Vancouver Liberal Leadership Debate: First Impressions
Jan 20, 2013

Vancouver Liberal Leadership Debate: First Impressions

As following the recent NDP and GOP leadership races so poignantly demonstrated, leadership debates are best at demonstrating the electibility of candidates. Basic values come through as well, but these are largely shared in a party, and specific policies are usually just tossed in more as rhetorical tools to act substantive to a question than they are debates about policy. There are many criticisms one can raise about the vacuous and superficial nature of debates, but they are genuinely good at demonstrating the electability of candidates. Especially for the Liberal party which has suffered from rather unelectable leaders and faces an existential election in 2015, this is a critical test. 

Given this lens of electability, there were three clear frontunners in the debate: Martha Hall Findlay, Justin Trudeau, and Marc Garneau. Probably in that order. All three spoke very well, passionate and energetically  and clearly were well prepared for the debate and the issues at hand. 

The perception of this race has long been that it is Justin Trudeau's race to lose and this debate was very important for him. He needed to establish that he could indeed come into a challenging debate and justify his positioning. He did that and more. Not only did he manage to succeed at coming off as the top one or two people on the stage in terms of charisma and electability, but he also was able to reinforce his own narrative of being the young and energetic guy who can win on the strength of his personality and promote energy and engagement with Canadians. He was able to touch on most of the major policy areas, and clearly and proudly defined being Liberal. His only downsides were being possibly too polished and light on policy. 

Martha Hall Findlay's success on the stage was a pleasant surprise to me. It is difficult to talk about policies in these debate formats, but of all the people on the stage she was the most technocratic, peppering her comments with policy tidbits. The pragmatic, technocratic, policy wonk routine often fails to connect with people, but she managed to bring compassion, energy, and understanding and it was a really good mix. She appeared likeable at the same time as intelligent and competent. In comparison to Trudeau, she spent much less time specifically emphasizing things like promoting youth engagement in the party and thus didn't speak as much to her own electability, choosing instead to talk about the issues. In a race that is perceived as Trudeau's to lose, with Marc Garneau as the only potential challenger, she established herself firmly in the top tier. 

Marc Garneau is, after Trudeau, the Liberal's next biggest star as a former Astronaut with the biggest name recognition. Despite this, as an older white man he has the look of an older, disappearing generation of Liberal and cannot sell the kind of story that Justin Trudeau (given his alleged youthful reenergizing of the party) or Martha Hall Findlay (given the excitement the first elected female Prime Minister would have) brings. However, demographic issues and whether one thinks he is hurt or helped by them aside, Garneau was able to strongly come out in the debate as one of the best and most charismatic contenders. He was able to drop in a few jokes, speak competently on the issues, and established himself as a top tier candidate in this debate.

Joyce Murray
Joyce Murray is the Liberal's equivalent of what Nathan Cullen was for the NDP, as she is proposing electoral cooperation with the Liberals. Her candidacy thus largely rises and falls (and at this point almost certainly falls) on the popularity of that issue. However, votes for her can be important, as votes for Cullen were with the NDP, in demonstrating the strength of the support among the Liberal base for this issue that may be relevant, just probably not until after  the 2015 elections. I will add that unlike Cullen, who was additionally an amazing and passionate speaker well versed in the issues, she was something of a disappointment on issues not related to her defining issue. Many may have voted for Cullen because they really liked him, not just his proposal; in the case of Murray, people will vote for her, I think, much more based on whether they like her proposal. She gave one amusing line of "I am a woman, of course I have a plan!" without offering whatever her plan was. 

George Takach
George Takach was, like Murray, a person who had a dominant issue that he turned to time after time. He is, as he styled himself, the "tech candidate" and would turn to talking about fast internet, online training, digital bill of rights, and the digitical economy at almost every chance. He was bit like Martin Singh of the NDP's myopic focus on small business in answer to every question. It was enough to get him noticed, and I applaud the idea of talking about policies, but it won't be enough to get him elected. As valuable as policy is and as much as I lament its absence in debates, a leader cannot be about a single issue. However, voting for someone, especially on preferential ballots, that supports a single issue that you also support can be valuable way to promote that issue and its future importance in the party. 

Deborah Coyne and David Bertschi both did acceptable jobs, but neither stood out. Rather oddly, Bertischi announced his 6 point plan in the most barest format only in his closing statements. As a rhetorical device, one identifies such things at the start and then references them as it fits during the debate, not at the end. However, given the single issues being promoted by Takach and and Murray, and their success over McCrimmon and Cauchon, I can see them as being the potential challengers to the top three. However, in a race as lopsided as this, possibly being a challenger to top three doesn't mean a lot. 

Karen McCrimmon and Martin Cauchon both came out at or near the bottom of the pack. Cauchon has an English problem given his thick French accent and simply was unable to come remotely close to the kinds of soaring rhetoric of Trudeau or Findlay. Of course, the reciprocal problems may well manifest itself for various candidates who speak poor French that I have not recorded here. McCrimmon came off as quirky and unsubstantial. Twitter was lighting up at a rather odd comment from McCrimmon about getting opposing petitions to, I suppose, find out whether Canadians liked the idea of electoral reform instead of offering her own views.

While I was not quite as enthusiastic as the moderator (who felt the need to declare "Great Debate!" or similar every couple minutes), it was a good debate. Better than every one of the GOP debates. Better than most of the NDP debates. It would be nice if the field thinned out a bit going forward, and of course I always hope for discussion of policy. But I certainly look forward to following the race closely.

Deborah Coyne
Martin Cauchon

Karen McCrimmon

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