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Analysis of the June 10th Liberal leadership debate

Yesterday afternoon I cut a day trainspotting short to watch the Liberal leadership debate live. It was a worthwhile move. The debate was an interesting one and served to introduce me to some of the candidates who I had never seen before. Here are my impressions of the candidates, in order of their seating from left to right.

Carolyn Bennett: She said one thing that struck me as being totally illogical.

She commented that a few years ago when she was in cabinet, Ontario had a particularly bad year with things like the SARS outbreak and the blackout, which places the year she was discussing at 2003. As a result of Ontario's bad year, its contribution to equalisation was down and some of the lower revenue provinces did not benefit as much from equalisation, which she indicated is a flaw with equalisation.

There is a logic problem here. The purpose of equalisation is to equalise, not to raise the have-not provinces to an unsustainable constant standard at all costs. That would not be equality. If the giving provinces are down, then the taking provinces should, naturally, receive less from them.

Her French struck me as among the weakest of the lot. Her efforts seemed to be far more directed toward trying to assemble the sentences, leaving very little mental load for inserting thoughts into those sentences. I believe it is far more important for politicians to express their ideas clearly and concisely than it is for them to speak beyond their capabilities in their second language.

Joe Volpe: His opening comments included an attack on Michael Ignatieff, specifically, over Kyoto, breaking, right from the get-go, the civility and intellectual policy discussion that has marked this campaign up until then. It somehow does not surprise me that Volpe did this as he has already shown his lack of respect for the Liberal party by taking money from Apotex through a thinly disguised veil of proxy donations from people too young even to buy party memberships.

During the pairwise debates he was in the lone threesome where I found that he attempted to dominate the debate without really contributing anything of substance.

I would have been happier if the other candidates had refused to acknowledge his existence. There is no benefit to any candidate to continue treating a liability like Volpe as an equal. He must go.

Martha Hall Findlay: This was the first time I'd seen Findlay and she struck me as the brutally honest type who says it as it is, and offers solutions.

I liked her stance on senate reform, where she noted that one elected house was ample, we don't need two. An elected senate is a politicised senate, no longer a house of "sober second thought" she warned, a position I agree with wholeheartedly.

Her shot back at Brison about how we should not govern our country based on potential New York Times headlines was fantastic.

Findlay believes that our immigration points system does not work. We have too many overqualified immigrants doing unsuitable jobs, and too many illegal immigrants doing things like construction, due to our points system. I have to agree with her. Our immigration system should be more open to people from all skillsets, not just PhDs.

Findlay moves up from an unknown to an interesting candidate.

Gerard Kennedy: This was the first time I'd seen Kennedy speak, as well, that I can remember. Aside from the disadvantage of looking kind of like Jerry Springer, he came across well. His French was the clearest of the Anglos and he seemed very comfortable in both languages.

He warned that Quebeckers can never be bought, but that Harper is trying.

He started off the debate on a good note. In his opening comments, he stated that he is not better than any of the other candidates, just that he's the right one for the times. It's a creative use of the language to get across the message that he is, in fact, better than the other candidates, but it demonstrates the valuable level of chivalry between most of the candidates in this race.

I did not find that he performed fantastically well under the pressure of the one-on-one debates.

Scott Brison: I got the distinct impression that Brison is on the far end of the party's political spectrum.

Brison believes we have an obligation to our allies to go places like Afghanistan.

His comments centred around the development of businesses and investment, and his comment about what the next morning's New York Times headline would have been if the vote on the extension of our mission to Afghanistan had been defeated placed him firmly on the right edge of the party.

Bob Rae: One of the strong intellectuals of this campaign, Rae showed himself to see the world as it is, as it should be, and how to bridge that gap.

He warned that Canada's agricultural sector needs strong government intervention and support. In the US and Europe, he said, agriculture is heavily subsidised, and that to compete on the world stage we would need to ensure that ours is, as well.

Rae noted that every province, no matter what or which, feels that it is giving more to the rest of the country than it is getting, effectively dismissing "fiscal imbalance".

Though accented, his French showed no signs of weakness that I could see, though his microphone did not seem to like hearing him...

Michael Ignatieff: When Ignatieff debated Brison one-on-one, the main impression I got was that the only real difference between the two of them is that Brison admits that he is on the right. I describe this kind of debate as an "argreement".

His comments that we need to support our troops by supporting the mission place him in a different political prism, one that is found on the South side of the border.

I believe it is possible to support our soldiers without agreeing with the mission they are performing. In fact, I believe if you don't agree with a mission, working to get soldiers out of that mission is the best way to support them. Better to have them home and alive than overseas and fighting for a cause the country as a whole does not believe in. When a debate is brought forward on the value of a mission, it should be purely about the value of that mission, on its merits, not based on any other factors.

There is no merit to sending soldiers somewhere because they are already there. It's the kind of circular logic that gets us stuck in long, protracted wars with no end in sight.

Ignatieff believes in a strengthened Canadian military, warning that we need a stronger military to be able to perform missions like Afghanistan and still be able to send troops to the war torn Sudanese region of Darfur.

On the topic of energy, Ignatieff warned that we are not the enemy of Alberta. It is important to work with Alberta to develop clean energy, instead of merely complaining about its development of its oil industry.

He was also careful to acknowledge Dion's leadership on enviromental issues.

Ignatieff's demeanour was that of a professor, which he is, who has been teaching for 30 years, which he has, who has little in the way of political experience, which is the case.

Hedy Fry: Fry's French is comparable to Bennett's. It's strained and difficult to understand.

She speaks with a lot of energy and believes in herself, which is good, though I'm not entirely sure what it is she said.

Though not significant, it is noteworthy that Fry was the only one to ask for a repeat of a question while answering it during the first part of the debate.

Maurizio Bevilacqua: Bevilacqua said he is an immigrant who sees the opportunities available for immigrants decreasing from what they were when he and his family arrived, something he would like to improve.

Ken Dryden: Not bad for a hockey player. Really. Almost a day after the debate, though, nothing he said specifically stands out in my mind.

Stéphane Dion: Last, but certainly not least!

Dion's opening quip was that he agreed with everything that had been said up to that point. Evidentally Dion is a concensus candidate.

He was the only candidate in the debate who delved into serious, specific policy ideas. He started by indicating that he feels the one percent drop in the GST, which will cost the government around $5 billion per year, could be better spent by putting $4 billion toward the national child benefit supplement and the remaining billion toward programs to otherwise help low-income Canadians.

On the topic of senate reform, he warned that the senate could not be seriously changed without changes to the constitution, but that 6 or 8 year term limits for senators could be acceptable and should be done as a kind of gentleman's agreement, possibly including signing an agreement to that effect when they are appointed. Having unlimited terms with a retirement age of 75, he said, risks not being fair to younger people who could offer a lot to the senate as they are simply unlikely to be appointed until later in life due to their age. He noted that in the current constitution, New Brunswick is guaranteed more senators than Alberta is, and that by appointing senators, proper geographical distribution can be ensured, which may not be the case under an elected senate. In short, he said, by protecting the senate from Harper's reforms, he is protecting Alberta from Stephen Harper.

Incidentally, he's been in Quebec long enough to know that saying "Constitution" is as about as bad as saying "Tabarnaque" in that province.

He was no less succinct on electoral reform: he could support a German-style mixed member proportional electoral system, he said, but described direct proportional representation as "stupid", a sentiment I agree with without reservation, though I'm no personal fan of anything that resembles proportional representation. A preferential balloting system, which the parties use for their own leadership races either directly or through a run-off vote system, is the most truely democratic system we can use if we don't wish to give up the "representative" in "representative democracy".

On the topic of the Kelowna Accord, Dion commented that Canadians don't have a problem with the very important Kelowna agreement, it's Harper that has a problem.

During his one-on-one debate with Martha Hall Findlay, he interrupted himself to give his opponent an opportunity to speak, showing a kind of good sportsmanship all politicians should demostrate but few do.

He appeared to be enjoying the debate to the point of actually offering a legitimate grin, a little known capability of this deep intellectual.

Dion remains and is reinforced for me as the best choice to lead this party and this country.

The debate itself:

Based on the debate last night I can pretty well fill out my preferential ballot for the lot, though I reserve the right to re-order it in the future.

    Acceptable leaders in order of preference:

  1. Stéphane Dion
  2. Bob Rae
  3. Gerard Kennedy
  4. Martha Hall Findlay

    The ones I'd really rather not see lead at this time:

  5. Michael Ignatieff
  6. Ken Dryden
  7. Maurizio Bevilacqua
  8. Scott Brison
  9. Carolyn Bennett
  10. Hedy Fry

    Is he still here?

  11. Joe Volpe

The format of the debate itself was a little bit odd. The moderator posed two questions at a time to be answered simultaneously by each candidate. While he did so, all the candidates scribbled furiously on little note pads, vaguely reminding me of the final round of 'Jeopardy'.

The effect of this format is it allows viewers to judge which of any pair of issues is more important to each candidate, and how each candidate can handle multi-tasking. The first two questions asked about bilingualism and about farming, for example, and it sounded to me like Joe Volpe's answer was something along the lines of 'it is important for farms to be able to operate in French'.

CPAC's broadcast of the debate was translated by a simultaneous translator, as are most programs on CPAC, much to my annoyance. I would find a 'floor sound' option much more beneficial than chasing the politicians back and forth between primary and secondary audio, without requiring the use of unreliable video streams on the Internet.

There is probably a good deal more to say about this debate, but there will be more debates and more opportunities to revisit them.

At the next debate, I hope the threesome will be Bob Rae, Ken Dryden, and Gerard Kennedy, and that Michael Ignatieff and Stéphane Dion can get a one-on-one in.

I am looking forward to next weekend's debate which will take place in Moncton. Questions for that debate must be submitted by the 14th. See the Liberal party web site for more information on how to submit questions.

Posted at 09:56 on June 11, 2006

This entry has been archived. Comments can no longer be posted.

A ten-lane 401? | leadership politics | O Canada in the Commons

indievoter writes at Sun Jun 11 13:24:55 2006...

Excellent commentary. I feel the same about Stephane Dion and I started with my first pick as Gerard Kennedy but Mr. Dion keeps rising in my estimation.

D.W writes at Sun Jun 11 15:04:03 2006...

OMG, since when did you have to be on the "right-wing" of the Party to support our troops and their mission. For God's sake! we are the Party that sent them there. We are the Party that sent troops to Europe way before the USA in WW2.

Liberals believe in standing with their Allies (26 of them in their present mission).

Perhaps you would be more comfortable in the NDP.

David Graham writes at Sun Jun 11 15:14:23 2006...

I did not say that you have to be on the right wing of the party to support the mission, only that you have to be on the right wing of the party to be unable to distinguish between support for the mission and support for the troops.

The two, in my submission, are separate. I don't support the mission in Afghanistan, but I certainly support the troops. I think the best way to support them is by taking them out of harm's way and saving them for a more just mission, such as peacekeeping in Darfur. Our mission should be to separate warring sides, not to join them.

Sheila writes at Mon Jun 12 21:59:08 2006...

I didn’t watch or listen to the debate so I appreciate the insights you have shared on all of the candidates. I agree with you that Joe Volpe must go and he must be cold-shouldered by all the other candidates until he leaves. Your comments on Carolyn Bennett’s French are also to the point. The content is more important than the form, but, even so, a strong command not only of both official languages but also of the cultural differences in the various parts of Canada are necessary for someone to be able to lead the whole country. Stéphane Dion looks better and better, but can he get the support he needs in Quebec to make it over the top?

Joe writes at Tue Jun 13 22:19:04 2006...

Sheila's comment about Dion's support in Quebec brings to mind the very similar situation and concern that the Liberal Party had for a former prime minister, Sir Wilfrid Laurier. He was condemned from the seat of power in Quebec in his time, the pulpit, yet he brought in a huge majority and established the Liberals firmly in Quebec.

Michelle writes at Thu Jun 15 20:31:54 2006...

Very interesting commentary. Almost makes me want to watch the

debates...D.W. wrote:"OMG, since when did you have to beonthe "right-wing" of the Party to support our troops and their mission. For God's sake! we are the Party that sent them there. We are the Party that sent troops to Europe way before the USA in WW2.Liberals believe in standing with their Allies (26 of them in their present mission).


Yeah. And that kind of Liberal would have had us marching into Iraq in lockstep with Junior. Do we learn nothing from enforced proximity to our deranged Neighbour? Or is it simply that some of us just AREN'T

watching... Anyone who was reading Ignatieff in his run-up to the war knows he's a unrepentent Richard Pearl style neo-con.Bob Rae caught my attention with his attack on Ignatieff. Dion has my respect for fighting the good fight on Kyoto. Just my luck that the first politician that I would be eager not only to vote for but to work my butt off for as a candidate isn't even Canadian. Hint: he'll be speaking on the climate crisis at

Tremblant this week-end.

Great blog, David. Keep it coming.

Matt writes at Sun Jun 18 21:01:38 2006...

Thanks for the overview, but we could do without your bias. Certainly not a neutral piece... when it could have been.

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