My thoughts on the Canadian federal Leaders #db8: A Non-Event

The federal Leaders Debate last night was a real disappointment. Disaffected youth voters will remain that way, First Nations people were ignored and even insulted, French Canadian cultural policy was dismissed, and little substantive policy debate of the different platforms was offered to the public.

The Prime Minister was aloof, often simply challenging the voice of authority of the opposition leaders rather than engaging with them. The opposition leaders fought and bickered among themselves. The Prime Minister didn’t have anything to prove. Mr. Ignatieff and Mr. Layton did. And they really didn’t manage to make any knock-out punches.

No one really won, which means the Prime Minister won, since the public will not remember much from this debate except how it made them feel. The PM will come off as having stayed “above the fray” while the other leaders bickered amongst themselves. That means that the PM will be able to continue coasting toward election day.

A Social Media Debate? No, rather a frustrating traditional debate.

This is Canada’s first federal social media election. A remarkable number of Canadians are spending a lot of time and effort connecting with one another on social media to discuss policy ideas and to try and persuade one another and their political candidates. We are seeing the country make this election local, personal and meaningful through social media. Savvy candidates from every party are tweeting and facebooking away, connecting with constituents and journalists. Journalists are talking to journalists and citizens are listening in. It’s democracy in action, with the whole country acting as a big town square.

The leaders debate embodied little of this.

Harper rarely looked at anyone he was speaking to, rather focusing on some unknown entity in the middle distance off to the side. He also dismissed everyone as either saying untruths or not knowing the real facts. After looking a little flustered early on, he settled down quickly and was calm cool and collected throughout most of the debate. He took a “father knows best” tone that none of the other leaders were able to take away from him. In that sense, he owned the discourse.

Ignatieff never really got his game on – he sounded like he was warming up a couple of times: when he went at the Prime Minister on contempt of Parliament, and when he discussed health care and crime. But it seemed to fizzle both times. He didn’t use any numbers to counter Mr. Harper’s claims of “that’s simply not true…” and “the fact is…” These statements w0uld have been easily rebutted with simple counter-factual statistics.

Layton was the most relaxed, starting with a clever rhetorical trick, asking the Prime Minister why he had “changed” his values. However, as the night wore on, his gimmicks became annoying: piously citing his family’s multicultural credentials was self-righteous-sounding and annoying; using language like “hashtag fail” and “bling” felt like a cynical and ironic attempt to “connect” with young voters. However, in the end, I think he came off as most likeable, engaging and human of the four leaders.

Duceppe sounded angry and peevish: wasting a lot of time by focusing on details. He didn’t play his usual “clever gadfly” role as well as he has in past debates. He seemed off his game as well.

There was little authenticity, sincerity, or coffee-table style exchange of ideas and discussion of alternatives. There was no conversational tone. There was little respect towards anyone, least of all the long-suffering audience, which expressed its frustration with the event vocally through the #elxn41 and #db8 and #cdnpoli Twitter hashtags, all through the event. Campaign staffers from each party should analyse the Twitter commentary tomorrow and realise how “off-base” the leaders were from the “social media-inspired” conversational codes of communication reciprocity, a focus on ideas, as well as a feeling of sincerity and authenticity.

Also, the conversation was discourteous. A good example: while Layton’s comment that the Senate harboured criminals may have elicited chuckles, it was in profound contradiction with the tenets of Parliamentary courtesy. It was one of the most uncivil comments of the evening.

A bizarre conversation about multiculturalism in French Canada

The discussion of multiculturalism as it relates to French Canada was very strange. Mr. Duceppe was put into the bizarre position of elaborating and then defending the unique French Canadian approach to building a diverse society in a few fleeting seconds. How can he be expected to outline and defend a whole cultural policy agenda? Especially one whose detail, history and meaning most English Canadians have never really been taught through school or the media. In English Canada, the French Canadian alternative approach to diversity is relatively unknown.

The attacks were not respectful of the fundamentally different cultural context that French Canadian cultural policy has developed within: being a minority that had to fight for its rights and emerge from under a system of oppression from various sources that lasted until WWII. French Canadians did not have the same cultural power position as English Canadians when multiculturalism started – it had a very different meaning for the French and – obviously – was handled differently.

This part of the discussion showed that a colonial and patronising approach to French Canadian cultural policy from English Canadian politicians is still the baseline standard. That was sad to see.

Attorney General’s G20 Report – dealt with efficiently by Harper

Mr. Harper was able to quickly and effectively deal with the one big issue: the Attorney General Sheila Fraser’s G20 report fairly summarily. He dismissed it as a document that the AG had declared: too preliminary to be valid. And that was all he needed to say about it. That appeal to third-party, arms-length authority of the AG was enough to make it a no go for the other leaders for the rest of the debate.

Ignatieff tried to debate the PM but never penetrated his teflon armour

Ignatieff never managed to penetrate the Prime Minister’s armour. Like I mentioned, he got warmed up a couple of times, but he fizzled in front of Stephen Harper’s constant “message wall” : “The fact is…” or “That just isn’t true…” Ignatieff could have turned this debate into a serious conversation about policy, instead he often ended up sounding like he was hectoring or nagging the Prime Minister, who patronized Mr. Ignatieff and condescended to him.

Mr Harper – slowed things down and stayed “above the fray” effectively

Mr. Harper did exactly what he needed to do in this debate: reduce it to a non-event. By slowing down the pace and using negativity as a “cognitive eraser” – we tend to remember negatively framed discourse less well than we do positive or inspiringly framed discourse – he managed to make the debate a frustrating spectacle for the television audience.

However, his patronizing and disaffected tone also means that most of the blame will be assigned to the oppoistion leaders by the uncommitted voting public. Obviously, committed Liberals and NDPers will say he ruined the night, but the general voting public will probably perceive him as “tolerating” the the other leaders’ attack. The three other leaders attacked one another, while Harper stayed above the fray – engaging little and sticking to his message that “they just don’t get it” and that he has a special “grown up” perspective because he is Prime Minister. None of the other leaders was able to knock him off the “I am the grown up here” pedestal that he positioned himself on.

Youth vote – ignored

I didn’t see any serious attempt to connect with the youth vote from any of the leaders. Apart from Mr. Layton’s inappropriate stacking of the terms “hashtag fail” and “bling” in one sentence, youth were never spoken to, and their concerns were only really brought forward by Mr. Ignatieff when he spoke of the Liberal education fund of $4000 per student. This was the only element of the Liberal platform that Mr. Ignatieff was able to really bring out and explain his vision for during the entire debate. Mr. Layton, Mr. Harper and Mr. Duceppe did nothing to address youth concerns. Youth will, sadly, remain a disaffected voter demographic after tonights debate. It just didn’t speak to them.

In fact, at the McMaster University undergrad student pub, where I was watching the debate was a bit of a focus group for this. Honestly, the students I was surrounded by were not connecting with the debate and left without much to say about it. It was yet another irrelevant political non-event for them. And these were young women and men who had chosen to spend their evening at the pub listening to the debate. Imagine how little this debate would have resonated with a non-politically engaged youth group.

First Nations people – absent and insulted

No First Nations person asked a question. The only times First Nations people came into the discussion was when Mr. Layton decided to bring them up in the same breath as a discussion on crime. Now, he meant well – he didn’t mean to be demeaning to First Nations people. But it still stands that the only time they were mentioned tonight was in connection to crime.

This was terrible. First Nations people are emerging as a youthful, constructive, unique and creative force in Canada’s culture, economy and politics. They deserve better than to be solely brought up in the debate in an example linked to crime.

So, who won? No one. That means Harper *benefits* the most of all.

You have to make a distinction between winning and benefiting in debates. There was no clear winner tonight.

No clear winner means that the incumbent and the front runner benefits the most – Mr. Harper. The Prime Minister may now coast along on his successful poll numbers and edge closer to election day with a majority just beyond his grasp (for now).

For Harper to have won over votes from the Liberal, NDP and BQ bases, he would have needed to take some risks. He didn’t. He played it really safe. This means that he certainly didn’t lose any ground, but didn’t gain much either.

Harper needs to be more substantive in his assertions about policy ideas and more personally engaged in debate if he hopes to ever break through to majority territory.

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  1. Pretty good insight Alex, however my perceptions are somewhat different to yours, let me explain.
    I follow a principle of mental tracking while watching or engaging in any form of communication. Beginning w/a mental baseline which starts with…what can a debate among 4 leaders address in 2 hours? My short answer – The reason for the election & the fall of the govt. I believe that was addressed. As for the action of bickering. I believe it was more frustration-manifestation. Put yourself in the position of the 3 party leaders who together with the free press & our constitution represent the checks & balances of our parliamentary system. Now think of a political leader who conducts himself as PM Harper does towards his political family in Ottawa as well as his opposition. Who wouldn’t be frustrated? I would. Thanks for sharing , regards~

  2. Interesting review and well done. I can’t comment on the professional communications concepts you employ here, but I certainly agree with the intuitive assessments of how the candidates looked and spoke. Also, I admittedly count myself among the many in English Canada who didn’t understand the some of those Quebec-specific issues you mentioned.

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