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Analysis of the June 17th Liberal leadership debate

The second of five Liberal leadership debates was much more lively than the first. The debate was in the same format as the one on the 10th, but all the candidates seemed to have noticed the lack of excitement in that last debate and wanted to make things more lively. The result was more English and less French, much to the chagrin of one vocal francophone audience member. Here is how I see the candidates' performance this time around, in order of seating:

Maurizio Bevilacqua: Bevilacqua was quite good at answering all the questions he would have liked to have been asked, with only some influence from the questions that were, in fact, asked.

In his opening statement, Bevilacqua asked if we Liberals have lost our way. No, he says, we know exactly who we are. We also know who Harper is: he speaks about spreading democracy but limits it at home. He says he and Harper are the same age, but generations apart.

Bevilacqua was long on rhetoric, but short on any real ideas or plans.

He described seasonal workers as a misnomer. They are not seasonal workers, he said, they are full time workers with seasonal opportunities. We must create more opportunities.

He dismissed the carbon tax as not being an option.

He debated Hedy Fry in the one-on-one debates. They were given the topic of federal/provincial jurisdictional boundaries to discuss.

He opened by saying that we have to go back to when we inherited a $42B deficit with escalating debt. We got the books in order, invested, and things improved for everyone in Canada. Provinces, he said, benefitted from this federal management.

An improved standard of living, lower taxes, improved productivity, and investment in our universities are areas where he will work, he said, completely missing the topic at hand. The key to economic growth, he went on after Fry addressed interprovincial barriers, is free flow across the country. Foreign investment in Canada is declining, he said, and without capital investment, we will not be able to improve productivity.

Bevilacqua said very little of substance and was unable to answer the questions that were asked. He is trading places with Scott Brison on my list.

Michael Ignatieff: Ignatieff showed slightly more life than he did last week. This week I felt there was somebody home.

Ignatieff says this race is about who has the best chance of defeating Harper. He says the Liberals must defeat Harper's narrative, his story line, a theme Ignatieff used through his opening statement.

He warned that Harper wants to make impossible for future governments to build social structures in Canada as have been done since Laurier. He said he wants to lead a party with a better story.

Ignatieff was the only one of the candidates that I could see who referred to notes during his opening statement.

A couple of little things Ignatieff said bothered me.

Ignatieff made a point on the topic of seasonal workers of applauding Joe Volpe's work on the subject. Personally I think Volpe is damaged goods over his questionable large donation from the entire family of a corporate executive, and his handling thereof, and should not be encouraged to stick around.

The second thing he said that got to me was his apology on behalf of all the candidates for not speaking enough French after an audience member took the whole lot to task for not speaking enough French. Ignatieff should stick to apologising for himself, and let the other candidates answer or not answer as they see fit.

That said, he said some positive things as well.

On the topic of seasonal labourers, he would like to remove the two week eligibility period for collecting employment insurance, and use EI for more apprenticeships and retraining.

He would like to see an investment in researching Alzheimer's, which he says his mother died of and affects some 750,000 people a year in Canada.

On the controversial issue of carbon taxes, he said he does not want to add to our taxes; he would like to reduce them. He wants to use taxes to incite people to pollute less. Pollute less, pay less tax.

I suppose that is just a creative way of saying that pollution should be taxable -- which I have no problem with.

Ignatieff was assigned Ken Dryden as his partner for his one-on-one debate, the question of which was about our national finances and priorities, our tax system, and what our two or three most important fiscal priorities are to improve productivity and our the standard of living.

Ignatieff commented that the tax system is full of buy-the-vote gimmicks from many previous governments and should be simpler. He asked why tax forms are so complicated that they take an accountant to fill them out.

He said that we need to pay down the national debt, warning that the new government will put us back in deficit very quickly.

Post-secondary education needs some serious investment, he said, saying the policy should be: "if you've got the grades, you get to go, the Canadian government guarantees it".

Ignatieff comes across to me as being far more used to lecturing and being listened to than debated and challenged. I still have trouble with the idea of him leading this party.

Scott Brison: Brison said he was proud to be back home in Atlantic Canada, playing to the local audience.

We need a leader who believes in Atlantic Canada, warned Brison, saying he was that leader while asking for support.

To Harper, he said, "we are not defeatists" in Atlantic Canada.

Brison made a point of answering the first two questions in his heavily accented but not bad French.

He said that we need to invest in telecom and transport infrastructure and to work on development for the Maritimes, in answer to a question about EI benefits for seasonal workers.

On the topic of fisheries, he commented that there are more bureaucrats in Ottawa than there are fish in the Rideau canal, suggesting that people in the fishing regions might have better ideas for how to handle fish stocks.

He said that we must use carrots, not sticks, to handle carbon emissions, and offer incentives for consumers.

He said Canada must have a strong foreign policy to defend our interests and promote our values. If Trudeau had not brought us the Charter, he said, he'd probably not be standing there. In Afghanistan, he noted, 5 million girls are now going to school who could not before.

Brison was selected from a lobster trap to debate Joe Volpe and Bob Rae in a three-way debate on the topic of whether Canada's multi-culturalism is a ticking time-bomb or a model of social cohesion.

Citing 750,000 peace-loving Muslims in Canada, Brison said multiculturalism is not in conflict with security, but a complement to it.

He also suggested that we need to work to create an international protocol on the certification of professionals, to eliminate skilled professionals being unable to work in Canada. He said we have free trade in cars and furniture, but not in brains. We should have a knowledge-based economy.

On the development of immigration to Atlantic Canada, Brison stated that we need to find policies to retain people, not just attract them.

Brison's approach to this debate seemed to be well geared toward the Atlantic audience he was directly speaking to. For making more sense than last week and not saying anything dumb about how our foreign policy should be governed by New York Times headlines, and because of Bevilacqua's own performance, he and Bevilacqua are trading places on my list.

Bob Rae: Rae started by stating that we must work for a strong federal government that can act for all Canadians.

He warned that Atlantic Canada is the only region of Canada that lacks a catastrophic drug plan.

Rae categorically says "no" to the idea that EI pay-outs should be based on how much is paid in, which would punish seasonal workers.

He said the plan "is a tory idea, it's a bad idea."

Rae said that it is easy to promise to lower taxes. Tories do this.

For carbon taxes, he wants to know what is meant by them before passing judgement. If a carbon tax will target one industry, province, or region, it is a bad idea, but if it links pollution to tax, it's good. We have to take advantage of the opportunity afforded us by Kyoto, he said.

The UN, he said, is the best chance we have to improve the rule of law in the world. It is in the best traditions of Pearson and Trudeau.

Rae was selected to join Scott Brison and Joe Volpe for the lone three-way debate during the debates section at the end of the leadership forum, left to discuss the topic of multiculturalism in Canada.

Rae noted that the Air India bombing was plotted in Canada, carried out by Canadians, and killed Canadians. We have to recognise the dignity of difference, he said. We must break down festering solitudes between communities, starting in our schools.

After listening to Volpe and Brison go at it for a while, Rae commented "it's nice to get a chance to speak."

He said Canada is the world. We have to break down extremism as we see it around the world and improve integration. We must celebrate our differences and not insist on conformity.

From what I've seen, Rae provides a logical rather than passionate approach to issues in Canada and could well make a good leader. He remains my second choice for leader of the Liberal party.

Stéphane Dion: Dion began his opening statement by wiping his forehead and noting he ought to start with global warming.

Dion's main campaign plank is the addition of a third pillar to fundamental Liberal values: environmental sustainability.

To this end, he noted in his introduction that we are more aware of major storms in the Maritimes and more aware of the need to protect our fish stocks. While fighting a microphone that kept cutting out, he promoted his three-pillars approach and cited his 10 years of federal experience, saying he has practical solutions to offer.

On the topic of seasonal workers and EI, Dion noted that it is not the workers that are seasonal, it's the industries. One quarter of industry in Canada, he noted, is seasonal.

We have pilot projects in progress to improve EI, he said, and they are working well.

On the topic of low income seniors, he said that when he was a minister the proportion of seniors who are low income was reduced from 11% to 6%.

Following a challenge from a member of the audience over the candidates' (lack of) use of French and Ignatieff's apology on behalf of all the candidates, Dion responded that he will answer English questions in English, and French questions in French. I don't think he gained the vote of the plaintiff in so doing, but I don't think he was wrong in any way. As I said last week, what is said is more important than what language it is said in. Content over form.

Dion said he wants to use science to reduce pollution in our waters, noting that Harper cut funding for such projects. Harper, he said, has no vision for the future.

He asked that people stop pretending that the Liberal government did not do anything. We have had a plan since 1995, he said.

Dion described the world being in Montreal together last December to fight climate change as being his best moment.

His worst, he added, is when Harper destroyed all his work last month.

Dion was put up against Gerard Kennedy for their one-on-one debates.

Kennedy spoke of changing the Liberal party's approach to the Maritimes, causing Dion to ask why people pretend that the Liberals have done nothing for the previous 12 years.

We have a strong economy, Dion said, because we have been doing good things. We need to work on resource productivity and bringing together our economy.

Dion said there is a program in Atlantic Canada that has helped secure loans for environmental projects that need funding but the banks refuse to fund. He called it a very good program and expressed a desire to expand it across the country.

Kennedy described the Liberal party as the 'status quo' party and warned Dion that it can't be about what we did before.

Dion retorted that Kennedy had so far failed to express a single original idea.

Dion noted that the government has invested $700 million in economic development in the Maritimes but only $10 million in environmental development.

I believe Dion is the only one of the 11 candidates who truly knows exactly what it is he wants to do as Prime Minister, and how to do it. This makes him the opposite of his predecessor at the head of the party who knew only that he wanted to be the leader, but had no plans or ideas once there.

Dion's passion and ability to respond quickly and intelligently to anything asked only serves to reinforce my continuing support of his leadership.

Martha Hall Findlay: Findlay declared in reasonably good French that it is nice to be in Canada's only officially bilingual city in Canada's only officially bilingual province and to be bilingual. Then she switched to English for the duration of her opening statement.

She implored Liberals to be able to distinguish between private sector contribution to public health-care, and US-style HMO/insurance-company two-tier health care. The private sector must have a role to play in a single-tier public health-care system.

She warned that Canada needs to pay down its national debt, especially in good times. Our social programs, she warned, depend on our prosperity.

We need to come up with constructive progressive policies for the future of the country, she said.

It bothers me that so many politicians say things like this. "We must come up with" "we will find solutions" yadda yadda. It's the leaders' responsibilities to have those solutions and implement them, not just to idly state that they should eventually come up with some.

In debate with Carolyn Bennett, Findlay cautioned that while we all worry about a two-tier health-care system, our education system is becoming increasingly two-tier.

She described home care as more cost effective and better for the patient and said it is an important policy to pursue.

On the topic of the East coast fishery, Findlay commented that if there are no fish, there is no fishery.

On Carbon tax, Findlay says she is using solar energy at home, and that it is doable. For lowering our carbon emissions, she says a carbon tax is not the way to go about it. Nor, she said, is putting a tax on all SUVs - some people, she points out, actually do have legitimate need for such vehicles and we should not penalise them. We must use tax credits and incentives to encourage positive environmental behaviour.

Carolyn Bennett was named to debate Findlay on the topic of US relations and the need to diversify our foreign partners.

Findlay noted that our advantages on the world stage are not that we can offer cheap labour as some countries do, but that we offer an educated workforce, a universal health-care system, and embrace diversity.

She warned that we are training our competitors, rather than, as Bennett suggested, sending ambassadors for Canada to other countries when they receive their educations here.

Findlay likes to say it as it is. It's not diplomatic, but it's damned refreshing. She moves up to third on my list, after Dion and Rae.

Ken Dryden: Dryden was slightly more lively this time, though not much. Frankly, I think he should have about four cups of coffee before the next debate so that his tone is wired rather than sleep-inducing.

He warned that this race is about preparing to win the next election and regaining the confidence of the population.

Dryden compared Harper's childcare program to giving everyone $50 a century ago and telling them to come up with an education system. Nothing would have happened, he warned. Child care, he said, is about learning. There is no learning by putting a few dollars in parents' pockets.

We must be a learning society, he said.

Dryden said we must explore all options for curbing global warming including the promotion of alternative and greener fuels, and a carbon tax.

On the topic of the UN and multiculturalism, he described a high school he visited while researching for a book as being a model of the world, with all the different cultures in classrooms together. They are preparing for a global experience. We are the most global country in the world, he said, and it is an incredible advantage.

He and Michael Ignatieff debated fiscal priorities for the country.

Dryden said that the economy has been strong, that we must remember what it was like before, and how we got where we are. When you pay down the debt, he said, you generate a kind of confidence and you allow growth and a reduction in unemployment. He described the tories' lowering of the GST and raising of personal income tax as a difference in fundamental understanding of our country.

Though a painfully boring speaker, Dryden has a lot to say. By paying more attention to him than I did last week, I can see that there is substance there. He's moving up over Michael Ignatieff to take fourth place behind Findlay on my preferentially ordered list.

Carolyn Bennett: Bennett, mercifully, avoided speaking too much French this time around, though the French she did speak seemed slightly stronger than last week. Perhaps she practised.

She said that the leadership candidates did not explain their positions well last week.

I say: All general statements are false.

Some candidates did explain their positions much better than others, but I think she was really referring to the confusion in her own statements.

Bennett said that we must rebuild the Liberal party to win back the confidence of Canadians to protect our children's future.

She offered some actual policy ideas, setting her apart from many of the other candidates, suggesting such things as revisiting mandatory retirement.

On the topic of carbon tax, she said we must reward the purchase of hybrids and electric lawn-mowers, and not such things as the purchase of SUVs.

For the United Nations, she warned that the US is not the sheriff of the world. There is an existing organisation, she said, that does have the role, though it could use some democratisation. The UN is not perfect, she said, but it is there.

She was up against Martha Hall Findlay in her one-on-one debate.

The topic of their debate was whether we need to diversify our international trade to avoid being too reliant on our relations with the United States.

She believes that it is very important for our economy to diversify its trading partners. She cautioned that it is dangerous not to, with the rise of China, India, and South America. We must invest in education and innovation.

She made the curious point that one of our great strengths is that we educate foreigners who then go back home with our education. Findlay took issue with this point, noting that in so doing we were not so much sending ambassadors for Canada back to these countries, but training our competition.

Bennett's non assertive style and sometimes illogical statements leaves her down near the bottom of my list, but her heart is in the right place.

Gerard Kennedy: Kennedy's opening remarks were energetic and slightly confusing.

He implied that the other candidates offered tweaks, while he offered real change.

Kennedy warned that globalisation is real and that we need to prepare for it, saying Canada needs to be out in front to define the terms of globalisation, but, like so many other candidates on so many issues, said little in the way of how.

Asked about fish stocks, Kennedy said that we can not control the stocks. We can have joint management with input from those directly involved, and we must have confidence in the way we manage the stocks.

He said he disagrees with the idea of a carbon tax. We need to create consensus, he said.

During his one-on-one debate with Stéphane Dion, he raised Dion's ire with his unwillingness to propose anything constructive, after telling Dion that it can not be about the past.

Kennedy's description of the Liberal party as the "status quo party", high dose of rhetoric, low dose of concrete ideas, and the performance of some of his competitors get him knocked down a few spots on my candidate rankings.

Mainly, I did not feel that Kennedy came across as a leader in the debate, just an arguer.

Joe Volpe: Volpe is still here?

His opening comment was about a newspaper article describing the war in Afghanistan. "I agree with it", he said. "I am Stephen Harper."

Really, I couldn't have said it better myself.

On the topic of a carbon tax, Volpe said we already put in a program to succeed with Kyoto, crediting Dion with creating the plan.

Volpe made frequent reference to having landed at Pier 21 51 years ago this week.

Somehow, Volpe got into the three-way debate again this week, this time saddling Bob Rae and Scott Brison with his domineering rhetoric.

Volpe challenged Brison over whether he has a program to get more immigrants to Atlantic Canada.

Brison replied that opportunities need to be created to retain people. Getting them to come is not the problem, but getting them to stay is, Brison went on to say "I've started businesses in Atlantic Canada, I know something about it." Volpe was visibly crestfallen.

I'm not sure why, but Volpe seems unable to be a gentleman in this race. He is my first choice of candidates to remove to help pare down the list of candidates to something slightly more manageable.

Hedy Fry: Fry's energy is boundless, but her point always seems to be lost on me.

In another of those great misstatements, she said in her opening statement: "I want you to support me because my policy is on my website."

I think I shall endeavour to support anyone with a website, now that you mention it, Hedy. Thanks.

She concluded her opening statement with "I defeated the last tory Prime Minster, I can't wait to defeat the next one!"

On a question about the sorry state of Atlantic fish-stocks, and what can be done about it, Fry stated that the ocean is warming. Therefore it is important that scientists be called upon to figure out what fish can be brought in to live in these warmer waters for the industry to fish.

Of course. Working to solve global warming and poor management of fish stocks is unnecessary when we can simply transplant tropical fish to the Grand Banks.

The debate itself:

First off, we should probably have had linguistically separate debates.

One audience member's outburst that the candidates were not speaking enough French was a warning. It was not a warning that people in the debate should be speaking more French or more English, as the immediate reaction would be, but a warning that we have made language an issue in a way it should not be.

The constant shifting of languages during answers and the inability of some candidates to speak proper French in the first place is downright annoying. If the debates were in completely separate languages, people would get a much better sense of candidates' comfort level and ability to communicate in both languages, but there would be no need to artificially self-regulate. Many candidates in this format started their answers in French, and as soon as they reached a word they were not comfortable with or did not know how to say, switched to English -- and stayed there.

I don't know the official reason for not having the debates in split languages, but I am betting it is precisely because so many of the candidates do not speak adequate French and do not want to be exposed to an environment where it becomes too painfully obvious. Whether the ability to speak French is important in a Prime Minister is subjective, but I believe it is important for a Liberal one to be able to speak both languages fluently as it is a party for all Canadians, not a regional party.

Secondly, the microphone problems are inexcusable. They happened at the first debate and were not fixed for the second debate. Candidates should be able to speak without being cut off periodically by their microphones.

With that out of the way, here is my preferential ballot, as it stands following this debate:

  1. Stéphane Dion
  2. Bob Rae
  3. Martha Hall Findlay [+1]
  4. Ken Dryden [+2]
  5. Michael Ignatieff
  6. Gerard Kennedy [-3]
  7. Scott Brison [+1]
  8. Maurizio Bevilacqua [-1]
  9. Carolyn Bennett
  10. Hedy Fry
  11. Joe Volpe

Dion and Rae continue to show themselves to be the only fluently bilingual candidates who have any substance and real plans for this country that are in line with my views. Dion's extensive federal experience, grasp of what leadership is - to lead, not to follow - and clear vision sets him apart from the pack. Rae's major liability is not his policies, his intellect, or his understanding of the needs of the future, but his one-term-wonder as an NDP premier of Ontario.

A lot of the candidates this time around spent too much time talking about how much of an evil man Harper is and far too little talking about what they have to offer in his stead.

I am very disappointed that no candidate mentioned the importance of mass public transit (commuter trains, long haul passenger trains, light rail transit, subway systems, busses, and so forth) and other forms of more energy efficient and ecological transportation in the discussion on carbon emissions and taxes. Only hybrid cars warranted special mention, but these are only a minor improvement from conventional cars for emissions.

The debate itself was passable. While very odd, the system of asking two questions at a time does allow us to get inside the candidates' heads much better than with only one question at a time. It really does allow us to see how they think and whether their minds can multi-task.

I would prefer it if more time was given to the pairwise debates. A Prime Minister spends several minutes every weekday in the commons handling a volley of tough questions which they have to answer in 35 seconds on their feet, with cameras pointed at them and every political journalist and junkie watching. They need to be able to handle debates that last more than three minutes and cover more than one single issue. It is unfortunate that there are 11 candidates, but not all of them are serious intellectuals with real ideas. Fewer, longer debates between people with serious ideas about policy and vision for the country would make it far more valuable.

The next debates will be held in Quebec and British Columbia in September, and Toronto in October, all of which will be after the closing of party memberships.

I ask that at least a couple of candidates drop out prior to the next round of debates to make this leadership race a little bit more sensible.

Posted at 15:55 on June 18, 2006

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The Green Party Leadership Debate | leadership politics | Canada's role in the War in Afghanistan


Joseph writes at Sun Jun 18 23:30:06 2006...

My order of choice has Ignatieff a little higher than yours, although Dion looks like the best choice. Ignatieff has a marketing vision that you identified as wanting to lead a party with a better story. This seems to be a challenge to the party itself. The candidate who can motivate the party might become popular among the delegates, who therefore see a place for themselves with such a leader. I did not see the debate, and might be reading too much into what you have reported, but at this stage, a consensus-building ability is important. While I favour Dion, I am concerned that his clear vision might not lend itself to a sense of inclusion. He may have to overpower the delegates with his capacity, and that doesn't often work, especially if someone else has charisma. Does Ignatieff have the necessary charisma? Often the person with charisma might not have a vision, but he tends to convey through his charisma that he has a place for everyone else, including the guy who knows what needs to be done.

Personally, I am discouraged with the whole process because whoever wins gets too much power. Once we have chosen a leader, the role of the delegates has been fulfilled, and we all wait to be told what to do and think next. There was a time when the leader was chosen solely by the elected members, and therefore remained answerable to them. This gave the members, and therefore the voters, more power. Now, when we have majority governments, we have dictatorship by party leader. The only way to correct that is to have minority governments. After several minority governments, maybe the individual party members in the House will figure out that individual members of small parties have more power than individual members of large parties do. At that point, they may be motivated to change the way things work.


CuriosityKilledTheCat writes at Mon Jun 19 10:14:19 2006...

Good timing for me to recycle a comment I made a while back on Bob Rae's vision for Canada, and some of his impressive policies. If you haven't had a chance to read it, you can find his policy outline in his June 6 speech to the Economic Club of Toronto (found at www.bobrae.ca).

He outlines his vision of Canada, and several very specific principles which would guide a Liberal government lead by him as Prime Minister. The contrast between Rae's liberal principles and the narrowness of Harper's principles is stark. The battle lines in the coming election – should Rae be elected Liberal leader – are clearly outlined in this speech.

It is worth talking about a few of Rae's major points.

Let's start with his vision – it is one every Liberal (and Canadian) could gladly subscribe to: "My vision is one that sees a thriving, sustainable economy, competing with the strongest economies of the world. Where there is a spirit of innovation, entrepreneurialism and risk-taking. Where we champion education, skills, and learning. Where opportunity and hope for a bright future are shared widely. And where the federal government plays a facilitative, leadership role in helping to establish such a climate."

The role of the federal government as a facilitative and leadership one in carrying out the vision is very different from the view Harper has of the federal government: Harper wants to diminish its role, and hive off taxation and other powers to provinces. This is a major fault line between the neocon New Tories and the Liberals. Harper will find support from the Bloc and many Quebeckers for part of this downsizing vision he has, but most Canadians – once they understand what the impact of Harper's view is – will not want the federal government to be weakened that way. Rae has clearly placed a marker on the political landscape with this vision; he is fighting for a bolder federal role, unlike Harper.

Some of the major principles Rae sets out which resonate with me are:

• "Prosperity matters. Wealth creation matters. So does sharing opportunity. Because it is right." I share his conviction that sharing opportunity is a moral imperative in the Canadian culture; unlike the we win/you lose mindset of the Conservatives.

• Canada has a competitive advantage in its publicly-funded, as opposed to employer-funded, health care system. Harper wants to reduce this advantage.

• Our governments are not taking "enough of a proactive approach to facilitating dynamism in the economy by using such levers as the tax and regulatory systems." He gives some good, practical examples of how this could be done.

• His stand on education is refreshingly clear and remarkably attractive: "The principle is clear. Every qualified student should have access to college and university. And no one should be loaded down with cost and debts they can't afford."

• He would increase the role of the federal government in spearheading research and innovation, through universities and other bodies.

• He would focus on helping the poor help themselves (rather than simply accepting that poverty will always be with us, as the Tories seem to): "We need to ensure that the economy we are building with these important investments works for all Canadians. And that we don't shortchange ourselves, by keeping a segment of our population trapped in poverty, unable to contribute, unable to realize their abilities and their hopes". He sets out some practical ways to do this.

• His focus on the main provider of employment in Canada – the small and medium sized enterprises, is spot on.

Much food for thought in this speech. Such a Prime Minister could electrify this country.

A good candidate for Prime Minister of Canada. One worth a re-look by those who have dismissed him because "he cannot win in Ontario". This man can win, there and in many other provinces.

Give him the benefit of a fresh look. You might be pleasantly surprised.

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