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(Published in the Abbotsford News week of Jan.  9, 2006)

The "Great Debate" - Ho meets Hum

John Pifer

For two hours on Monday evening, hundreds of thousands of Canadians were mesmerized by the ultimate in reality television – the party leaders’ debate in the current federal election.

Okay, perhaps “mesmerized” is a little strong, and even “reality” is a bit of a misnomer.

The truth is it was mildly lively on occasion; but for the most part, there was a lot of the same old, same old. Evaluating the performances on this judge’s scorecard looks like this:

  • Liberal Paul Martin looked frustrated, spoke altogether too quickly every time, and avoided answering direct questions more than any other leader. Nonetheless, he did not shoot himself in the foot, despite looking more of a loser than a winner overall.

  • Conservative Stephen Harper showed some maturity and openness lacking in the last election, and other than that odd smile/smirk that cropped up occasionally, he appeared more statesmanlike, credible and not at all scary. He did answer the questions, did not get rattled, and should sustain his party’s lead into these last two weeks before the Jan. 23rd election.

  • NDP Jack Layton’s performance was slick and harped repeatedly on the point of reminding Canadians that there was a third option. It probably will do more damage to the Liberals in the close contests, than it will to the Conservatives.

  • Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe was probably the most focused and credible of the lot – easier for him because he only has to deal with issues facing his “nation” of Quebec.

About the only time Mr. Martin seemed genuinely passionate was over the national unity issue -- berating the Quebec leader and reminding all of us that he is a Quebecker himself, la de da.

The Liberals needed the PM to land some knockout punches to change that sweeping Blue tide, and he failed to deliver, often sounding petulant and whiny, rather than prime ministerial.

Mr. Martin’s decision to make national policy on the fly, promising to throw out the notwithstanding clause, smacked of desperation. Nor is it a subject that likely will ignite the average voter, with its legalese spewing about the Charter of Rights and the Constitution. Mr. Harper’s counter that neither Parliament nor the Supreme Court should have absolute power, and that the notwithstanding clause is a perfect safety valve for protection against abuse seemed fair and just.

All three Opposition leaders took some major shots at the beleaguered Prime Minister on the issue of corruption, ethics and honesty in government, prompting Mr. Martin to complain about “drive-by smears”. Unfortunately for the Liberals, much of what they questioned was indefensible, and Mr. Martin tried to deflect it, rather than to address it.

The issue of health care was not mentioned until 39 minutes into the debate, illustrative of the fact that ethics and crime are the key issues in this campaign, unlike most others, and that is likely to play out better for the Conservatives than any other party.

All in all, it was a tepid two hours, better than the Vancouver debate in November; but it was not one that would drive anyone outside of Quebec to bother with the French-language debate the next night.

On a scale of one to 10, this scribe would peg it: Duceppe at 8, Harper and Layton at 7.5 (although I still would not buy a used car from the NDP boss), and the Prime Minister at 6 … at best.

Veteran B.C. journalist/broadcaster John Pifer may be reached at


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