Jagmeet Singh won the debate, but the format was the big loser

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NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh before the leaders' debate. Image: Jagmeet Singh/Twitter

The media were quick to crown NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh the winner of Monday's English language leaders' debate, and voters seem to agree. As one still-undecided voter in Montreal's Outremont riding wrote to this writer: 

"I thought Singh was terrific, the only one (except a bit for May) who rose above the screaming match. He's an excellent role model for what politics could/should be like. The more people see of him, the more they like him …"

Singh sought to establish contrasts with other leaders on the basis of policy differences, and, in the case of Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, inconsistencies between promises and performance. He relied on charm, warmth and humour, not anger, and never stooped to personal attacks. 

Bomb the bridge

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer took the polar opposite approach to Singh's. He borrowed a leaf from previous Conservative campaigns and adopted a negative, bomb-the-bridge approach. 

Scheer went harshly negative from the very first moment of the debate. He, like all the leaders, was asked to address a voter's question about the role of leadership in a divided world, what with Brexit and our troubles with China. But instead of answering the question, the Conservative leader launched into an entirely uncivil and personal attack on Trudeau, calling him a fraud and a phony. The Conservative backroom has obviously decided that their best chance of winning is to go full-bore negative. 

"Bomb the bridge" was the term former Conservative strategist Allan Gregg employed to describe the tactic the Brian Mulroney Conservatives successfully used way back in 1988. 

That was the year of the free trade election. The Conservatives were in the process of negotiating a massive agreement with the U.S. that, over time, morphed into the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and its most recent iteration, NAFTA 2.0 or, if you will, the USMCA.

The Liberal leader at the time, John Turner, had gained considerable traction by painting himself as Captain Canada. Liberal television ads featured an eraser wiping away the border with the U.S. 

The Conservatives decided the only way to counter the Liberal upsurge was, in Gregg's words, to bomb the bridge of trust between Turner and the people. They went fiercely negative and it worked. Brian Mulroney managed to secure a second, if reduced, minority. 

On Monday evening, Scheer was not looking to score debating points on policy, or even on the government's record. 

The current Conservative leader did not seem to care how unsympathetic he might appear during the event itself. His only aim was to generate quotable moments that could then be reproduced by social media. If, in the days to come, there are lots of Twitter and Facebook postings of Scheer calling Trudeau a "phony and a fraud" his tactic will have worked.

Trudeau was not shaken by Scheer's approach. 

He held his own, maintained his cool, and successfully managed to tie the federal Conservative leader to the climate-change-who-cares axis of Conservative premiers Jason Kenney and Doug Ford. 

Scheer tried to use the presence of far-right, openly climate-change-denying Peoples' Party leader Maxime Bernier as a foil, to show how reasonable and moderate he is by contrast. Trudeau resisted that gambit.  He wanted viewers to notice how similar Scheer is, in reality, to Bernier. Far-right leader Bernier, Trudeau explained to voters, says openly what Scheer really believes.

Singh hammered on a progressive version of populism

NDP Leader Singh has gotten a lot of credit for his one liner about not having to choose, on climate change policy, between Mr. Delay (Trudeau) and Mr. Deny (Scheer). 

The NDP leader also had a good rejoinder to Bernier when the issue was how the far-right politician justifies his many way-out-in-right-field tweets, such as one accusing Greta Thunberg of being mentally ill. Singh told Bernier "You could have just said, 'Hey man, I messed up,' because these are pretty terrible tweets." That comment typified the NDP leader's comfortable, colloquial and personable manner throughout the two hours.

On substance, Singh tried to carve out a message that can best be characterized as class-based (as opposed to identity-based) populism. 

When talking about the rise of race and identity-based hatred and resentment in our time the NDP leader pointed to the economic factors associated with our current form of ruthless, über-greed-based capitalism. 

Many hard-working people feel left out, insecure and frustrated, Singh said. They believe the rules of the game are rigged against them, which makes them easy prey for political opportunists who manufacture scapegoats such as immigrants and Indigenous people rather than focus on the real problem, the obscene concentration of wealth at the top. 

Over and over, Singh went back to his central talking points, which focus on the increasing rate of economic inequality. The NDP leader emphasized the need for bold social programs to counter inequality's corrosive effects.

Green Leader Elizabeth May had good moments too, and was the only leader who always seemed spontaneous and unprogrammed, never resorting to rehearsed talking points. 

Commentators gave May high marks for her interventions on climate change and a woman's right to choose. But for this writer, her best comment was a rejoinder to Scheer's repeated boast that the Conservatives would cut overseas development assistance by 25 per cent. May turned to Scheer and said "that is the worst idea the Conservatives have in a very their thin platform."

The Green leader characterized the proposed $1.5 billion cut as "short term, greedy politics." 

Jagmeet Singh talks a lot about courage, with some justification, based on his life story and bold, uncompromising policies. But when it comes to defending overseas development assistance, the NDPer has remained silent. He knows spending Canadian money in foreign countries is not a natural vote getter. On that one issue, Singh does not have as much courage as Elizabeth May. 

No way to organize an exercise in democratic discourse

The biggest loser in the debate was the format. 

The Leaders' Debates Commission could not do much about the number of leaders on stage -- although there has to be a big question mark about inviting Maxime Bernier, leader of a party that has never elected a single MP and is polling in low single digits. But the commission did not have to opt for five moderators, about three too many. 

More important, the way the debate's organizers used a handful of so-called ordinary Canadians to ask questions was a waste of time and energy. It was the worst kind of patronizing tokenism, and had nothing to do with truly engaging Canadians. 

Voters watching would have been better served if the time consumed by going to a café in Yellowknife or common room in Vancouver had been given over to substantive discussion of the issues.

What was the purpose of having questions posed both by those ordinary folks and, as well, in somewhat repetitive fashion, by the moderators -- and then, incongruously and with no context, giving leaders a chance to question each other about anything under the sun? 

All the while, the time clock was ticking, as though this were a basketball game or tennis match. 

The format seemed to have been designed by folks more interested in show business than civil, democratic discourse. Is it too late to learn some lessons before the French debate on Thursday evening?

Given the 120-minute time limit, voters would be better served by a debate that focused on no more than three main areas -- say, jobs and the economy, the environment, and social programs and immigration. They could allot about 40 minutes to each. The moderators should ask all the questions, and limit themselves to at most two per subject area.

It would also be best if the producers turned off the microphones of those not speaking and thus gave the leaders enough time to coherently explain their policies, without interruption. 

The purpose of the exercise should be to force the leaders to go beyond slogans, zingers and prepared lines. The voters have a right to hear party leaders tangibly explain, in detail, what they would do in government, if given a chance. 

Elly Alboim, who was for many years CBC television's parliamentary assignment editor and later worked as a Liberal party strategist, knows a thing or two about organizing such events. Here is what he tweeted during Monday evening's exercise in futility and frustration:

"The debate commission failed in its responsibility by turning the format over to TV producers. They traded pacing for incoherence. No one had the chance to develop a thought -- all it rewarded was one-liners. Viewers and voters had little chance to hear what they wanted to hear most: who would be best to lead the country, what their vision for the country was. This had nothing to do with voters. It was about political bile, TV product and media PR. An awesome fail. The contrast was clear in the questions the 'ordinary Canadians' asked. None had barbs or hidden agendas. They just wanted information and policy answers. They ended up being props in a TV show."

Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble's politics reporter.

Image: Jagmeet Singh/Twitter

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