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First, the theatre review.

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, again, displayed his crowd-pleasing fighter persona — although, on at least one occasion, he went overboard into demagoguery.

NDP leader Tom Mulcair could count on robust policies and his own strong debating skills, but did he push his substantive arguments with enough force?

And Conservative leader Stephen Harper?

Well, he was his usual cool and, to appearances, rational self. That is, he was the new, nicer and more reasonable self he has constructed for the current election campaign.

Let’s start with the moment when Trudeau became something of a demagogue.

It is a moment that, by now, has been viewed hundreds of thousands of times online.

Many in the mainstream media have dubbed it a highlight.

We’re talking about Trudeau’s emotional tribute to his late father.

That intervention was pure American talk show, wearing-one’s-heart-on-one’s-sleeve stuff.

At that point in the debate, the leaders were supposed to be discussing the Harper government’s so-called anti-terror legislation, Bill C-51.

NDP leader Mulcair had pointed out that his party had the courage to vote against C-51, on principle, even though, when it was first introduced, the bill was popular.

Mulcair then added that the NDP took a similar principled position in opposing Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s imposition of the War Measures Act during the October Crisis of 1970.

The NDP leader erred, perhaps, in wasting precious time evoking ancient history — time he could have devoted to enumerating, in detail, the flaws of C-51.

But what he said was not a personal attack on Trudeau’s father, nor on Justin Trudeau.

The Liberal leader decided, however, to use the comment as a pretext to launch into a heartfelt tribute to his late father.

The audience in the hall lapped it up. It was a moment of theatrical and rhetorical triumph for Justin Trudeau.

Few seemed to notice that he had completely avoided the question of the Liberals’ support for C-51.

Trudeau displayed his dramatic skills to full advantage

After that, Trudeau skillfully played to the audience throughout the evening.

Mulcair, on the other hand, seemed a bit unsettled by the unexpected role of the live audience. That self-selected assemblage was hardly a representative group. Folks had paid from $30 to $95 each to witness this evening of political wrestling.

In any event, the NDP leader was less interested in the audience in the hall than in those watching the proceedings at home — either in toto, or in clips.

Mulcair had two target audiences: Quebec voters and progressives in the rest of Canada.

The current Official Opposition leader was talking directly to Quebec farmers when he answered a question on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade negotiations. He did not try to nuance New Democrats’ position and emphasize that they are pro-trade, but against bad trade deals.

Instead, Mulcair targeted the Quebec dairy industry, which stands to lose big time if Harper’s negotiators make concessions on Canada’s supply management system.

Mulcair also signalled to Canadian auto parts makers that he is on their side. He knows there are 80,000 jobs in the automobile industry, jobs Harper has already telegraphed are on the table at the TPP talks.

Those talks could result in an agreement in principle by the weekend, and many of the auto-sector jobs at stake are in areas where the NDP now has seats, and where it nurtures hopes of winning more.

Mulcair’s evocation of the long ago October Crisis was also aimed at Quebec voters.

Back in 1970, sending troops into Quebec and suspending civil liberties throughout Canada was Pierre Trudeau’s “just watch me” moment, and had broad public support. In retrospect, however, what Trudeau-père did four and a half decades ago now seems like a massive over-reaction. To the extent those events are discussed today, current Quebec opinion is definitely not on Pierre Trudeau’s side.

As for Mulcair’s effort to appeal to voters who define themselves as progressive — some of whom might be open to a young and vigorous Liberal leader who says running a fiscal deficit is not the end of the world — look at what the NDP leader had to say when the subject of the Keystone XL pipeline came up:

“Now every progressive in the United States is against Keystone XL. Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Harper are in favour of Keystone XL the same way they’re both in favour of Bill C-51. Progressives in Canada are against C-51. Progressives in all of North America understand it’s time to start dealing with these issues seriously and both Mr. Harper and Mr. Trudeau have failed on Keystone.”

In two sentences Mulcair managed to say the word “progressive” three times — for the benefit, perhaps, of those who might be hard of hearing. And Mulcair very consciously pivoted rhetorically from pipelines to C-51, which is the Liberal leader’s weakest suit.

In the same way, Trudeau had earlier pivoted from a paean to his late father to the NDP’s reasonable but difficult to defend position on the Clarity Act. The problem for Mulcair with his party’s majority-is-a-majority policy is that it is complicated and nuanced. It is hard to fit onto a bumper sticker.

Broadcasting vs. narrowcasting

The pundits almost universally gave high marks to Trudeau for his confident and assertive performance.

The Liberal leader chose to vigorously spar with Conservative leader Harper over Bill C-24, which allows the government to strip dual citizens of their Canadian citizenship. The other day, the Harper government announced that it has revoked the citizenship of a Toronto man convicted of terrorism.

Taking on that issue was gutsy for Trudeau, given that there is little public sympathy for convicted terrorists.

Overall, Trudeau was not necessarily trying to win points for policy acumen. Nor did he aim to reach specific groups of voters on hot button issues important to them.

He was not narrowcasting; he was broadcasting, showing himself to have the feistiness and character necessary to incarnate the change impulse so many voters seem to be feeling.

Mulcair was narrowcasting.

He wanted to underline the distinct NDP position on issues Quebeckers and progressives care about. It was important for Mulcair to show where New Democrats and not Liberals are onside with Quebec (defending dairy farmers) and with most progressives (on  C-51 and Keystone XL).

Notwithstanding the theatre reviews, if the NDP leader succeeded in connecting with his target audiences, he might have accomplished what he needed to in the debate.

Missed opportunities to fully engage on policy

The reviewers are also saying this was a policy-focused and substantive debate.

Maybe so.

Harper definitely focused on his record and policy prescriptions.

He talked about the need for Canada to play a military role in the Middle East, about the legitimacy of his anti-terror legislation, about the vital importance of trade, and told his fanciful, but nonetheless plausible, tale of Conservative success in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The other two leaders sometimes got bogged down in their rhetoric, or in their efforts to undermine each other.

This was glaringly obvious on C-51.

Trudeau has a tortured and difficult to defend position on the Conservatives’ anti-terror law, for which his party famously voted in favour. He compensated with an excess of bombast.

Mulcair has a clear position, on the other hand, but neglected to enumerate the key ways in which C-51 is a threat to basic freedoms.

Mulcair did not mention, for instance, that C-51 mandates the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS) to engage in covert operations contrary to the Charter of Rights, based only on the secret approval of a single judge.

Nor did he tell viewers that the anti-terror legislation is not, in fact, narrowly focused on violent and fanatical Jihadists, but could be used against a variety of undefined so-called threats, such as First Nations and environmental protesters or those who support liberation movements in foreign dictatorships.

In focusing so intently on a progressive audience that he assumed is well aware of the details of the anti-terror law, Mulcair missed an opportunity to raise broader pubic awareness of the true nature of C-51.

On the refugee issue, Trudeau did well, as he did in the previous debate, to bring up the fact that the Conservatives gutted health care for vulnerable refugees.

Harper answered that his government has only taken away health care from rejected, so-called bogus asylum seekers.

After the Conservative leader made the same claim in the last English debate, Philip Berger, a doctor at St Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, pointed out that it was untrue.

“Under the Conservative cuts to refugee health care, refugee claimants from Designated (safe) Countries of Origin such as the Roma of Hungary were denied all usual health coverage before they even had their refugee determination hearing,” Berger wrote to The Globe and Mail.

“All refugee claimants,” he added, “lost coverage for medication, vision and dental care, and for prostheses necessary for amputated limbs.”

Too bad neither Trudeau nor Mulcair made those points during the debate.

Climate change and Russian tycoons with Canadian ties

When it came to climate change, Trudeau did a good job of holding Harper’s feet to the fire, especially on the Conservative leader’s absurd claim that his government can take credit for Canada getting rid of coal-fired electric generation.

But Trudeau’s Liberals do not really have a climate change policy of their own.

The Liberals have been environmentally shy since 2008, when the Conservatives so brutally mocked then leader Stéphane Dion’s carbon tax policy as a “tax on everything.”

And so, when Mulcair started to elaborate the NDP’s very tangible and real cap-and-trade policy, Trudeau tried to destabilize him with heckles about the NDP’s commitment to balanced budgets.

Unfortunately, Mulcair took the bait and allowed himself to get sidetracked, just as the debate was focusing on an area where he and his party should have a clear advantage.

Instead of brushing off the interruptions and continuing to provide details on the NDP’s recently announced climate change policy, Mulcair decided to slam Trudeau and the Liberals for their willingness to “burden future generations” with increased debt.

That was one of the few occasions where the moderator felt the need to call the leaders to order. He told them this was not a debate on the economy. We have already had that one, he said.

Trudeau also resorted to some fairly harsh rhetoric in playing his weak card on the environment. He used insulting and pejorative language in one attack on the NDP. Mulcair made the same mistake he had made earlier and rose to Trudeau’s bait.

Here’s how it went:

“Trudeau: And even as you approached, as you announced with tremendous strength and pomp your — your climate change plan —-

Mulcair: I leave the pomp to you, Justin.”

Mulcair’s sharp rejoinder got a laugh, but sounded churlish to many who commented after the fact.

On yet another occasion, when the topic was Russia’s annexation of the Crimea, Mulcair had a strong argument that he failed to support with sufficient detail and force.

The NDP leader correctly noted that while the Canadian government’s sanctions against Russia include freezing the assets of and imposing travel bans on a number of Russians, Harper has left two powerful Putin associates off the list.

They are: Igor Sechin, head of the giant Russian oil company Rosneft, and Vladimir Yakunin, who until very recently was head of Russian Railways.

Both tycoons are members of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle, and both have extensive business connections in Canada.

There have been stories to the effect that Canadian corporations have lobbied the Harper government to leave the two powerful oligarchs off the sanctions list.

Similar pressures seem to have worked in Europe.

The United States government, on the other hand, has frozen the American assets of both men and forbidden them to travel to the U.S.

We heard the names of the two Russians during the Munk debate, but never got any of those details. Most viewers must have been left scratching their heads and wondering what the argument was all about.

Yet another missed opportunity to shed light on a key issue and underscore Harper’s inconsistency and hypocrisy. 


Photo: twitter screenshot

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...