During elections, it's all about the leader

Please chip in to support more articles like this. Support rabble.ca for as little as $5 per month!

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

Related Items

Thank you for reading this story…

More people are reading rabble.ca than ever and unlike many news organizations, we have never put up a paywall – at rabble we’ve always believed in making our reporting and analysis free to all, while striving to make it sustainable as well. Media isn’t free to produce. rabble’s total budget is likely less than what big corporate media spend on photocopying (we kid you not!) and we do not have any major foundation, sponsor or angel investor. Our main supporters are people and organizations -- like you. This is why we need your help. You are what keep us sustainable.

rabble.ca has staked its existence on you. We live or die on community support -- your support! We get hundreds of thousands of visitors and we believe in them. We believe in you. We believe people will put in what they can for the greater good. We call that sustainable.

So what is the easy answer for us? Depend on a community of visitors who care passionately about media that amplifies the voices of people struggling for change and justice. It really is that simple. When the people who visit rabble care enough to contribute a bit then it works for everyone.

And so we’re asking you if you could make a donation, right now, to help us carry forward on our mission. Make a donation today.


We welcome your comments! rabble.ca embraces a pro-human rights, pro-feminist, anti-racist, queer-positive, anti-imperialist and pro-labour stance, and encourages discussions which develop progressive thought. Our full comment policy can be found here. Learn more about Disqus on rabble.ca and your privacy here. Please keep in mind:


  • Tell the truth and avoid rumours.
  • Add context and background.
  • Report typos and logical fallacies.
  • Be respectful.
  • Respect copyright - link to articles.
  • Stay focused. Bring in-depth commentary to our discussion forum, babble.


  • Use oppressive/offensive language.
  • Libel or defame.
  • Bully or troll.
  • Post spam.
  • Engage trolls. Flag suspect activity instead.