Rex Murphy: That wasn't a debate. Nor was it national. It was tokenism, and feeble at that


Un non-débat pour un État postnational

From the perspective of simple utility, how it assisted voters to make up their minds, Monday night’s exhibition — the so-called debate — was a waste of time. I came away from it with one dominant impression: that the only purpose such debates may claim is to provide journalists with a once-in-four-years opportunity to over- and mis-use the most stale cliché in all reporting history — the “knockout punch.”

E.g., “Mr. Singh had a good line — Mr. Deny and Mr. Delay — but it wasn’t a knockout punch.” Or, “Mr. Scheer came on really strong against Mr. Trudeau in the beginning, but it wasn’t a knockout punch.”

Why journalists are addicted to a boxing metaphor — boxing being a competition between two fighters (obviously) fighting each other — for a spectacle involving six politicians firing over-scripted talking points at each other, while displaying their powers of equivocation and evasion — is a mystery not worth the effort to solve.

Eleven people can’t 'debate' anything


Throw in the presence of five — five — moderators and what you have is a jumble of crosstalk, interruption, pre-fab bullet points offered as spontaneous eloquence, and two hours of tangled posturing. Eleven people can’t “debate” anything. As everyone tried to grasp their few seconds of camera time, it triggered the image, frequently seen on television, of Japanese commuters being jammed by guards into already over-stuffed subway cars. Furthermore, they weren’t on stage to debate — it was far more a competition to see who could rhetorically wound one or another of the competitors than an effort to deal in any way comprehensively with the major issues of the election. This tactic, elegantly summarized in Bruce Carson’s The Morning Brief as “leaders who came with pre-planned attacks or ‘drive-by smears’ ready to unload,” is actually the essence, the core dynamic, of these encounters.

The format was a mess with far too many people on the stage, issues chopped down to fit the “segments” rather than the segments being open to allow depth to treat the issues, and a ludicrous tag-teaming of moderators, all bracketed by a Niagara of pre- and post-analysis and insta-judgments. As the noble Christie Blatchford put it: “I missed a Leafs game for this …”

Green Leader Elizabeth May, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, People’s Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier, Bloc Quebecois leader Yves-Francois Blanchet and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh pose for a photograph before the federal leaders debate in Gatineau, Que., on Oct. 7, 2019. Adrian Wyld/CP

OK. Having got the minor concerns out of the way, here are the real reasons this was a mess and an insult. First, it was just one debate, held in Ottawa, constructed within the purely Ottawa journalistic mindset of what is and is not an issue, and chewed over on television and the internet very largely from within that mindset.

This was the one and only debate for all the provinces and territories (outside Quebec, which gets two debates) to be conducted in English. The range of interests and issues in the regions and provinces of Canada were not and could not possibly be served by last night’s claustrophobic contest.

Let us go to the ever-worthy and oh-so-pious issue of “climate change” on which all the leaders (exception, Maxime Bernier) scrambled to be first and most conspicuous at the altar rail. The biggest question on this issue, and therefore not to be asked, is whether Canada should be tying itself into regulatory and taxation knots to do anything about climate change at all. Even if you accept all the premises of global warming, there is a kernel fact here that reduces every leader’s position — even Elizabeth May’s — to spurious pretence, the ultimate expression of policy commitment as aggravated virtue-signalling.

The range of interests and issues in the regions and provinces of Canada could not possibly be served by last night’s claustrophobic contest.


Canada, the country, is at best a minor, a minuscule contributor to climate change. Canada can do virtually nothing, nothing, to halt or stop it. And for all their talk of concern on the issue, and their deep promises to savagely reduce Canada’s carbon emissions, not one of the leaders (with the possible exception of May) dare commit to the reduction in quality of life that stopping all oil and gas development, and all industry that depends on reliable energy, would inevitably entail. The entire debate is a charade. We know it, and the politicians squirming to be front-of-the-line virtuous on this issue know it, too.

Now back to the leaders’ debate. How can there be a national consideration of climate change when Albertan interests, Newfoundland’s interests, and all the interests of those whose work and life revolve around ready energy supply, are not equally represented with those promising to “transition to net emission-free” energy by 2050 (a fantastical, impossible target). Translated, what that commitment amounts to is a pledge to change Canada’s entire industrial and domestic energy base in 30 years. It is a pledge to shut down the central economic base of at least two provinces. It is putting the whole province of Alberta on notice that “we’re shutting you down.”

Is this not a question that deserves its own debate, in the province most to be affected?” If all the leaders so invested in climate change believe what they are saying, should they not at least leave Ottawa and go out to the province they intend to shut down and hear from the people there? If there are two “national” debates for, and held in, Quebec, should there not be at least one for, and held in, Alberta? I would like to hear one good reason — good, I said — why there cannot.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, left, and Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer take part in the federal leaders debate in Gatineau, Que., on Oct. 7, 2019. Sean Kirkpatrick/CP

Similarly for the North and all of the particular, endemic concerns of Canada’s northern peoples. Why not an all leaders’ debate in Whitehorse? Why not more than one held in primarily rural areas, in front of loggers or farmers or fishermen? British Columbia has a dynamic and diverse political culture. Why should we discuss, or more accurately skip over, British Columbia’s interests from within a museum in Ottawa?

I could go on (except I have a wise editor) but I’ll summarize the points. Monday night’s debate was not a debate. It was tokenism, and pretty feeble tokenism at that. The issues of this vast and highly differentiated country cannot be shoehorned into a two-hour shout fest, chopped down to 40-second nuggets, in front of a very select audience in no way representative of the nature of our country.

Leaders have weeks in a national campaign. There is no reason why, with all their various stops, each leader and each party could not put in a debate a week in all the country’s regions. No reason why they should not face the people who they are talking about. Calgary, Vancouver and St. John’s have as much claim on their presence as Ottawa or Montreal. And the rural areas of this country have as much claim as Calgary, Vancouver and St. John’s.

The reason we do not have these debates is that each party and each leader wishes to reduce their risks and stay away from any venue not organized and controlled by their campaign teams. To pretend what we saw last night was in any real sense a “national” debate is laughable. It was neither national, nor a debate.