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Analysis of the September 10th, 2006 Liberal leadership debate

I was travelling over the weekend and did not get back on time to see the debate, but caught the evening rerun on CPAC. This third formal leadership debate saw some serious structural improvements over previous ones, not least of which was the mostly unilingual format.

As one of those Canadians who does actually speak both languages, it can be frustrating to listen to translators translating English speakers' poor French back to English or vice versa, and taking what is said out of the original voice. Not having to chase speakers back and forth between primary and secondary audio was a very welcome change. That said, here's my analysis of the performance of most of the candidates from yesterday's debate.

The debate was formally bilingual. The moderator asked each question in both French and English, so those listening to the simultaneous translator could get two versions of the same question, and candidates were free to pick a language in their statements and debates. In that vein, I enjoyed Scott Brison's comment that while he has a maritime accent in French, he also has one in English. Stéphane Dion stated that a leader should be fluent in both languages and made a point of switching between them, causing me to lunge for the SAP button on my remote, and Martha Hall Findlay showed herself to be the only one to understand the real root purpose of bilingualism.

What's that, you say? Well, Findlay was the only candidate who, instead of bumbling along in a language she could not speak properly, chose the message over the form. The true value of having a bilingual country isn't necessarily, in my view, to have everyone speak both languages. It's to have everyone speak their language, whichever it is, and have their message heard. When Findlay found herself unable to say something as clearly as she'd like to in French, she simply switched to English. To me, that's perfectly acceptable. If there was a unilingual French candidate, I would expect them to do the same the other way in the interests of getting their message across. Ideally, of course, all our leaders would be fluently bilingual, as Dion is, but fundamentally, the message is more important than the form. When Carolyn Bennett stands up and struggles hard to construct useful sentences, misusing words left and right, it detracts from what she is trying to say. I suspect that what she has to say is wonderfully intelligent and useful in explaining her vision for our country. If I could figure out what it was she was saying I'd tell you for sure.

Findlay also tipped her hand during the debate that her mission was more about becoming known than actually winning the leadership, noting that when she joined the race she was an unknown and now she's the "daring choice". She has secured her place in the political future of the party and the country, I am sure.

The format of the debate, abolishing the absurd paired questions and the two sections, was a huge improvement over the earlier attempts. This debate was actually interesting to watch, and easy to follow. The match-ups were great, leading to some interesting discussions, though I didn't take any notes about specific things said that I might want to discuss here.

Gerard Kennedy did not come across as a particularly good debater. He waits in the wings, not interjecting usefully, constantly waiting for his opportunities instead of taking them. He does not appear comfortable debating, and that does not bode well for an election race. When the liberal leader, Harper, Layton, and Duceppe are going at it in the next federal election, the leader will have to be adept at getting his message across.

It is also worth noting that Kennedy's applause when he stood up for his opening remarks was unrivalled for its sparsity, which I found surprising. Kennedy kind of reminds me of another ostensibly attractive provincial minister from a have province who took over a federal opposition party -- before, as a manner of speaking, falling off his sea-doo into a south-flowing Niagara Falls.

Bob Rae tried to score some points in various and subtle ways. He commented at one point that he would win this race -- and if not, he'd still be there fighting for the party. I'm sure Ignatieff felt that one on his cheek. Rae is impressive in his relaxed comfort in the debate format and his ability to stick to his point.

The debate between Carolyn Bennett, Hedy Fry, and Ken Dryden was uninspiring at best. Dryden and Bennett both have a nervous vibration in their voices, especially when speaking French, and so even if what they say is important, they sound tense, nervous, and diffident. That's fine in debating clubs, but when running for the leadership of the party, it would be very useful to just relax and speak with confidence.

I'll refrain from commenting too much on Dion's performance except to say he's still far and away my first choice. He's the only one who knows the answer to all the key questions: why he is running, what he plans to do as leader, and how to go about it. He's charismatic, he's bilingual, and he deserves to win this race. While other candidates debate whether it is more important to express their message clearly -- or in French, Dion has no such concern. His message is clear in whichever language he is speaking.

Michael Ignatieff, for his part, seems to be taking heed of all the criticism floating around. There were no anticipatory hypotheticals yesterday. He managed to keep his vocabulary to the understandable and his misstatements out. Perhaps it was a function of not speaking much English during the debate. Also, I find that he goes out of his way to compliment other candidates on their work and their very existence, to the point of sometimes looking a bit silly.

Except for Volpe's pointless appearance at the debate, I'd say it went very well yesterday as far as debates go. It was a little more engaging than the previous two debates and remained mostly quite positive. My preferential standings for the candidates is unchanged except for the disappearance of Bevilacqua from June 17th:

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

Dryden is where he is here because I believe that a soft spoken leader who stands for what I believe in is better and more important than a well spoken leader who does not.

I would also like to express the hope that the bottom three candidates, at least, on this list drop out of the race before the next debate, but I not so naive as to believe any of them will.

Posted at 15:16 on September 11, 2006

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

Border madness | leadership politics | A few differences between our countries

Sandi writes at Mon Sep 11 18:35:19 2006...

Interesting - your choices and their order. As far as Dion is concerned I can hardly understand a word he's saying when he's speaking English and I think the ability to speak French fluently and clearly should also be the other way around - to be able to speak English fluently and clearly counts too, even more so.

Dion doesn't give off strength to me and I can't see him being able to out-debate Harper at all.

You'd think Volpe would know better after all his years in politics wouldn't you?

I like Ignatieff then Dion. I have a problem with Dion's english (a very real problem understanding him), but given the other choices I'd pick him second.

jill writes at Tue Sep 12 02:11:58 2006...

I don't think your comments on Kennedy not having a lot of applause mean much. The room was rigged with supporters bused in for Iggy and Dion. I actually thougth Kennedy was the only one that tried to get a debate going.

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