hudak’s face appears to have been conditioned to smile. As if he had a smile “botoxed” on. He’s been taught that people are more prone to believe what you say if you smile while you’re saying it (the 2nd lesson in “Political Speak for Dummies”). Ironically, people who need to be swayed to vote for you see thru this immediately. But if you can get past the perma-smile and listen to Hudak’s words, you see that he believes everything he says. He truly believes 1 MILLION JOBS (insert Dr. Evil voice here) will be created by eliminating 100,000 jobs (insert Dr. Evil voice again here) and if his math is wrong (and it is) he will “step down from his job”. How is that a rallying point to elect someone? “If I am incompetent at my job, I’ll quit.” Great. If most people are incompetent at their jobs, they’re fired. As would many be who are completely competent at their jobs under Hudak’s plan. But I will give full marks for “chutzpah” to Hudak. The fact that he told a story of having a passion for math from his father challenging him with math problems growing up was a ballsy move considering his flawed math is the most talked about problem with his campaign. So what he’s really saying is, “I’ve been working on math a looooooong time. And I still don’t get it.” Well by all means then, here’s my tax money. See what you can do.
Finally, NDP leader Andrea Horwath. Right off the bat she has the best nickname for debating: “The Steeltown Scrapper”. I like it. Most people from Hamilton aren’t that proud of that fact. In my opinion, Andrea did the best job at this debate. She made direct eye contact with her opponents, the camera and the moderator equally. She made points against both other parties that were actual facts (and a few that were not. But so did they. So it balances out) And her closing remarks were succinct and relevant: “If you make me your Premier, I WILL DELIVER FOR YOU.” Perfect. Because as we all know, very soon, Canada Post won’t.
So why is it that Andrea faces dissention in her own ranks and failed to receive an endorsement from The Globe and Mail OR The Toronto Star? (the Globe went with Hudak, The Star went with Wynne) I’m really not sure. She’s also losing some support from old-school NDP’ers (yes, there are other types) complaining that she is going against longstanding party principles in favour of “populist politics”. In essence it feels like the press fears she is “too Bob Rae” while the dinosaurs in her party fear she is “not Bob Rae enough”.
I think that’s unfortunate for Andrea. I fully admit I don’t fully understand the various points of the various parties’ platforms. But you know what? Neither do the people who have endorsed the others. All I know for sure is that Andrea Horwath was the best debater on Tuesday night. In one of the worst debate formats in the civilized world.
Steve Patterson is an award-winning comedian and host of CBC Radio One’s The Debaters.