During elections, it's all about the leader

I wish I could muster more fury over Stephen Harper's attempts to neuter the TV debates leading to next fall's election. His designated irritant, Kory Teneycke, says they'll refuse to appear on traditional "consortium" broadcasts run by the big networks. Instead they'll spread themselves on minor outlets like City. Hence, they say wittily, there'll be more exposure. Maybe they should book one on Tiny Talent Time on channel 11 in Hamilton.

What dampens my indignation is how the consortium heavies (CBC, CTV, Global) always already undermine the democratic potential of debates. They do it by analyzing into oblivion whatever life the debates had -- minutes after. They fasten on a gotcha moment -- "You had a choice, sir" -- suitable for swift sum-ups, that start looping immediately and suffocate any thoughtful viewer response. Why don't they just call these afterbursts: Don't Bother Thinking for Yourselves.

So for such reasons, debates affect little. The networks are always scanning for "knockout punches" but the only certifiable one in Canadian history -- in 1988, when John Turner mauled Brian Mulroney; you could see Mulroney's face implode as if his nose shattered -- didn't impact the result, weeks later. They reversed it with ads and ad hominems. Barack Obama got clobbered in his first debate with Romney, it made no difference.

So what matters? Not policies. I think people care about policies, just not during elections. What matters is the leader. Liberal backroom guy David Herle was an idiot when he blew the Paul Martin election to Stephen Harper, then he was a genius when Kathleen Wynne resurrected Ontario Liberals from the grave. (At least Herle admitted it.) NDP insider Brian Topp will oversee Rachel Notley's government in Alberta after running her campaign. A year ago he botched an NDP sure thing in B.C. It's the leader, stupid.

When I wrote plays and TV scripts, I was sure the crucial ingredient was my brilliant dialogue. I knew directors who were confident they could turn any sow's ear of an actor into a brilliant performer. But we eventually learned that only the actors really counted, and once you had them, the game was basically over. They were what the audience (or voters) had contact with. As Edgar told poor Lear on the heath, Casting (I paraphrase slightly) is all.

So it was hopeless for Ed Miliband the day he became Labour's leader in the U.K. Leftists there spent four years convincing themselves he was getting better. But 41 per cent of voters said he was "weird." He also scored high on being bullied and working hard in school. (He was that kid.) I don't mean it's your looks. It's how you animate how you look. Paul Giamatti looks weird but I'd vote for him and many would. Brian Topp looked a bit like Giamatti and ran for NDP leader but got nowhere. It's the package that's decisive. Consider Kathleen Wynne. An odd look but a compelling package. Hudak hadn't a chance.

And now, lest this seem discouraging, for something completely redemptive: that parliamentary correspondents' dinner, where Green leader Elizabeth May said some things worth saying but in a maudlin, self-pitying way. Then on came Tory cabinet minister Lisa Raitt to lovingly, maternally help her offstage. May wanted one last shot and Raitt unjudgmentally let her take it: "Omar Khadr, you've got more class than the entire f------ Tory cabinet." It was complex. As a cabinet member Raitt shares that lack of class. As a human presence, she was inspirational. Isn't there some way to bottle what happened between them and turn it into a party and voting option? Well, there should be.

Last week I happened to sit at a café in Little Italy with artist/cartoonist Dusan Petricic, who was visiting from Belgrade. Dusan lived here for 20 years, drawing for the Star and others, but remains a Serbian national institution and fearless critic. His region has known the worst impulses of nationalism for a century, and counting. He said, "There are only two nations in the world: the nation of the good people, and the nation of the bad people." Normally, as a Canadian nationalist, I'd want to qualify that undoubtedly sage opinion, but for the moment, I'll just let it stand.

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Don Voaklander/flickr

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