The London Leadership Debate
Last night, my wife and I drove the hour and a bit to London, Ontario for a locally organised all-candidates debate. It was my first time seeing any of the nine candidates in person, and it was definitely a worthwhile experience.
On the way we were running a bit behind schedule and stopped at the service station at Beachville for a quick bite to eat. We pulled into a parking spot, next to a sedan with two people inside. The car pulled out, then pulled right back in, evidently deciding eating dinner in their car was safer when not actually moving. I am fairly certain that the passenger in the car was Martha Hall Findlay. In her opening statements she mentioned the 22,000 km figure for her bus again, and I assume that since that was the number in both the Quebec and BC debates, and seeing as I am pretty sure I saw her in a sedan, she has not been driving it much lately.
The first two candidates I saw venture into the room were Ken Dryden and Bob Rae. Television has a remarkable way of making everyone appear to be the same size, but, I was surprised to note, Ken Dryden is a giant man, and Bob Rae.. is not. All the candidates looked more or less like I expected, but seeing them in person rather than on TV they look a little different somehow.
The debate got under way at around 19:00. Three riding association presidents stood up at the mike together to welcome us and start off the debate. They made reference to the presence of all the candidates, noting it would be the last all-candidate event before Delegate Selection Meetings. I looked around the stage, noting: Hedy Fry - Joe Volpe - Scott Brison - empty podium - Stéphane Dion - Bob Rae - Michael Ignatieff - Ken Dryden - Martha Hall Findlay. I wondered if anyone would explain why there were only eight people at the nine podiums if everyone was here. Had Gerard Kennedy dropped out in the preceding hours?
The opening statements began. Just as Scott Brison was about to start speaking, Gerard Kennedy entered the room and quietly ran up to his podium, causing the moderator to re-explain to the audience for Kennedy's benefit the signals for when each speaker would be out of time.
Most of what the candidates had to say is what the candidates normally have to say. A few things stood out for me. I did not take any notes, so this is them in the order that I remember them:
On the topic of Maher Arar and security certificates, Michael Ignatieff asserted that we should abolish security certificates, something I agree with completely. If people have broken a law, charge them, in a closed court if needed, but charge them. Dion noted on the same question that he was surprised at how obvious many of the report recommendations were, citing one that said the RCMP should have annual reports on the human rights conditions in other countries.
In their answers about the war in Afghanistan, Brison and Ignatieff were clearly on the stick-it-out side, while the rest were on the side of not staying there forever. Kennedy said we should make NATO do it right or get out, Dion stated that we must rebuild the country as was done with the Marshal plan, though Ignatieff countered that we need security before we can rebuild. It is a bit of a catch 22, I think. We will not have security until we rebuild, and we can not rebuild until there is security. Perhaps we would get somewhere if we just go ahead and rebuild.
Still on Afghanistan, there was discussion of how to wean the Afghani economy off opium. Martha Hall Findlay pointed out the hypocracy of our position, noting that the market for opium is largely in the West, and citing the lack of profitable alternatives for Afghani farmers.
After a 90 second break, the debate briefly shifted to a format where, instead of each candidate answering each question in sequence for one minute each, the candidates were given 30 seconds and only three were selected to answer the questions, chosen at random.
One of the questions in this format was on renewing Liberal party fund-raising. Naturally, the randomly selected candidates to answer that question included Joe Volpe and Bob Rae, the most curious fund-raiser and the most successful fund-raiser in the campaign combined. Volpe tried to make a joke of his answer, but it fell flat. We should increase our popular vote, he said, so that we get a bigger subsidy from Elections Canada.
Scott Brison had a lot of zingers and can be very funny, though being funny does not necessarily make someone a good leader. Among my favourites were his comments that he would address Quebec's lack of inclusion in the constitution in his second term as Prime Minister, and later, that he was born a Liberal but only came out of the closet recently.
Sticking with the constitution for a moment, Findlay and Dion's responses to how to rectify Quebec's absence from the Canadian constitution were apt, amounting to "don't we have more important things to do?" I couldn't agree more: reopening the constitutional debates plays right into the hands of the Bloc and accomplishes nothing whatsoever.
Bob Rae poked fun at his own history as an NDP premier on at least two occasions, once mentioning a mysteriously appearing Trillium Drug Program that showed up in Ontario.... in 1994, and later commenting that multiple terms is something he knows little about.
On health care, predictably all the candidates angled toward a single-payer system. Martha Hall Findlay made reference to the "elephant in the room" of the private sector's role, suggesting competition within the system wasn't a bad thing. There is definitely a role for the private sector in health care, as she noted in her comments. General Practitioners, for example, have long been publicly funded private practices. But encouraging competition within the health care system has its risks. I have a photo worth a thousand words to say on that particular topic, as a caution. This photo is of a billboard in Utica, New York which I took on December 30th, 2005:
Well, that's about it for the content. Most of what was said has been said by all sides many times before. The debate was aired on Rogers TV locally, but I have no idea whether it will ever be viewable by a wider audience.
Having now seen all the candidates in person rather than on TV, I'd like to give my impression of each, from left to right:
- Hedy Fry has a lot of energy. She says she grew up poor and her perspective on the world is shaped by that and her pursuit of an education to get out of poverty. She wants to get everyone to learn French starting in elementary school. Personally, I don't see the point. I think it should be encouraged for all citizens to learn a second language from an early age, with French being an available option. But in spite of official bilingualism, there are many people in many places who will only learn to dislike French if forced to learn it as it will have no use whatsoever in their lives.
- Joe Volpe's candidacy was defined early on by a fund-raising issue in which he accepted money from people too young to be members of the party, and from several members of a corporate family. While he is not a uninteresting speaker, it has tainted everything he does and says. Even if he makes a strong point, there is no enthusiastic reaction, only polite applause.
- Scott Brison has a constant smile. He looses off one-liners constantly, keeping his audience smiling as well, but I'm not entirely sure what it is he has to offer based on what he says. He quit the PC party when the Reform party absorbed it to join the Liberals and he is clearly on the right side of the party.
- Gerard Kennedy was late. I consider it disrespectful of him to have been late. It is not that hard to arrive at a commitment on time, especially a major commitment. Less popular candidates with smaller budgets from further away, more popular well-funded candidates with busy schedules, and everyone in between were able to show up on time. Why couldn't Kennedy? If he had arrived two minutes later, he would have missed his opening statement altogether. Aside from that, he strikes me as young and conceited: he knows what is right because he's been a provincial cabinet minister. I would like to see how he handles a federal cabinet before I would be willing to trust the leadership to him.
- Stéphane Dion is a constant surprise. He waits, quietly nodding in agreement or shaking his head in disagreement as others speak, pensively waiting for his chance. Watching him, you will expect a quiet, diplomatic response. When he gets his chance, he comes out swinging and his energy and ideas bubble over. Popular ideas are irrelevant, his ideas are based more on reason than on polls. It is what leadership is meant to be. Wanting to get home before it was seriously late, I took the opportunity to shake his hand quickly and tell him I was proud to support him.
- Bob Rae is a crowd pleaser. He knows what to say to keep his audience happy and in agreement. He's an experienced if not wholly successful politician, and it's evident. He has recently entered some hot water in the blogosphere for donating money to the NDP in this year's election. It's a bit of a strange situation and I'm not sure what to make of it or his candidacy in light of it. "Liberal PM donates to opposition campaign" is not really our ideal future headline. On the other hand, he has the possibility of picking up both the Liberal vote and the NDP vote. There is a bit of a void on the left in this country at the moment, and he does have a chance of bringing some of it in.
- Michael Ignatieff is a professor. His ideas are clearly thought out and different from the status quo. Many of them are also different from how I and many other Liberals see the country and the world. I would really like him to stick around for a while and get to know the current rather than the 1968 Liberal party a bit better.
- Ken Dryden showed a lot of passion in the debate, I found, but lacked a lot of substance when speaking off the cuff. His opening and closing statements were read, the only one of the candidates to do so. I think he has a lot of good ideas, but simply has trouble really expressing them clearly. His popularity among Canadians is likely more related to his name recognition than any awareness of his campaign... but at election time, that counts for a lot.
- Martha Hall Findlay is intelligent, articulate, and a great asset to the party. I hope she finally gets into parliament and demonstrates that these features won't disappear into the ether of Ottawa, and then takes another more serious stab at this next time around.
Lastly, I note that six of the nine candidates wear glasses. What is remarkable to me is that any of them still even have a sense of sight. At the end of the debate, I looked back toward the lighting pointed at the stage and noted no fewer than four very bright lights pointed straight at the candidates' faces. If politicians seem to see things a little spottedly, I can understand why!
Also see this entry on liberaliaca for more reaction to yesterday's debate.
Posted at 15:59 on September 21, 2006
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